Give yourself and your baby a head start. With a prenatal exercise routine you can improve posture, reduce back pain, get energized, and prepare for labor. Exercise also helps to prevent some of the common annoyances associated with pregnancy such as constipation, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, swelling in the ankles, and leg cramps by boosting circulation and stimulating the digestive process.
Women who exercise are less likely to miscarry and their labor may be easier. Obesity increases the risk of hypertension, preeclampsia, diabetes, and delivering a large baby. Women who are overweight should diet before they conceive and then switch to a maintenance diet of 1,800 calories a day while trying to get pregnant. Regular exercise can help avoid excessive weight gain.
But don't overdo the exercise to the point of losing too much weight. Being underweight also increases the risk of pregnancy complications. Preterm delivery and having a low-birth-weight baby are risks for women of average height who weigh less than 120 pounds.
One of the best and easiest ways to stay in shape is walking. Swimming and other water exercises also are good options because the buoyancy effect of water may increase your comfort by supporting your weight, reducing the weight on your back and pelvis, and decreasing any sensation of lack of balance. Whatever your choice exercise is, be ready to adapt it to your expanding belly. Be sure to begin your exercise routine with some warm-up and cool-down exercises and stretches that focus on hip, neck and shoulder movement and lower-back flexibility. Strengthen your legs, pelvic, and back muscles to prepare for the stress of pregnancy and work of labor. Try to exercise for at least 20 minutes five to seven days a week.
Being pregnant necessitates taking some special precautions while exercising:
You can start with 10-minute walking sessions. Check with the fitness centers in your area or a local YMCA for prenatal exercise programs. Before you begin a pregnancy fitness program, talk to your doctor. Look forward to improved posture and circulation as well as stronger muscles if you follow a well-designed exercise program.
Next month I will review specific exercises and stretches that can enhance your pregnancy fitness.
Paulette Chandler, M.D., M.P.H., is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.