Nothing disrupts your workout routine quite like growing a human inside of you, wouldn’t you say? But, while you may not be able to go for hour-long runs or hit your favourite spin class anymore, that doesn’t mean you can’t – or shouldn’t – find an exercise routine that fits your schedule.
Dahlas Fletcher is a fully-certified pregnancy and post natal trainer, passionate about helping expecting and recently-pregnant women enjoy safe and appropriate exercises so they feel their physical and emotional best.
As a mum to three young children herself, Dahlas knows pregnancy – and she knows the physical changes that can cause women to feel disconnected from their body just as well. That was Dahlas’ motivation to create her pregnancy and postpartum exercise business Bodyfabulous, and she’s been providing women with the same real solutions that worked for her ever since.
“Exercise during pregnancy is a positive decision for both and your baby, but it doesn’t mean you need to schedule in an epic long workout every day,” Dahlas explains. “Just moving your body for 10 minutes a few times a week will make a big difference.”
The benefits of exercising while pregnant are profound: it can reduce the risk of gestational diabetes; decrease the risk of high blood pressure associated with pregnancy (pre-eclampsia); decrease labour delivery time; decrease postpartum recovery time; decrease the risk and severity of pregnancy aches and pains; decrease the risk of urinary incontinence and pelvic floor dysfunction; prevent and improve symptoms of depression; maintain physical fitness and improve energy levels; and it may even reduce the risk of caesarean delivery.
Recent studies even show that children born to mothers who exercised during pregnancy are likely to have stronger hearts, reduced rates of obesity and improved brain function.
“Often when people hear the word ‘workout’ they immediately think of exercise that causes them to be red faced, sore and exhausted,” Dahlas says. “But to achieve results, pregnant or otherwise, you don’t need to exercise to depletion. Instead, we need to look at exercise as a way to connect to our bodies, rather than a tool to change it.”
This is particularly important during pregnancy, Dahlas says, when so many changes are happening and energy levels can fluctuate daily, and especially if you are sick, tired and nauseous.
“Prescribing a specific amount of exercise may not be appropriate for pregnancy – instead, I highly advise tuning in to your energy levels each day and focusing on moving safely and effectively, in a way that meets your body where it’s at,” Dahlas explains. “If it feels good, keep going. If you are feeling depleted, rest. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”
Aim for 10 to 30 minutes, two to three times a week as a foundation. If you are a regular exerciser, remember that you are now in “maintenance mode” – it’s not the time to be going for gold. If you are a regular exerciser and are used to moderate to high intensity exercise during pregnancy, work out at an effort of around 7 or 8 out of 10 throughout pregnancy. If you are new to pregnancy exercise or have not exercised regularly, exercise at a 2 to 6 out of 10.
Is there anything we should actively avoid doing while pregnant?
“Apart from the obvious high-risk activities like skydiving, scuba diving, horse riding and other extreme sports, there are some other activities – though not contraindicated – that have a higher risk than reward in pregnancy,” says Dahlas.
Movements and exercises that put unnecessary pressure on linea alba (centre of your core), cause pain or discomfort, or cause leaking or downward pressure on the pelvic floor (the foundation of your core) should be avoided when pregnant. This includes movements like planks, sit ups, crunches and chin ups, as well as some forms of heavy lifting and high impact exercise. If the exercise is performed at such a high intensity that you can’t talk comfortably, it should also be avoided.
“Your body is changing, so the way your train also has to change,” explains Dahlas. “If what you are doing doesn’t feel right, trust your mama instincts and the information your body is giving you and simply don’t do it.
“Remember: pregnancy is only temporary, but the damage caused can be long term. If you are looking to modify movements so they are safe and effective, make sure you seek the advice of a certified pregnancy and postpartum trainer or a women’s health physiotherapist… especially before jumping onto the next workout you see in social media!”
So, which exercises should we be doing instead?
“During pregnancy, you actually have a fabulous secret superpower… it’s your core strength,” says Dahlas. “Just think about how your core expands and changes to support your growing baby. Pregnancy is the perfect time to take advantage of this fabulous power and ensure your core gets stronger.”
But your core strength goes way beyond washboard abs or a six pack – if you think about a whole apple, Dahlas explains, you can’t see the core of it. Your deep core should be the focus of all pregnancy workouts, and can be improved with a few key safe and effective movements.
CORE BREATH: It sounds simple, but breathing effectively is central to all workouts – every exercise has an ideal time to breathe to allow the abdominals, diaphragm and pelvic floor to work in synergy. There are both optimal and sub-optimal ways to breathe during a workout that can directly impact how you breathe during daily movement and birth, and core breath is an important part of an effective postpartum recovery. It goes beyond just doing Kegels!
RESISTANCE BASED TRAINING: using light weights, resistance bands and bodyweight (for example Pilates) will help build essential strength for motherhood.Think about it: an average toddler weighs between 10 and 15kg, and during pregnancy and postpartum often involves a lot of lifting prams, groceries, car seats… It’s important to learn how to lift or add resistance to your workouts safely, which comes down to protecting your pregnant core – always exhale as you lift or on the effort of resistance to avoid excessive intra-abdominal pressure.
SQUATS: one of my favourite workouts during pregnancy! As building strong legs helps to avoid lower back pain, and science has proven that if a squat is performed correctly it can actually train your deep core and pelvic floor. If you squat during pregnancy, Dahlas recommends ensuring your posture stays aligned, your shoulders are over your hips and you don’t drop your butt lower than your knees – and, again, exhale as you rise.
SWIMMING: a fabulous low impact option for pregnancy exercise, plus is a great way to tap into a deep core breathing. As you do freestyle or breaststroke, think about drawing your breath all the way down to your belly as you inhale and keep the same length in your breath as you exhale.
GENTLE WALKS: walking is generally the “go to” exercise during pregnancy as it’s easy to do, low impact and has a number of benefits – when done safely and effectively. Avoid long or excessive power walks as these can lead to a condition called pelvic girdle or SIJ pain, and ensure you wear supportive shoes and have good postural alignment – bending over a pram as you walk or carrying a bag on one shoulder will likely cause aches and pain.
POSTURAL ALIGNMENT: your pregnant belly will shift your posture and make it more anterior (front focused), but simply becoming aware of this when you exercise and move can help you avoid many common prenatal aches and pains. When sitting or standing, roll your shoulders back and down over your ribs to avoid concaved shoulders, and soften your knees when standing or performing upright exercises to shift the load away from your lower back. If you are uncomfortable sitting for long periods, trying sitting on a fit ball that keeps your hips higher than your knees – this will automatically protect your lower back and improve your alignment. These simple tips will also help avoid the dreaded postpartum pooch after birth and ensure your core is in an optimal position to function effectively… it’s hard to improve your core strength when slouching!