Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy (+6 Moves to Get Started)

August 23, 2015 Updated: September 11, 2015

Although it’s been widely acknowledged for decades that exercise throughout pregnancy greatly benefits both mom and baby, I still meet women who think they should take it easy and avoid lifting weights.

Below are four benefits of exercise first proven by James F. Clapp III, M.D., in the ’70s and ’80s. Clapp is a pioneer researcher on exercise and pregnancy, author of the book “Exercising Through Your Pregnancy,” and still considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject today.

1. Better Circulation and Post-Baby Fitness

During pregnancy, the elasticity and volume of a woman’s circulatory system increase to support the needs of the developing baby. This causes a reduction in the amount of blood returning to the heart and the amount of blood the heart pumps out.

Regular exercise during pregnancy improves allows more oxygen and nutrients to get across to the baby.

As a result, blood pressure drops and the body recognizes that the vascular system is under-filled. While the body is adjusting to this change, the woman may experience sudden fatigue, a racing pulse, nausea, unusually pale skin, sweating, and dizziness, especially when getting up quickly or when standing.

Many studies have shown that exercise increases blood circulation, the ability of the body to dissipate heat, and the delivery of oxygen to the tissues. Therefore, women who exercise regularly during pregnancy have an easier time dealing with the above-mentioned symptoms of vascular under-fill.

In addition, both pregnancy and exercise improve the ability of oxygen utilization. Regular exercise during pregnancy improves gas transfer through the tissues, allowing more oxygen and nutrients to get across to the baby. This results in the faster growth and better function of the placenta than those who are healthy but don’t exercise regularly.

During pregnancy the heart and lungs are working hard. Combine that with exercise and you can build a training technique that will help you perform better post pregnancy! This explains reports of female athletes’ enhanced performance after birth.

2. Limited Weight Gain

To support the growing baby, mom’s metabolic rate increases by 15–20 percent. This increase in metabolic rate and regular exercise combined can increase the use of fat as an energy source. So if a woman exercises consistently at a moderate-intensity during pregnancy she will experience limited weight gain and fat deposition, which is good for both mom and baby.

But moms-to-be need to make sure they eat at least every three hours if they plan to exercise because of the suppression of glucose during pregnancy and the increased insulin sensitivity that regular exercise produces. If food intake is sporadic, there can therefore be a decrease in the glucose available to the baby.

If you are worried about excessive weight gain a good rule of thumb for pregnant women is to gain 1/2–1 1/2 pounds per week. The optimal range of weight gain during pregnancy is 25–35 pounds. The preferred scenario is to gain 4–6 pounds in the first trimester, 11–15 pounds in the second trimester, and 11–15 pounds in the third trimester.

3. Easier Pregnancy and Delivery

With regular exercise, women can experience an easier pregnancy. Exercise lowers the incidence of symptoms like back pain, constipation, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, swelling, urinary incontinence, varicose veins, leg cramps, gestational diabetes, pregnancy-induced hypertension, diastasis recti (when the rectus abdominal muscles at the front of the abdomen separate along the midline), blood clots deep in the veins, and pelvic and rectal pressure.

Women who continue regular weight bearing exercises during pregnancy also experience easier labors. These women have a lower incidence of induced labors, episiotomies, abnormal fetal heart rates, and cesareans. Researchers also find a reduction in the overall duration of labor, which is enough to make any pregnant woman exercise! Not to mention, exercising women tend to recover more quickly after birth.

4. Helps Balance Emotions

Hormonal changes during pregnancy can make women quite emotional. Many suffer from anxiety and depression as their bodies undergo huge changes.

The pressures of being a new mom can also be overwhelming and there may also be career changes, family dynamics, or financial issues to deal with.

Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating well, and practicing deep breathing and relaxation techniques for labor can be helpful. Diaphragmatic breathing relaxes muscles, improves blood flow to the abdominal region, and calms the nervous system.

These will all go a long way to helping relax the pelvic floor for an easier delivery.

If you plan to exercise when pregnant make sure to get clearance from your doctor first. The exercises below can be beneficial, however, they may not be for everyone, so only do those you are comfortable with.

If you’re new to exercise and want to start while pregnant, finding a qualified trainer who is knowledgeable about prenatal workouts is more than worth it. 

Single Leg Cross-Overs

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This exercise is good for maintaining balance, which can be altered during pregnancy. It is also a good warm-up.

