Exercising while pregnant

with advice from Michael Fahmy, PT, OMPT
and Ann Cowlin, MA, CSM, CCE

Exercising while pregnant

Pregnancy is an exciting and challenging time for a woman. Along with her partner, she’s anticipating the addition of her child to her family. She’s reading constantly, trying to discern what advice to listen to and what to dismiss. She’s much more aware of her body, what she’s eating and how she takes care of it. Which often leads to the question: Should I exercise while I’m pregnant?

Women’s fitness expert Ann Cowlin and physical therapist Michael Fahmy say the answer is a definite yes — exercising while pregnant has been shown to benefit both mother and child.

According to Michael, babies born to women that exercised while pregnant have lower instances of “heart rate abnormalities, cord enlargement, and the presence of meconium and erythropoietin levels (all signs of hypoxia, or fetal distress).” Studies have also shown that exercise-exposed babies have healthier hearts and improved breathing movements in utero. Exercise enriches and enlarges the placenta, increasing the exchange of nutrients, oxygen and carbon dioxide with the fetus. And studies have shown that exercise during pregnancy leads to lower — and healthier — birth weights.

Michael points out that the center of gravity in a woman’s body shifts while she’s pregnant, increasing stress on muscles and joints, a key reason to exercise and strengthen while pregnant. Ann adds that strength training will help a woman’s metabolism and bones, while reducing her chance for preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. She’ll gain less weight, which will be beneficial for both mother and child. And the benefits extend to giving birth: Women who exercise during pregnancy often have shorter labors, experience less discomfort and recover faster than those who haven’t exercised. A small study even found that women who exercised during pregnancy were less likely to need an epidural.

Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program.Before a woman starts an exercise program, she should consult with her doctor about what is appropriate for her body and continue to monitor how her body reacts to exercise. Michael enunciates that “it is important to exercise at a level that is comfortable for the mother and does not stress either her body or the baby.”

Ann cautions to avoid sports with dangerous environmental factors, like scuba diving or downhill skiing. She also recommends “avoiding inverted positions in yoga, as they put you at a higher risk for an embolism,” and warns against lying on your back or standing still for long periods of time, as this can cause your blood pressure to drop.

There are several key areas that pregnant women should work on:

  • Abdominals. The transverse abdominal, your deep abdominal muscle, is key to giving birth. Ann says it’s this particular muscle that helps with pushing and, if strong before labor, will help you regain core strength after birth. She advises a hiss and compress exercise of exhaling while hugging the baby (compressing or pulling in the abdomen) to help strengthen this muscle.
  • Pelvic floor. Strengthening the pelvic floor is also important as it allows women to release the associated muscles during birth. Along with doing Kegel exercises, you can strengthen the area by doing squats and side lunges.
  • Back, butt and legs. Michael advises strengthening the gluteals and hamstrings to help cope with the change in your body’s alignment. He also advocates strengthening the upper back and spine, to help adjust to your body’s shifted center of gravity.
  • Flexibility. As the body adjusts to being pregnant, increased flexibility will reduce discomfort, especially in areas where realignment (and rearranged internal organs) has shortened muscles.

Dancing thru PregnancyIn 1979, Ann was asked by West Virginia University to help develop a prenatal exercise program. As a dancer with a master’s degree in kinesiology, she was an excellent candidate to work with pregnant coal miners’ wives to improve their health. The program, Dancing thru Pregnancy, was immediately a success and adopted by Yale University as part of their prenatal program in 1981.

Ann is proud of how the classes have “combined all of the safe and effective exercise components (aerobic, strength and mind/body) into one seamless, enjoyable and productive session.” And she quickly points out their dedication to staying on top of the latest research: “Our teachers are trained to follow research in pre- and postnatal exercise, so they can include exercises that help, and avoid dangerous or ineffective components.” DTP has also been a part of clinical studies to examine the effects of exercise on pregnant women, and Ann is happy to see time after time that women who work with Dancing thru Pregnancy classes advocate the strength and community they gain from their classes.

Michael is excited to begin offering Dancing thru Pregnancy classes at his physical therapy clinics, OMPT Specialists, in Michigan. He says, “Local OB/GYN physicians asked us to provide exercise classes for pregnant women. We needed to make sure that the classes we provided to those clients were specific and evidence-based. We found that at DTP.” It took six months for their clinic to be certified as a Dancing thru Pregnancy location, underscoring DTP’s commitment to training and education before offering these classes.

To find DTP classes near you, visit www.dancingthrupregnancy.com/take-a-class/find-a-class-or-trainer.

Michael Fahmy, PT, OMPT, is a physical therapist and the co-owner and founder of OMPT Specialists, a Physiquality network physical therapy clinic with locations in Southfield and Troy, Michigan. Michael’s team will be offering Dancing thru Pregnancy classes at both locations starting in August 2011.

Ann Cowlin, MA, CSM, CCE, is the creator of Dancing thru Pregnancy, one of Physiquality’s partner programs. Ann is the author of Women’s Fitness Program Development, a guide to creating girls’ and women’s health and fitness programming, and is the expert consultant for the U.S. Army’s Pregnancy and Postpartum Train the Trainer Program.

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For further reading, look through our selection of articles on women’s health, in addition to the below links:

Ball, Nicole. Ann Cowlin: A prenatal fitness pioneer celebrates 30 years of work. Branford Patch, June 16, 2011.

Kegel exercises. American Pregnancy Association, June 2011.

Reynolds, Gretchen. Exercising for two. New York Times, April 13, 2011.

Mostofi, Loretta. Pregnancy and exercise. iFitFamily.com, March 20, 2011.

Powell, Kendall. Pregnancy myths. Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2011.

Pizer, Ann. Yoga poses to avoid when pregnant. About.com, May 26, 2010.

Roan, Shari. Exercise in pregnancy leads to lower (still healthy) birth weight. Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2010.

Exercise-exposed fetuses have improved breathing movements in utero, a marker for healthy development. The American Physiological Society, April 17, 2009.

Cowlin, Ann, Robin Brancato Ovozek, Gil Mor, et al. Effect of a community dance program on the rate of preeclampsia in pregnancy. Dancing thru Pregnancy, 2008.

Bakalar, Nicholas. Having a baby: Exercise may reduce need for an epidural. New York Times, December 1, 2008.

Puliti, Beth. Oh, baby! Exercise during pregnancy benefits mothers-to-be and their developing infants. ADVANCE for PTs and Physical Therapy Assistants, December 1, 2008.

Pregnancy exercise tips. Dancing thru Pregnancy.

Wilusz, Amy. Working out for two. ADVANCE for PTs and Physical Therapy Assistants, June 16, 2008.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.