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The huge benefits of fitness during pregnancy

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Is it safe to exercise during pregnancy? And the huge benefits of your fitness during pregnancy.

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Women at low-risk pregnancy are encouraged to do at least 150 minutes of moderate physically activity per week or 20-30 minutes per day (ACOG, 2015). It is safe for female athletes and other women who have been physically active before pregnancy to largely maintain their training habits, while inactive women are recommended to gradually add exercise into their routine for their own health and for the health of their baby (ACOG, 2015; da Silva, Ricardo, Evenson, & Hallal, 2017). Nevertheless, it has been reported that as few as 5-15% follow these recommendations (Gjestland, Bø, Owe, & Eberhard-Gran, 2013; Nascimento, Surita, Godoy, Kasawara, & Morais, 2015), and that more than half of women interrupt practicing physical exercise due to pregnancy (Nascimento et al., 2015).

Benefits of exercise during pregnancy

Given the physical demands of delivery it makes good sense to be fit for delivery (Sagedal et al., 2013). There are several health benefits of exercise during pregnancy for both mother and child (Figure 1) including reduced excessive weight gain, reduced risk of gestational diabetes, hypertension and macrosomia – all conditions linked to increased incidence of childhood obesity. Despite these important effects of physical exercise, most physicians are not instructing their sedentary pregnant patients to exercise (McGee et al., 2018).


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Concerns associated with exercise during pregnancy

Even with abovementioned health benefits of exercise, there is a long-standing concern about potential adverse effects of maternal exercise on the developing fetus. These concerns include placenta hypoxia and fetal bradycardia, low birth weight, premature birth and risk of miscarriage (Bø, Artal, Barakat, Brown, Dooley, et al., 2016). There are, however, poor evidence to support these suspected risks of maternal exercise. Based on study with six elite athletes indicating transient fetal bradycardia when exercising above 90% of maximal heart rate, it is not recommended to perform frequent high intensity exercise (Salvesen, Hem, & Sundgot-Borgen, 2012). The concern for miscarriage seems only to be relevant for strenuous exercise at the time of implantation (Bø, Artal, Barakat, Brown, Dooley, et al., 2016).

Do’s and don’ts

Examples of exercises that are safe during pregnancy are brisk walking, swimming, water aerobics, spinning, yoga, pilates, strength training, jogging or running (the latter for women who have been engaged in these activities on a regular basis before pregnancy) (Haakstad, Dalhaug, & Torstveit, 2018). Some adjustments may be necessary, for instance if running starts feeling uncomfortable as pregnancy progresses, it can be substituted with ellipse training or brisk walking. Training during pregnancy is safe as long as one uses common sense; avoids overheating, energy deficiency, and dehydration, contact sport (e.g. hockey, martial arts, and handball), activities with high risk of falling (e.g. horseback riding, gymnastics, mountain biking, and alpine skiing), hot yoga, scuba diving, and skydiving. Examples of absolute contraindications are shortened cervix, placenta previa after gestation week 26, persistent bleeding and restrictive lung disease (Haakstad et al., 2018).


A little goes a long way

Nausea and fatigue are common afflicts, especially in early pregnancy (Bø, Artal, Barakat, Brown, Davies, et al., 2016), which understandably reduces the motivation for long training sessions. In this regard it is important to remember that the relationship between physical activity and health benefits is dose dependent, i.e. ten minutes are better than none. In normally active women, and even in high-performance elite athletes, training volume seems to decline dramatically during the first trimester, after which it increases in the second trimester with a slight reduction in the third trimester (Nascimento et al., 2015; Solli & Sandbakk, 2018). It is physically demanding to grow a baby, and pregnancy is also a time period where it is particularly important to listen to the body’s signals and take a rest in good conscience when needed (Figure 2). That being said, the positive effects of regular physical activity throughout pregnancy should not be neglected and exercise is a safe and effective way of reducing pregnancy complaints.


Article courtesy of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Is it safe to exercise during pregnancy?



ACOG. (2015). Committee opinion no. 650: physical activity and exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Obstretics & Gynecology, 126(6), e135–e142.

Bø, K., Artal, R., Barakat, R., Brown, W., Davies, G. A. L., Dooley, M., … Khan, K. M. (2016). Exercise and pregnancy in recreational and elite athletes: 2016 evidence summary from the IOC expert group meeting, Lausanne. Part 1-exercise in women planning pregnancy and those who are pregnant. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(10), 571–589. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2016-096218

Bø, K., Artal, R., Barakat, R., Brown, W., Dooley, M., Evenson, K. R., … Davies, G. A. L. (2016). Exercise and pregnancy in recreational and elite athletes: 2016 evidence summary from the IOC expert group meeting, Lausanne. Part 2 – The effect of exercise on the fetus, labour and birth. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(21), 1297–1305. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2016-096810

da Silva, S. G., Ricardo, L. I., Evenson, K. R., & Hallal, P. C. (2017). Leisure-Time Physical Activity in Pregnancy and Maternal-Child Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials and Cohort Studies. Sports Medicine, 47(2), 295–317. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0565-2

Department of Health and Social Care. (2016). Start active, stay active: infographics on physical activity. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/start-active-stay-active-infographics-on-physical-activity

Gjestland, K., Bø, K., Owe, K. M., & Eberhard-Gran, M. (2013). Do pregnant women follow exercise guidelines? Prevalence data among 3482 women, and prediction of low-back pain, pelvic girdle pain and depression.British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47(8), 515–520. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2012-091344

Haakstad, L. A. H., Dalhaug, E. M., & Torstveit, M. K. (2018). Fysisk aktivitet i og etter svangerskap. In M. K. Torstveit, H. Lohne-Seiler, S. Berntsen, & S. A. Andersen (Eds.), Fysisk Aktivitet og Helse(1st ed., pp. 269–294). Kristiansand/Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk.

McGee, L. D., Cignetti, C. A., Sutton, A., Harper, L., Dubose, C., & Gould, S. (2018). Exercise During Pregnancy: Obstetricians’ Beliefs and Recommendations Compared to American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ 2015 Guidelines. Cureus. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.3204

Nascimento, S. L., Surita, F. G., Godoy, A. C., Kasawara, K. T., & Morais, S. S. (2015). Physical Activity Patterns and Factors Related to Exercise during Pregnancy: A Cross Sectional Study. PLOS ONE, 10(6), e0128953. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0128953

Sagedal, L. R., Øverby, N. C., Lohne-Seiler, H., Bere, E., Torstveit, M. K., Henriksen, T., & Vistad, I. (2013). Study protocol: fit for delivery – can a lifestyle intervention in pregnancy result in measurable health benefits for mothers and newborns? A randomized controlled trial. BMC Public Health, 13(1), 132. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-13-132

Salvesen, K. A., Hem, E., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2012). Fetal wellbeing may be compromised during strenuous exercise among pregnant elite athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(4), 279–283. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2010.080259

Solli, G. S., & Sandbakk, Ø. (2018). Training characteristics during pregnancy and postpartum in the world’s most successful cross country skier. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(MAY), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00595



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