Exercise lowers the incidence of symptoms like back pain, constipation, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, swelling, and varicose veins.
  • Stand tall with hands on hips. Lift one leg up so you’re balancing on one foot, this is your single leg stance.
  • Then cross the lifted leg over the body and tap the toe on the floor to the front and side of your standing foot. Bring your lifted leg back and send it out to the side to tap the floor again. Return to single leg stance and repeat the tap pairs 10–15 times before switching with other leg.

Goblet Squats

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This exercise will help prepare you for labor by keeping your pelvic floor strong and strengthening back muscles, which tend to weaken during pregnancy.

If done right, it will also help you maintain correct alignment in your pelvis, which will keep the spine in a healthy position.

It is imperative that this exercise be done with proper technique—keeping the pelvis centered, neither tilted forward or back—to avoid strain to the sacroiliac joint and pelvic floor.

  • Stand tall with feet slightly wider than hips. Toes can point out to the side 10–15 degrees if necessary. Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell close to your chest. Women may want to hold kettlebells bottom up to protect the breasts. The weight you choose will depend on your comfort and whether your are experiencing any ligament pain. If you were squatting pre-pregnancy, definitely use a lighter weight while you’re carrying.
  • Take a breath in and send your hips back and down to your full range of motion, which is ideally buttocks to heels.
  • Press into your heels to return back to standing. Make sure to keep your back tall and chest open. Never round your spine when you’re lifting weight.
  • Aim to perform 10 squats.

TRX Suspension Cable Rows

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This exercise will work your core and back to help counter the effects pregnancy can have on posture.

  • Attach the suspension cable to a secure object.
  • Grab the handles and walk your feet forward to a comfortable yet challenging distance so you can perform the row without buckling your torso (You want to hold your body in one straight line with your abdominals and buttocks engaged like you would in a plank position.)
  • Retract and depress your shoulder blades as you bend your elbows to pull your body up.
  • Squeeze your armpits together and do not let the elbows go behind the ribcage as this will let the shoulders move too far forward. Hold for a count of 2. Perform as many as you can do well.

Tall Kneeling Palloff Press

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  • This is a good exercise for core stabilization. It will keep your abdominals strong, which is important because they also tend to weaken during pregnancy.
  • You can use cables or attach a resistance band to a secure object. Set the cable or band at about shoulder height when you are on your knees. You may want to place cushioning under your knees. Assume a tall kneeling position with ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, and hips over knees.
  • Brace your abdominals, grab the cable or band in both hands and pull it so your hands are directly in front and close to your sternum.
  • Straighten your elbows, pressing the cable or band directly out from your sternum without changing your body position.
  • Hold for 3 seconds then bring the cable or band back in toward your chest. Repeat pressing out and back in.
  • Do this 10 times and then turn around to so the resistance comes from the opposite side. 

Side Plank

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This is a core strengthening exercise and great for back rehabilitation.

Moms-to-be need to make sure they eat at least every three hours if they plan to exercise.
  • Lie on your side. Flex your feet so you have a platform to balance on. You can also put one foot in front of the other for a wider base, or place your feet against the wall. Your other balance point will be your forearm. Place the elbow under the shoulder.
  • Brace you abdominals and buttocks, press away from the floor and lift your body up off the floor. Your spine should be in one line and shoulders directly on top of one another.
  • Hold for 7–8 seconds. Do three to five planks on both sides.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise

  • Sit up comfortably with good posture. You can sit on pillows, roll up a towel or yoga blanket, or sit on a stability ball (unless you have back pain). You can also sit with your back against a wall for support.
  • Inhale as you count to four, then exhale for four counts. Pause for four counts before your next inhale. Then repeat the entire sequence. Stay with this for 1–2 minutes. Be aware of places in your torso that feel tight, maybe the ribcage, and try to send the breath into these areas.
  • Then if you feel ready, increase the breath count to five and perform for another 1–2 minutes.
  • Continue so on to six and higher at your own pace.
  • Return to your normal breathing and notice the difference in how you feel. Sit quietly and breathe naturally for 1 minute.

 Ashley Whitson is an ACE-certified personal trainer, Pilates-certified instructor, pre- and postnatal exercise specialist, Functional Movement Systems professional, Neurokinetic Therapy practitioner, and professional dancer in New York. For more information, see AshleyWhitsonPersonalTrainerNYC.com