Pregnant women can experience a variety of discomforts while tiny embryos are taking shape as miniature human beings. Fatigue, back pain, sluggish digestive systems, swollen ankles and low energy levels are just a few indications of how the body struggles to adapt to this biological miracle. Some experts feel that a woman's overall fitness can have a significant impact on how pleasant or difficult her gestational experience might be, and that exercise can be a key factor.
"A combined program of cardiovascular training, strengthening, stretching or yoga keeps a mom feeling good through the various aches and pains of pregnancy, as well as boosting mental well-being," says Ashland physician Jani Rollins, who specializes in obstetrics, pediatrics and family care. "It also helps keep her body weight in the desired range, which helps prevent gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during pregnancy."
Chances of staying within the guidelines of a 25-to 35-pound weight gain are much improved if some of those "gotta-have-ice-cream" calories are balanced with some energy-burning exertion.
Regular and appropriate exercise during pregnancy can not only alleviate some of the more unpleasant aspects of hormonal upheaval, but can also improve physical strength and stamina for the rigors of the birthing process.
"Exercise is beneficial because labor is a lot like running a marathon, and if you're a little bit trained, in general, that means you have a lot better stamina, a better response to pain and are more used to physical discomfort," says Dr. Alan Binette of Women's Specialty Group in Medford.
This is not to say pregnant women should rush headlong into spending hours on the treadmill or tromping the hillsides in their neighborhoods. While the benefits of exercise are many, a few cautionary measures must be taken when there's a baby on board. A careful evaluation of possible risk factors must be considered before arriving gung-ho, water bottle in hand, at the local gym.
"There is a dark side when people overdo it. I've had some athletes who overdo exercise, causing babies to be born with low birth weight," cautions Dr. Dan Tomlinson of Medford Women's Clinic. He strongly recommends staying within the guidelines of 15 minutes of aerobic exercise followed by a five-minute break, then another 15 minutes of exercise.
"The (mother's) heartbeat should not be allowed to go over 130 beats per minute," he says.
During physical exertion, increased demand for oxygen can redirect blood flow away from internal organs, such as the uterus, toward extremities. Keeping your heart rate within recommended guidelines ensures adequate circulation of oxygen to the fetus.
Moderating activity level also keeps body temperatures from becoming dangerously elevated. Internal temperatures in excess of 101 degrees can have a negative effect on fetal development. Extra care should be taken in hot summer months to stay cool and well-hydrated.
Many expectant mothers are sensitive to hormonal turmoil and experience psychological, as well as biological, challenges. Increased physical activity goes a long way toward improving the body's ability to get a good night's sleep. Adequate rest promotes renewed energy, a brighter outlook and a greater capacity to deal with mood swings.
An interesting phenomenon during pregnancy is how the body adapts to making room for its tiny resident. Balance and stability can be affected by a growing tummy and changes in posture as weight is redistributed.
"You lose a little coordination, and your body mechanics aren't quite there. Usually around 34 to 36 weeks, you have to scale back anyway. Early on, and into the second trimester, is the best time for exercise," explains Binette.
Strenuous activities requiring speed, agility and balance should all be avoided until after the blessed event. Doctors generally agree that better choices for your baby include more sedate options like yoga, Pilates, walking and swimming.
"Moms-to-be go through a lot while they're pregnant — so many physical changes, and their hormones are raging," says Mary Ann Corallo, owner of Rasa Center for Yoga and Wellness in Medford, which offers classes for expectant moms. "In terms of exercise, prenatal yoga is definitely about breathing and physically getting ready for labor. It has very specific exercises."
In addition to the physical benefits, yoga can enhance mental preparation during pregnancy, she says.
"It's also about being able to calm oneself and send energy and thoughts toward easing a particular discomfort or pain. There's a certain awareness and consciousness that goes on during yoga, and the exercises release endorphins and open up neuro pathways to the brain," explains Corallo.
"My experience has been, in my 25 years of practice, exercise is almost always beneficial, assuming there are no medical risks," says Binette. "Staying reasonably active is always a good choice."
It is advisable to consult with your obstetrician or health care professional before implementing or continuing your workout regimen during pregnancy.