Pregnancy and Exercise: Advice from Dr Joanna Helcké
We’re delighted to welcome Dr Joanna Helcké, a multi-award-winning specialist in pregnancy and postnatal fitness. Dr Jo is here to share some all-important tips on pregnancy and exercise.
When it comes to pregnancy advice on exercise everyone has an opinion, from your personal trainer through to your best friend and even your mum or grandmother! Your fitness regime suddenly becomes public property, to be discussed, analysed and quite often criticised. This is further exacerbated by people sharing their pregnancy workouts on social media, only to find themselves the centre of a veritable avalanche of opinionated comments. All this makes it hard for people to know exactly what’s safe and what’s not when it comes to keeping fit during pregnancy.
Here’s to getting some facts on the map:
- Pregnancy exercise should be moderate but let’s remember that “moderate” will be different for each individual. Think about it: is moderate going to be the same level of intensity for a professional athlete as it is for somebody who has barely ever exercised before pregnancy? Of course not! So instead of looking at the way other mums-to-be are exercising and wondering if this is right for you, be your own guide. Whatever exercise you choose to take part in, it needs to feel moderate by your standards. This means that you should be able to hold a conversation whilst exercising without getting very out of breath.
- Following on from your own version of “moderate” is this universal rule: don’t get too hot. Exercising vigorously (by your standards, of course!) will make you hot and whilst you can cool down, remember that your growing baby has no cooling mechanism and overheating can be detrimental to development. This rule also applies to other situations: think a very gentle workout on a baking hot beach, saunas, Bikram (hot) yoga or quite simply sunbathing.
- Don’t throw completely new forms of fitness at your pregnant body unless they are specifically designed for pregnancy. So, for example, whilst it may be perfectly reasonable for a seasoned runner to carry on running whilst expecting (health permitting) this would not be a wise choice if you hadn’t been running consistently pre-pregnancy. On the other hand, joining aquanatal for the first time in pregnancy is fine because this class caters specifically for the ever-changing mum-to-be body.
- The “can I, can’t I do weight training in pregnancy?” debate has been rumbling on for quite a while now, so let’s set things straight. If you take into account points 1 to 3 so far, then you know that a) it is important to work at a moderate level b) you shouldn’t overheat and c) you mustn’t start up entirely new forms of training when you fall pregnant. So where does this leave weight training? Having a strong body is going to prepare you well for the rigours of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, so I am all for keeping strong. If you have never used weights before, my advice is to do resistance work under the supervision of someone who is specifically trained to work with prenatal women in the field of fitness and I would also suggest using resistance bands as an excellent alternative to weights: they are very versatile and highly effective, which is why physiotherapists use them so much. For those who trained regularly pre-pregnancy with heavy weights I would encourage you to reduce the weights you use for the sake of your pelvic floor muscles and to also focus on correct breathing techniques. Your body is fit and strong but the pelvic floor deserves special care and attention – these muscles are about to go on the journey of a lifetime and will be under more strain than ever before. Don’t tip the balance the wrong way by pushing weights that are too heavy. Put bluntly, incontinence could be the consequence.
Finally, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: pregnancy is a time of continual change and flux and so the key to safe pregnancy exercise is to always listen carefully to your body’s tell-tale signs. A mum-to-be’s instinct is a powerful thing indeed.
Dr Joanna Helcké is a multi-award winning specialist in pregnancy and postnatal fitness, writer, public speaker and co-chair of the Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to maintain high standards within the UK pregnancy fitness industry. She is the creator of the award winning FitBumpBox.
1. Marshall, J.E. and Raynor, M.D. (2020) Myles Textbook for Midwives. 17th ed. London: Elsevier