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Pregnancy + Postpartum

How to Exercise Safely When Pregnant: Guidelines, Tips, Precautions & More

Nov 17, 2022Dr. Ashley Rawlins, PT, DPT5 MIN
A pregnant woman in a cranberry colored sports bra and brownish green leggings leaning over with her hand on her hip as she exercises.

There are a lot of new rules that sneak up out of nowhere when you get pregnant. For example, the baby growing inside of you requires that you avoid soft cheeses, sushi, and cocktails for the next 10 months or so. You have to sleep on your side, when laying on your stomach was the only way you managed a solid 8 hours. And now you have to — sigh — cancel your Botox appointment and toss the Retin-A to the back of the medicine cabinet. 

Luckily, there are plenty of things that you don’t have to give up, and exercising is one of them. In general, it’s highly recommended to continue exercising if you’re having a normal and healthy pregnancy, as research shows that there are significant benefits for both you and your baby. 

The only downside is that it’s hard to know how to modify the exercises you love to make them safe for pregnancy and to prevent additional problems like diastasis recti or pelvic organ prolapse. That’s where postpartum PTs can help.

Check out the information below for answers to your top questions about exercising safely throughout your pregnancy.  

What are the benefits of exercise during pregnancy?

There's strong evidence that exercise improves health outcomes for both you and your newborn, as long as it’s done safely. Working out during pregnancy helps keep your stamina up for your third trimester, minimizes aches and pains, and reduces risk for pregnancy-related complications like gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and hypertension

Is exercise safe when you’re pregnant?

Always check with your physician to make sure exercise is safe for you in your pregnancy as there are certain medical or pregnancy-related complications that can make exercise unsafe. 

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), common reasons to hold off on exercise include:

  • If you have certain types of heart and lung diseases
  • Cerclage (when the cervix has a surgical stitch in place to prevent preterm birth)
  • If you are pregnant with multiples (twins or triplets for example) and have risk factors for preterm labor
  • If you have placenta previa after 26 weeks of pregnancy
  • If during your current pregnancy you are having preterm labor or your water has broken
  • If you have preeclampsia or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure 
  • Severe anemia

When should I avoid or stop exercising during pregnancy?

If you were told that exercise is safe, but you notice any of the following warning signs, stop exercising and call your obstetrician:

  • Bleeding or fluid gushing or leaking from the vagina
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath before starting exercise 
  • Chest pain 
  • Headache 
  • Muscle weakness that affects your balance
  • Calf pain or swelling 
  • Regular, painful contractions of the uterus 

What precautions should I take to make sure I am exercising safely during pregnancy?

While exercising pregnant, you should generally keep the following in mind and avoid:

  • Contact sports, or any sport that increases your risk of injury, falling or hitting your abdomen (sky-diving, boxing, soccer, basketball, or skiing for example)
  • Exercising in extreme heat (hot yoga, or hot pilates for example)
  • Exercising while lying on your back after the first trimester
  • Exercise that compresses or overly strains your abdominal muscles after the first trimester (sit-ups, lying on your stomach, or lifting weights with both arms overhead, for example)
  • Stretches that cause a lot of uneven strain in your pelvis, or increase pain or discomfort in your low back.
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What kind of exercise is safe during pregnancy?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reports that most pregnant people can safely perform both aerobic exercise (aka cardio) and strength training throughout their pregnancy. Safe activities include (but are not limited to):

  • Walking
  • Stationary Bicycle
  • Aerobics or Dancing
  • Hydrotherapy/water workouts
  • Yoga or Pilates (using pregnancy modifications)
  • Resistance training with weights or resistance bands

If you don’t see your favorite form of exercise on this list, that’s OK. There are so many wonderful forms of cardio and strength training that can be safe in pregnancy. Talk with your physician or physical therapist to see how to safely modify the exercises that motivate you to stay active throughout your pregnancy. 

And always remember to take the time to warm up before hopping into your more intense exercise routine.

How much exercise should I do while I’m pregnant?

As a general guideline, pregnant people should try and get in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week — cardio for 30 minutes, 5 days a week for example — but this can be broken down in a way that works best for you. 

When strength training, stick to 2-3 sessions a week, giving your muscles 1-2 days to recover between sessions. Stick to low-moderate intensity strength training.

If you were highly active before becoming pregnant, check in with your healthcare provider to discuss the recommended exercise levels for you. They will also help you to monitor your weight, and adjust your diet to ensure you are not losing weight in a way that is unsafe for your pregnancy.

How will I know if I am exercising at the right intensity?

Try these two easy methods of monitoring the intensity of your exercise during pregnancy:

1. The Talk Test

With this test, you pay attention to whether you can sing or talk comfortably while exercising to get a sense of your intensity level.

  • If you can sing comfortably while exercising, your intensity level is likely “low,” which is safe for pregnancy.
  • If you can talk comfortably, you’re likely at a “moderate” intensity level, which is safe and recommended for pregnancy.
  • If you are so winded that you cannot talk comfortably, then the intensity of your exercise is likely “vigorous.” Always check with your physician before exercising at this level.

2. Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion

Though it's often easier for more experienced exercisers to use, some evidence suggests that the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion can help pregnant women stick to a safe intensity level. How to use it: Focus on the physical sensations that you feel in your body (whether you're sweating, how hard you're breathing, etc.) and assign them to a level on the scale.  

As a general rule for pregnancy, make sure your level of perceived exertion does not exceed 15.

  • 1-7 Not intense at all
  • 8-12 Light intensity
  • 12-15 Moderate intensity
  • 16-18 High intensity
  • 20 Maximum intensity

Still have questions? We've got you! Make an appointment with one of our pelvic physical therapists. They will help personalize an exercise program for you and guide you safely through each trimester.

Ashley Rawlins Headshot
Dr. Ashley Rawlins, PT, DPT

Dr. Rawlins is a physical therapist at Origin who specializes in the treatment of pelvic floor muscle dysfunctions including pelvic pain, sexual dysfunction, pregnancy related pain, postpartum recovery, and bowel and bladder dysfunction. In addition to being a practicing clinician, she is a passionate educator and author.

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