In the past, it was believed that pregnant women had to abstain from physical activity. However, it is now known that exercise, correctly done, is important and beneficial to the expectant mum. Dr Anita Kale, a Consultant at the National University Hospital (NUH) Women’s Centre shares that “Exercise helps you prepare for labour by increasing your stamina and muscle strength. Being in good shape may even shorten your labour and speed up your recovery.”
If you are pregnant and planning to embark on an exercise routine, find out what precautions you should take, and learn some simple exercises which you can start with. But do remember to get the go-ahead from your obgyn before you begin any exercise regimen.
Benefits of Exercising
Pregnant women tire easily. And while they are still adjusting to the discomforts of nausea and sleepless nights, exercise may not rank high on their priority list. But getting your groove on while pregnant isn’t just an excellent way to main pre-pregnancy fitness levels, it can also help you shorten your labour process.
M Tan, 35, a mother of three children aged five, three and one, was sporty during her school days. She swam up to the 26th week of her first pregnancy, and was teaching Physical Education throughout her first two pregnancies. During her third pregnancy, she cycled her older children to and from school until the 36th week.
She had a “very short and easy labour” for all her pregnancies. In fact, the longest labour she had lasted only three hours – from the first sign of labour to the delivery. For her second child’s birth, it was down to slightly over an hour. “I barely got to the hospital in time!” she recalls.
Ms EL Lim, a 38-year-old case manager, swam frequently during her first pregnancy, and swam and cycled (on a stationary bicycle) during her second pregnancy. She started exercising around the twelfth week of pregnancy and continued until she was in her 36th week. “Swimming enabled me to have a stronger back to carry the baby to term, and definitely helped during labour. I also had a faster recovery post delivery and after a month, I was able to exercise again,” the mother of two children aged six and eight says.
Precautions To Take
However, if you have not been exercising regularly prior to getting pregnant, this is not the time to start a gruelling exercise regime. Both mothers had obtained approval from their gynaecologists before exercising.
Dr Kale advises, “Avoid activities that require you to jump or have a high risk of falling. Proceed with caution if you have a history of pre-term labour or medical conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease or placenta previa (low-lying placenta). If you engage in risk-impact exercise, you are risking pre-term labour, bleeding or pre-term rupture of membranes, which can cause amniotic fluid to leak.”
In her book Pregnancy Exercise, author Judy DiFiore recommends that pregnant mums engage in aerobic exercises such as brisk walking or swimming at a “moderate level”, where you should be able to maintain a conversation while exercising.
Judy, who is also the Director of Pushy Mothers, a British pregnancy and postnatal fitness brand dedicated to providing safe, specific and effective exercise for new mums and mums-to-be, also advises mums to avoid overheating or dehydration by exercising during the cooler hours of the day, in a well-ventilated location and by taking regular sips of water.
Seek immediate medical advice if you experience abdominal or pelvic pain, have excessive vaginal discharge, persistent, severe headaches, sudden swelling of hands and ankles, bleeding, or if your waters have burst.
If you are performing stretching or toning exercises, avoid positions that require you to bend over with your head down during your first trimester as this may cause you to feel nauseated. You should also avoid lying on your back during your second and third trimesters as the weight of your baby pressing down on a major blood vessel can restrict blood flow back to your heart.
For strengthening and toning exercises which can be performed safely at any stage of your pregnancy, Ms DiFiore recommends abdominal tightening and pelvic floor exercises.
The abdominal tightening exercise helps “to strengthen your abdominal muscles, which support your baby, and help you to maintain correct posture”. This exercise can be done by sitting upright in a sturdy chair with your spine well supported and straight. You should then “tighten your abdominals and lift your baby up and in towards you. Hold for a count of six, then gently release; continue to breathe throughout.” Ms DiFiore recommends doing two sets of eight repetitions for this exercise.
As pregnancy places a strain on the pelvic floor muscles, you may find yourself leaking urine when you cough or sneeze. The pelvic floor exercise helps to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles which support your baby. It also helps to reduce the risk of (urinary) stress incontinence during and after pregnancy.”
This exercise is done by tightening the pelvic floor muscles (as though you are trying to hold back a bowel movement or stop the flow of urine) and releasing them. They may be done as a slow contraction, by tightening the muscles and holding for a count of six before releasing with control. The muscles can also be worked with fast contractions by holding for only one count after tightening. Ms DiFiore recommends doing four sets of four repetitions for slow contractions and four sets of six repetitions for fast contractions. Do this daily to improve muscle strength.
For low-impact aerobic exercises, Dr Kale recommends walking, swimming, stationary cycling and rowing.
Exercise Classes for Moms-to-be
Mums-to-be can learn more about antenatal exercise at the antenatal classes conducted by NUH.
Those who enjoy exercising in groups can join Pre- and Post-natal Fitball Exercise class or the Aquafitness class conducted by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
Mums who wish to strengthen and stabilize their core abdomen, back and pelvic muscles can check out the BellyFit Programme conducted by physiotherapists from Core Concepts.