The benefits of being physically active are well-known. Individuals who are physically active are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers. Additionally, physical activity has been shown to improve our psychological health.
Yet, there seems to be confusion regarding the intensity level and types of physical activities that are appropriate for pregnant women. Despite this confusion, being physically active during pregnancy has many proven benefits for both baby and mom.
Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy
It is important for women to be physically active during their pregnancy because doing so reduces the chance of developing many pregnancy-related health risks such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and pre-term birth. Furthermore, women who exercise while pregnant are more likely to experience improved postpartum recovery, self-esteem and body image, as well as increased quality of life. Lastly, sedentary behaviors have been associated with increased health risks for the baby (e.g., increased heart rate and fat mass). Despite the many benefits of being physically active during pregnancy, most pregnant women do not meet the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines for physical activity.
Guidelines and Limitations
For women who do not have any medical complications (e.g., placenta previa), ACOG recommends approximately 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week. While this recommendation may not seem like a lot of physical activity, less than 30 percent of pregnant women meet these guidelines and those who do tend to be younger and better educated. Also, the likelihood of pregnant women meeting the physical activity guidelines when they have another child in the home decreases significantly.
When asked why they are not physically active, pregnant women report barriers including a lack of time, not enough energy/being too tired, physical limitations and not knowing if it is safe to be physically active. While the two most commonly reported barriers to being physically active are not unique to pregnant women (i.e., most people say they do not have the time or the energy to engage in physical activity), physical limitations and not understanding if physical activity is safe are two distinctive factors related to sedentary behavior during pregnancy.
Many women report discomfort and physical limitations as a result of physical changes experienced during pregnancy. The likelihood of experiencing pregnancy-related physical discomfort increases toward the end of their pregnancy with common symptoms, including shortness of breath, overall body soreness and leg cramps. Despite the physical discomforts, pregnancy is still viewed as a time when women should prioritize their health. Research has demonstrated that while women believe that exercising during pregnancy improves their pregnancy-related symptoms and mood, a majority of pregnant women experience a drop in their physical activity levels during pregnancy and postpartum as compared to their pre-pregnancy levels.
As a result of misguided information, many pregnant women have skewed perceptions of what physical activities are safe. For instance, most pregnant women view vigorous exercise (i.e., exercises that induce heavy breathing to the point of hardly being able to talk) as unsafe.
While there certainly are instances when vigorous exercise is unsafe for a pregnant woman, there is no research to support this perception. Thus, the 1985 ACOG guideline of limiting one’s heart rate to 140 beats per minute while pregnant was removed from the recommendations in 1994. However, many medical professionals still use this guideline when consulting with their pregnant patients. In addition to the conflicting information from their physicians, many pregnant women report feeling confused because of stories and advice from their social network. Unfortunately, the unsolicited, often incorrect, advice given to pregnant women by individuals in their social network has a great impact on pregnant women’s health. Those who perceive physical activity as unsafe are much more likely to not meet the ACOG guidelines, and subsequently, their health is likely to decline.
The Role of Parks and Recreation
As park and recreation professionals, we have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many populations, including pregnant women. While there are some active leisure programs available to women who are pregnant (e.g., prenatal yoga and aqua classes) there is much more that could and should be offered. Interestingly, the physiological response to exercise during pregnancy is similar to that of an athlete (e.g., increased peak oxygen uptake and heart rate). This makes sense because pregnant women are preparing for arguably one of the most physically demanding events of their life: childbirth.
For those who are not well-versed in exercise guidelines for pregnant women, the ACOG website and American College of Sports Medicine’s “Exercise During Pregnancy ACSM Current Comment” are great places to obtain information. Park and recreation professionals should consider partnering with healthcare providers and fitness professionals to create and implement prenatal programs at their agencies.
By providing engaging and fun active leisure opportunities for pregnant women, we can lead them toward a healthy, happy pregnancy.
Kellie Walters, M.S., is a Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University and co-founder of Smart Fit Girls Inc. and Smart Fit Chicks LLC.
Physical Activity Special Considerations
- A healthy woman with a normal pregnancy can continue her regular exercise routine, always confirming with a physician.
- If starting a new exercise routine, start and progress slowly.
- Avoid exercising in extreme air pressure (e.g., exertion at altitudes above 6,000 ft. and scuba diving).
- Avoid contact sports and activities.
- Avoid exercising in the supine position and motionless standing after the first trimester.
- Breathing is important-avoid holding one’s breath.
- Aim to exercise in temperature controlled environments and maintain proper hydration.
- Due to impaired balance, avoid activities that have a high risk of falling (e.g., biking).
- If needed, increase caloric intake to meet the energy costs of exercise and pregnancy.