Exercise during your pregnancy

If you want to know more about a Swiss ball, your pelvic floor and how to control your bouncing breasts, then read on as our exercise guru answers your problems

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Try yoga during pregnancy

Q:  I go to the gym four times a week for a high-impact exercise routine, but I’ve just found out that I’m pregnant. Will this have done any harm to my baby?

A: You are perfectly well – and actively encouraged to keep up all this good work. You just need to tone things down a bit. Consider adjusting your aim: maintain your current fitness levels rather than improving them. Keep on with the aerobics, but make it low impact and avoid any quick changes in direction. I would personally suggest you did not do any step classes – it is all too easy to slip off one if you momentarily lose concentration! Walking, water aerobics and gentle swimming are good aerobic activities to be used as a substitute. Reduce the resistance in your weights work (work at a lower weight for fewer repetitions). Avoid any exercise which involves you lying on your back after 12 weeks.

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Investing in a heart rate monitor is like having a personal trainer attached to your wrist. To be in a safe zone, your heart rate during any of your workouts should not rise above 140bpm. This will also carry on through to postnatal exercise when you want to make sure you are fat burning and efficiently losing pregnancy fat.

Apart from this, just be sensible and follow basic pregnancy guidelines. Good luck!

Q: I’m not a very fit person – the last time I went to the gym I was at school! Are there any books or DVD workouts that I could try at home?

A: Keeping yourself safely active during your pregnancy creates the perfect start for you and your baby’s nine months and beyond. There are many different books and DVDs for mums-to-be, but I’ve not seen enough of them to give you a broad recommendation. My gut instinct would say that in this easily liable society, any major company bringing out a pregnancy book or DVD would have done their groundwork thoroughly! What I will recommend are The Y Plan Before and After Pregnancy – a DVD produced by the YMCA, which runs the most comprehensive fitness training here in the UK – and Pregnancy Exercise by Judy di Fiore – a book by the woman who trained me! Many women find that exercising at home isn’t that easy to keep up, however, so maybe you should also consider finding a pregnancy fitness class? Of course, how much choice you have in this will depend on where you live.

When I lived in London I could have chosen from Pilates, yoga, tai chi, aerobics, weight training, aqua aerobics – all adapted to suit pregnant women. I now live surrounded by fields and cows, and I am aware that my choice is limited. However, during my last country pregnancy I had the choice of a water aerobics class and a local yoga teacher with five kids of her own and a wealth of experience in pregnancy. You just need to go out and look. The National Childbirth Trust has great local magazines, in which I suspect you will find that any pregnancy-trained exercise teacher worth their salt will be advertising!

Q: Can having strong pelvic floor muscles help for an easier birth as well as for toning up afterwards? How do you know if you’re doing the exercises correctly?

A: The pelvic floor is the sling of muscles that forms the base to your pelvis. Exercising them during pregnancy, and afterwards, will help tone them up and make you much more aware of them so you can relax (and push) them during the birth. Having a strong pelvic floor can also help embarrassing leaks caused by stress incontinence (basically a slight leaking of urine when you cough, laugh or do any impact exercise) after childbirth.

It can be very hard at first to work out if you are squeezing the right muscles. Try sitting on a firm chair with your feet flat on the ground (wooden kitchen chairs are perfect). Now tighten up the muscle around your vagina and then relax them. If you are squeezing your bum in any shape or form you will feel yourself lift up a little. Again tighten the muscles around your vagina and imagine them pulling up inside you. Hold for a count of 4 (make sure you keep breathing) and then relax.

Finally, I can safely vouch that good pelvic floor muscles are great when giving birth. My last baby shot out so quickly taking all the waiting nursing staff by so much surprise they nearly missed her!

 

Q: What exercises can I do with a Swiss ball now that I am pregnant? And am I right in thinking it could be a useful labour aid?

