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August 4, 2016

Why Pretending to be an Olympian is Great News for Pregnant Women!

On the eve of the Olympic Games, independent midwife Kay Hardie considers the benefits of exercise in pregnancy.

The Rio Olympics start this week and our attention will be focused on elite athletes at their peak fitness, competing in their chosen sports.

It got me thinking about women athletes who could have been pregnant during the Olympics.  Turns out there have been at least seventeen who knew they were pregnant when they were competing and it didn’t stop them! What an inspiration these women are for us lesser mortals when it comes to physical activity at any time.

I get asked all the time about whether this sport or that gym session will be safe, and my answer has always been a resounding yes. A Cochrane review (Kramer et al. 2006) about physical activity in pregnancy shows that regular aerobic exercise maintains or improves fitness.

 “Training and exercise made me feel in control of my pregnancy by making positive changes to my body and continuing to be fit and healthy.”

Georgia Simmons, Essex

So why is fitness in pregnancy good for a pregnant woman? Being fit and active makes you feel good, reduces stress and gives you more energy. And being active in the day can help you sleep better at night. It can also help you manage weight gain during pregnancy and shift those extra baby pounds after birth, and common pregnancy problems like backache and constipation are reduced.

 “I trained during pregnancy as it’s an essential part of my life plus it helped my energy levels and after I trained my morning sickness would go away.”

Kizzy Doyle, Kent

But there’s even bigger reason, in my opinion, for pregnant women to embrace regular exercise, which just blew me away! Exercise decreases the risk for gestational diabetes by a whopping 25% (Tobias, Zhang et al. 2011) and the risk is reduced by 55% if women exercise regularly before getting pregnant. Up to 15% of pregnancies are complicated with this condition making pregnancy risker, more medicalised, and often a miserable experience for women.

“I started walking daily after I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and I’m sure that stopped me being put on tablets.”

Debbie Beaven, East Sussex

So does exercise make birth quicker and easier? I couldn’t find any direct research evidence that links one directly to the other – what exactly does quick or easy mean anyway and how would we measure that? Women most certainly have a view about this however. Georgia again: ‘I had a difficult labour but I certainly think the fitness levels meant I coped better’.

Women who are fitter, stronger and without pregnancy complications are more likely to go into labour naturally without medical interventions. Kizzy says ‘Because I remained fit and strong throughout my pregnancies I had two perfect births with no complications and recovered from both birth quickly. Best experiences of my life!’

And labour and birth is emotionally as well as physically challenging. Georgia thinks ‘that being fit gives you a level of mental focus, because you are used to pushing through pain’.

Guidance from NHS Choices, RCOG (2006) and ACOG (2016) offer guidance to pregnant women to incorporate moderate to vigorous physical activity into their routines and suggest 30 minutes 4 times a week or more.

So what sort of exercise can pregnant women easily incorporate into their daily activities? Brisk walking, jogging, climbing stairs, dancing are free and easy for everyone.

If women go to exercise classes what should they look out for? Pip Black, director of Frame, is an expert. She and business partner Joan Murphy created Frame Bumps when they were pregnant and couldn’t find anything out there for them to do.

“Working your legs, glutes, shoulders and arms is absolutely fine. The areas to be careful of are your abdominal muscles… less abs and more butt work!”

Pip Black

Pip advises letting an instructor know you’re pregnant if it’s a general course, so they can modify exercises specifically which use the core. Dancing, Aerobics, Body Conditioning classes are all great in the first half of pregnancy.

During the second trimester women usually feel full of energy.

“I felt the fittest in my second trimester than is have in my whole life. I adapted my training as my bump got bigger for lower impact training and pilates was a great addition to my cardio and weight training.”

Kizzy Doyle, Kent

Pip advises ‘Bear in mind that relaxin in your joints will mean you are less stable and the extra pressure from your baby’s weight on joints can lead to injury’. Georgia says ‘I did mainly weight training and just avoided anything that put too much strain on my core, hips and pelvic region.’

‘(The third trimester) is a good time to think about non-weight bearing exercise such as swimming and pregnancy yoga’.

Pip Black

Other great tips from Pip are investing in a proper sports bra and then some shoulder-bearing sports tops to flatter and show off those awesome arms.

And what about risks and sports to avoid? A big dose of good old common sense. Avoiding excessive sweating and exhaustion, drinking extra fluids and listening to your body will ensure safety. Most pregnant women would likely avoid contacts sports such as kick-boxing, judo or rugby, for example, where there is a risk of being kicked and injured. Additionally, it is wise to avoid sports when you might fall, such as horseback riding and skiing – though I skiied when I was 4 months pregnant and loved it.

So, if your pregnant right now and aren’t exercising at all, why not start with a brisk walk with a friend so you’re out of breath but can still chat to her – remember that huge drop in risk for gestational diabetes. And if you are, well done and keep it up.

And finally…… most of us will never compete in the Olympics, but holding your baby in your arms for the first time, feels like winning gold!!




ACOG FAQ119 Exercise During Pregnancy ACOG 2016

Kramer, M.S and S.W. McDonald (2006) ‘Aerobic exercise for women during pregnancy’ Cochrane Database Syst Rev (3): CD000180

RCOG Exercise in Pregnancy. London: RCOG 2006

Tobias, D.K, C.Zhang, et al. (2011) ‘Physical activity before and during pregnancy and the risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: a meta-analysis’ Diabetes Care 34 (1):223-229

On the eve of the Olympic Games, independent midwife Kay Hardie considers the benefits of exercise in pregnancy. The Rio Olympics start this week and our attention will be focused on elite athletes at their peak fitness, competing in their chosen sports. It got me thinking about women athletes who could have been pregnant during […]

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