Pregnancy and exercise

Many expectant mothers are confused about the what, where and how of exercise during pregnancy. It is important to remember that pregnancy is a normal condition and not an illness, thus for most women it is possible to stay active and continue their sport or activity through the majority of their pregnancy.

There seem to be a lot of common trends at present in social media where women are pushing their bodies to the extreme and doing exercises that are much more challenging that the status quo historically would agree with. It is extremely important to remember that most of these women have come from a high level of strength and endurance, that every body is different, and also that when it comes to instagram… a picture can also paint a thousand words.

There are many benefits to exercising during pregnancy, and in fact, the current Australian current guidelines recommend it!

Benefits of Exercise

Exercising whilst pregnant improves cardiovascular fitness, weight control, sleep, circulation, self-esteem and psychological well-being. Exercise is also associated with lower risks of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and pre-term birth. It can also be helpful in preventing or alleviating any musculoskeletal complaints such as back pain, which maybe associated with the pregnancy, and often, can improve post-partum recovery.

Changes to the pregnant body

A woman’s body is undergoing constant mechanical, physiological and emotional changes throughout her pregnancy. The most obvious change is weight gain (average 10-15kg), which leads the centre of gravity to be shifted forward. This can affect balance and put strain on the back and pelvis. It is for this reason that care should be taken with any challenging balance or agility type exercise during pregnancy.

A pregnant woman will experience an increase in resting heart rate (HR), and also a decrease in maximal heart rate, so it is important to not use your previous maximal HR as a guide for exertion.

A hormone called relaxin is released during pregnancy, which causes increased laxity of ligaments, especially around the pelvis. As one can imagine, this is very important in preparing for childbirth, but care should be taken with change in direction (agility exercise) and excessive stretching during activity.

The volume of blood in the body, as well as its capacity to carry around oxygen increases during pregnancy to aid the growing foetus. These are all great advantages when it comes to fitness, although they are commonly offset by increasing weight and ligament laxity. These changes may continue on for a couple of weeks after birth, so if return to safe exercise is on the cards, it could feel pretty good!

Current guidelines:

The current guidelines recommend approximately 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week.

Generally speaking, women who have exercised prior to becoming pregnant can continue higher intensity exercise, however it is important to remember that now is not the time to be breaking PBs.

If the mother has not exercised for some time or at all, it is safe to embark on an exercise program but it should have slow and steady progressions, and guidance with a medical or fitness professional is recommended.

Suggested exercises may include:

  • walking
  • swimming and aqua aerobics
  • pilates
  • stationary cycling
  • strength training with low weights and medium-high repetitions
  • yoga
  • jogging or running – if this was already an activity prior to pregnancy and should be discontinued during the 2nd and 3rd trimester due to the impact on pelvic floor and the pelvis.
  • Squats and sitting on your haunches. These exercises don’t necessarily need to be with weights, but are great for practicing a deep squat with varied foot and hip positions, which as you can imagine, might be favourable in preparation for labour and the duties of parenthood!

Activities to avoid during pregnancy are:

  • Contact sports and activities, or those with a high chance of falling
  • Heavy weights and lots of high stress abdominal exercises are best to avoid during this time as these exercise place a huge amount of unnecessary stress on the body
  • Jumping exercises, especially later in the pregnancy, as it place increased stress on the pelvic floor muscles, which are already under a lot of stress.
  • Lying on your back for prolonged periods of time, especially after the first trimester. An alternative can be using an incline bench or swiss ball.
  • Extreme high temperatures, for example bikram yoga


  • Listen to your body!! If something doesn’t feel right, stop and seek advice.
  • Stay hydrated and keep calorie intake up especially if exercising over prolonged period of time
  • Ensure adequate sleep and rest
  • Avoid high heat and humidity
  • If doing a class, always alert the instructor to the fact you are pregnant
  • Be flexible and adaptable to change in training programs and expectations

When to alter your exercise or seek advice:

  • Abdominal cramps or chest pain
  • Vaginal bleeding or amniotic fluid leakage
  • Shortness of breath before exertion or to an excessive level
  • Dizziness, light-headedness, headache, excessive fatigue
  • Muscle weakness affecting balance
  • Calf pain and swelling

Post Partum – Returning to exercise:

Some women can return to some sort of activity within days after childbirth. It is very important to remember again to listen to your body and not to push it too hard.  Pelvic floor activation can start almost immediately, with gentle core and walking also a good choice to return to. Return to medium-high intensity can occur at approximately six weeks. It is important to note here that as every birth experience is different, so is the recovery. These guidelines are more so directed towards those without any surgical interventions and thus it’s recommended to seek professional advice if you have concerns.

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