Pregnancy and exercise – 7 things expectant mums need to know
Perinatal wellness author Brit Williams explains what you really need to know about training for two in her book Mind, Body, Bump – the complete plan for an active pregnancy
Coming from the fitness industry, where the energy is often so high and the workouts so varied, I entered pregnancy and had to pump the brakes – hard.
Despite coaching pre and post-natal clients for years and knowing how to adapt exercise for pregnancy – plus recognising the myriad reasons it is so beneficial to both mums and their babies – our overwhelming sense of cultural fear and uncertainty around the pre-natal body made me second guess my own knowledge and values.
I wanted to find a programme I could follow, or perhaps a community I could join, where training during pregnancy was fun and empowering.
My favourite studios lacked clear pre-natal guidelines and doctors suggested moderation (with little clarity on what that looks like). Plus, my own body craved something more diverse and challenging than the pre-natal workouts available to me either on or off-line.
I wanted to find a programme I could follow, or a community I could join, where training during pregnancy was fun and empowering.
When I couldn’t find it, I reinforced my professional personal training experience with ruthless research, took the time to really listen to my body and came up with something I knew would captivate other women for whom exercise is entwined with their sense of self.
The result was Mind, Body, Bump complete with all its pregnancy-progressive principles, positive language and adaptable programming.
#1 Exercise can improve your labour
If you asked me how to prepare for a powerlifting competition or a marathon, I would never tell you to put your feet up and do nothing. Labour is a bit like this – you need to be self-aware, focused and strong in body and mind.
That requires some pretty important preparation, and movement is a huge part of that. Science agrees – a study published earlier this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine confirms that pre-natal exercise increases the likelihood of an intervention-free labour.
Labours can of course come down to luck and exercise cannot prevent all interventions, but stacking the odds in your favour won’t hurt.
#2 Ease is just as important as the ‘squeeze’
One thing most experts agree on is the importance of pelvic floor exercises during pregnancy. The NHS Squeezy app reminds you how and when to practice your kegel exercises, but the latest science suggests it’s just important to find ease when we squeeze.
While kegel exercises improve stamina of the pelvic floor muscles – essential for continence and safe everyday movement during and after pregnancy – neglecting to sufficiently release the pelvic floor can be just as problematic. The key is to return to complete rest between each squeeze.
One thing most experts agree on is the importance of pelvic floor exercises during pregnancy.
Imagine your pelvic floor as a hammock. It is designed to be bouncy and move subtly up and down. If you jump into a hammock, it supports you by succumbing to your weight. If it was completely taut, you’d bounce straight back out! The same applies for your pelvic floor – too taut and you’ll get ‘splashback’ against its tension (read: urinary ricochet).
A pelvic floor well-practised in both tightening and relaxing will also fare better during birth: women whose ‘push stage’ or second stage of labour lasts less than two hours have significantly lower resting pressure in the pelvic floor compared to women who pushed for longer.
#3 Squats are easier when pregnant
Two things happen during pregnancy that can actually improve your form and performance in certain movements: your bump acts as a counter-weight to kneehingeing exercises (which includes squats), and the hormone relaxin floods your body to soften the ligaments around your joints.
A useful combination, as together they improve your balance and permit a bit more range of movement during squats.
If you move slowly through your new range – avoid rushing the bottom phase of your squat to protect the knee and hip joints – you can actually emerge from pregnancy with better squat form than ever.
#4 Effective post-natal training starts the day you become pregnant
The hormonal changes during pregnancy make it very hard to gain muscle, and it’s common to lose substantial muscle mass throughout the nine months.
Muscle loss in the core and back body (think shoulders, glutes and hamstrings) in particular can lead to greater postural changes, more pregnancy-related back pain and longer postnatal rehabilitation.
If you prioritise one form of pre-natal exercise, make it strength training.
If you prioritise one form of pre-natal exercise, make it strength training. Weight-based exercise helps you to minimise muscle loss, tune in to your body’s changing posture and optimise your cardiovascular fitness in a way that doesn’t pound on your pelvic floor – all benefits for which your post-natal self will thank you.
#5 Baby prodigies are born from active pregnancies
If you’re hoping to grow a baby Einstein or baby Olympian, you might consider picking up a set of dumbbells.
Researchers at the University of Montreal have established a positive link between active pregnancies and advanced neurodevelopment in newborns.
Science also shows that pregnant women who exercise at least 30 minutes three times a week nurture fetuses with lower heart rates – an indication of excellent heart health and a physiological nod to a bright future in sport.
#6 Diastasis recti is extremely common, and it matters less thank you think
Diastasis Recti or abdominal separation occurs in most pregnancies, and at least 60% of women still have a tummy gap at six weeks postpartum.
There is a big focus in the fitness industry on ‘how many fingers’ separation you have, which can cause fear or shame around a physical symptom that is more common than not.
Instead, prioritise function over fear and optimise your transverse core strength (the abdominal muscles that sit beneath the six pack muscles most prone to separation) during pregnancy.
Try exercises that cause your abs to work by resisting rotation through your midline – such as single arm cable rows.
If you do have a post-natal tummy separation after pregnancy, focus on making it a ‘functional separation’, which means you can effectively combine your breath, pelvic floor and deep core in order to draw your tummy muscles down during exercise.
A women’s health physio or post-natal PT can help you establish the basics. This will ensure strong foundations and a complication-free return to the exercise you love best.
#7 Maternal fitness is a launch pad for life-long motivation
Before pregnancy, your motivation to exercise is normally self-driven; ie, you want to look or feel a certain way. Once you’re responsible for the life inside you (and, in good time, outside you), in enters an incomparably compelling reason to be your healthiest, strongest self.
Exercising as a mother takes on a selfless new perspective that won’t make you think twice before lacing up your trainers.
From maintaining a healthy body that nurtures your babe to-be, to building the strength that helps you keep up with your growing children, to role modeling an active way of living so they have the best shot at a long, healthy life: exercising as a mother takes on a selfless new perspective that won’t make you think twice before lacing up your trainers.
Mind, Body, Bump by Brit Williams (£16.99, White Lion Publishing, 2019) is available to buy on Amazon.