Research shows that being physically active during pregnancy is beneficial for overall health and delivery-related outcomes.
Some of these health benefits include:
- less weight gain
- lower risk of gestational diabetes
- postnatal depression.
An exercise professional specialising in pregnancy, Mary Bacon, says maintaining strength and flexibility through regular exercise also improves the comfort of women during pregnancy. “The benefits of being active right up until labour are huge; less back pain, better digestion and therefore less constipation and a minimised chance of sciatica.”
While the health benefits of remaining active during pregnancy are widely documented, minimal research existed that explored the role of exercise on labour complications and mode of delivery. A recent study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology aimed to address this gap.
The study involved a systematic review of 16 randomly controlled trials, with conclusions based on the data of 3,359 women. The key findings of the study are as follows:
- Women who engaged in exercise programs had a 15% lower risk of having a caesarean section, when compared to inactive women.
- Expectant women who engaged in exercise groups gained on average 1.2kgs less weight than those not in exercise groups, indicating positive effects on gestational weight gain.
- There was no difference in length of labour, perineal tear or use of pain medications during delivery.
Insufficient information could be drawn from the studies to establish the specific volume (i.e. duration, frequency or intensity) of physical activity related to these outcomes. Fitness Australia spoke to Bacon about her recommendations for training pregnant women.
Recommendations to trainers
Before commencing an exercise program with an expectant mother, trainers should advise their client to consult their doctor. Once a client is deemed fit and healthy for exercise, Bacon says trainers should encourage their clients to be active for 30 minutes per day. If a client has previously been inactive this should be reduced to 15 minutes of moderate exercise per day. “The role of the trainer isn’t limited to their face-to-face training session. Trainers should sit down with their client and plan out how they can be active each day of the week.”
When designing a program for an expectant mother, Bacon says trainers shouldn’t reinvent the workout, but should maintain activities the individual prefers and is used to. “It’s important that the program offers a balanced approach to activity, allowing for adequate rest and recovery.”
As a woman moves through each of the trimesters, trainers must modify their workouts to accommodate the changes in a client’s body.
- 1st trimester: Week one to 12 – During this period mothers often feel sick or have low energy. Between week eight and 13 the baby’s organs are formed and so the mother’s heart rate needs to be kept low. Bacon recommends low intensity fat burning exercises, maintaining a heart rate that is appropriate to the client.
- 2nd trimester: Week 12 to 24 – This is the best time to train a pregnant woman. Bacon says, they are no longer sick, are generally sleeping better and aren’t too big yet. During this time women can be trained quite normally.
- 3rd trimester: Week 24 to 40 weeks – Training during this time depends entirely on the individual client and how comfortable they are training.
In her own sessions with pregnant clients, the key focus areas for Bacon are stretching sessions with particular focus on the lower back, glute strengthening movements and pelvic floor exercises. “My number one direction for trainers is to work on the stability and strength in their client’s pelvis and hips. This avoids back problems and tight hips, both of which have implications on comfortable movement and sleep.”
To keep clients motivated during this exhausting and often uncomfortable period, Bacon says trainers need to go above and beyond to keep in contact and keep their clients accountable. “If a client finds it difficult to include exercise in their schedule or is juggling more than one child, trainers could organise to train them from their home.”
Read our Pre & Post-Natal Exercise Guidelines for guidance on how to work with your clients.