Can You Exercise During Pregnancy As An Athlete?

Dec 08, 2019

This question is something that comes up often. As it should. With working with high level athletes like I do, I get asked this regularly. Most of the time, before a female even becomes pregnant, this is the question that’s on her mind. Because as an athlete or someone who has a high level of expectations for herself, it can be scary as hell to think you may have to actually stop working out at the level you’ve been training for. 

What if I told you that you can work out during pregnancy? The same principles actually hold true for the recommended exercise prescription for women whom are pregnant vs those whom are not, with the understanding and exception that during pregnancy there are some significant changes in physiological, physical, and even hormonal balances. 

To continue exercising during pregnancy and competing if desired, you should first make sure there are not reasons why you should not be exercising. This would be considered “contraindications” to exercise from your OBGYN/physician. This means that if you do exercise when you have contraindication, you are putting yourself and your baby at risk of injuring or harming yourselves by continuing.  

Also, understand that even if you become pregnant and initially there are no contraindications to exercise, this can change as you go further along in your pregnancy. That just means that you, your trainers and coaches, and anyone involved in your training need to be aware on how to react and proceed with proper precautions being taken. 

 

Examples of things called absolute contraindications (do NOT exercise if these are occurring would be: 

  • Significant heart disease 
  • Poorly controlled hypertension 
  • Lung disease 
  • Cervical insufficiency 
  • Risk of premature labor 
  • Placenta previa after 26 weeks gestation 
  • Preeclampsia 
  • Anemia 

Examples of things called relative contraindications (take caution if exercising would be: 

  • History of premature birth, miscarriages 
  • Cervical enlargement 
  • Poorly controlled type 1 diabetes 
  • Extreme underweight 
  • Orthopedic impairments 
  • Poorly controlled seizures 

If you do not have the above, and are exercising, the following are reasons to eliminate exercising and seek the care of a medial doctor: 

  • Vaginal bleeding 
  • Regular and painful contractions 
  • Amniotic fluid leakage 
  • difficulty breathing prior to exercise 
  • Headache 
  • Chest pain 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Calf swelling/tenderness 

 

You can honestly exercise at the levels you were prior to pregnancy and during pregnancy as long as none of the symptoms are occurring above. You also want to consider some of the following statements during your activities. 

Exercising on your back

Many believe that this is a negative. However, there is very little research saying that it is an absolute no go. The majority of the studies, and my expert opinion, recommend airing on the side of caution but it will not cause any issues as long as you listen to your body. If you have any side effects like dizziness or difficulty breathing, then of course eliminate the exercise and change the position. 

High Intensity Exercise 

It is recommended that women whom are pregnant do not exercise past 90% of their VO2max and that they use their perceived exertion to be able to determine their tolerance to the activity. VO2 max is the amount of oxygen you can use during an intense workout. This is measured by an actual VO2max test, and trust me, it ain’t easy!!!! 

The best advice I can give here is: if you are not having symptoms or no red/yellow flags (anything that would otherwise mean stop exercise), listen to your body. I typically will have clients at moderate level of exertion especially in their 3rd trimester to help prepare the body for labor and delivery, but depending on how you feel and how you’re body is tolerating the intensity of the workout, you can continue up until labor begins. 

Strength Training 

There are very few risks of weight training during pregnancy, or at least little has been studied, and I recommend clients specifically pay attention to form and quality, not so much how much they are lifting. 

If you are an athlete who is working towards a PR, pregnancy is not the time to push for that because it can increase likelihood of injury or problems. However, you can absolutely continue lifting weights throughout pregnancy. 

Modify any of the exercises that feel like they are causing a strain, or any symptoms in your back or your stomach, and discontinue the exercise is you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, dizziness etc.  

It is IMPORTANT to be sure you are not holding your breathe and bearing down with heavy lifting, as this only increases the pressures in your pelvic floor, which has already increased due to pregnancy. You do not want to cause any issues that can be avoided. Make sure you are breathing and bracing properly with exercise and lifting. 

Miscarriage 

No, exercise and weight training does not increase your risk of having a miscarriage. There are some studies that do say if you over do it and do high intensity/high impact for more than 7 hours per week or at a specific time frame after ovulation, your risk can increase, however, there is insufficient data to confidently make that statement. 

 

Be mindful that you may underperform during your first trimester due to nausea and early pregnancy symptoms. Give yourself some grace and try not to push past this because it can cause some other symptoms that were not there before. 

If you exercise during pregnancy, you can actually decrease length of labor and improve your labor in general. You can actually also have healthier babies because of having a healthier you!!! 

I hope this post was able to demystify a lot of the stigmas around exercise during pregnancy. It is not to be taken as medical advice, but it is really important to understand that seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist can help you stay in the gym and active longer than if you do not see one! There are so many things that need to be factored in with women who are pregnant and this changes with each individual!!! 

Next week, tune in for returning to exercise postpartum! 

 


Information for this article was brought to you by: 

K, Artal R, Barakat R, et al. Exercise and pregnancy in recreational and elite athletes: 2016/2017 evidence summary from the IOC expert group meeting, Lausanne. Part 5. Recommendations for health professionals and active women, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2018;52:1080-1085. 

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