A: Swiss balls, otherwise known as physio or stability balls, have been used by physiotherapists for a long while before they became a common sight in gyms. Using one makes what would be a normal exercise harder by providing an unstable surface on which to balance. So rather than sitting on a bench to do your bicep curls, you have to balance your weight on the round ball, engaging your core muscles. Increasing your core strength helps support your expanding waist line and also improves your balance and posture, making even just sitting on a Swiss ball while pregnant a decent workout in itself.

During your first trimester you can carry on exercising as much as you normally would (as long as you have the go ahead from your GP or midwife). After the first trimester most experts recommend that any exercises done while lying on your back should be avoided. However, you can still lie on a Swiss ball in an inclined position, to do chest presses and basic sit ups, for example. All other exercises (such as the bicep curl mentioned previously) can be done while sitting on the ball. The only word of caution is your safety and stability – you don’t want to be toppling off! So, if you feel at all wobbly then I would suggest you get someone to hold the ball for you and be a helping hand.

During birth, many midwives advocate the use of birthing balls, as they provide a comfortable place for the mother to sit or lean during labour. In some cases they can also help to turn a baby to the correct position, when the mother kneels or leans over the ball.

Do make sure you choose a ball that is the right dimension for you. The taller you are the bigger the ball needs to be, so check the box when buying your Swiss ball for more information.

I personally have always found it a great way to soothe an upset baby – just sitting on it while holding a baby seems to comfort her. And older children find it immense fun as a huge indoor football – when I’m not looking of course!

Q: I’ve never tried yoga before, but have had it recommended to me during pregnancy. Is this a good time to take it up?

A: Providing your GP or midwife has given you the all-clear to exercise, there is no reason you shouldn’t take up specifically a ‘pregnancy’ yoga class. In fact, it can be a great introduction to this age-old practice. Paired with a cardiovascular exercise like walking or swimming, yoga can be an ideal way to stay in shape during pregnancy since it keeps you limber, tones your muscles and improves balance and co-ordination.

Importantly, though, I would recommend you find an instructor who is specifically trained in antenatal yoga. If this proves completely impossible it is imperative you let your instructor know you are expecting before enrolling or starting the class, and make sure you listen to their advice. If they don’t feel that you should be joining their particular group then please heed them. Not all teachers who are not trained for antenatal work (and this goes for all forms of fitness teachers) feel happy teaching pregnant women.

However, if you do find the right class, yoga will be beneficial since it helps you learn to breathe deeply and relax, both of which will come in handy as you face the physical demands of labour, birth and motherhood. It’s also a great way to meet other pregnant women who can hopefully help give you a regular emotional boost and keep you motivated to continue exercising during pregnancy. It’s always worked for me!

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Q: I’m 12 weeks pregnant but already my breasts seem huge. I am determined to carry on exercising, but I am already finding it uncomfortable. Can you help?

A: Breast tenderness is one of the earliest signs of pregnancy leaving you feeling swollen, sore and unusually sensitive. This is a natural consequence of the increased production of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. By around 8 weeks most women will find their breasts increasing in size, and they will continue to grow throughout the pregnancy. It is common to go up a cup size or sometimes two? However, there is no reason that you cannot continue exercising. All you need to do is bear a few factors in mind that will help ease the burden of an expanding chest. First, you need to arm yourself with a sports bra. Take the time to get fitted by a knowledgeable salesperson in a large department store or maternity shop. Most companies produce a specific bra for exercise, but do bear in mind that if you continue to grow you might need another fitting and a subsequent bra later on in the pregnancy. Secondly, it is imperative you watch your posture – carrying extra weight on the front of your body (both breasts and baby) can throw everything out of alignment and cause back pain and problems. Concentrate on exercises that will help strengthen your back and the shoulder top muscles as well as your chest. Try simple exercises like ‘box press-ups’ (for your chest muscles) and ‘upright row’ (for your upper back) but do get a qualified instructor to show you how to do them correctly.

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