Kristy David, 28, has been a runner all her life, rarely missing her favourite early morning routine on the promenade along Elliott’s Beach in Chennai. So much so that the habit has seeped into her DNA and she doesn’t feel quite right without it. Now that she is pregnant, going through her first trimester, she is worried about whether running, while making her feel on top of things, can actually help or hurt her foetus. She worries if her daily jog would induce untimely labour or cause a miscarriage. Many would-be mothers face this question of whether it is safe to exercise during the first trimester or during any time of pregnancy.
But what many do not know is that in the absence of any other complications, pregnant women, particularly those who have been in active workout and gym routines, actually benefit from continuing them as before. In fact, many case studies have shown how women who exercise, jog and run have easier labour, recover quicker and feel better post-partum. What’s more, their babies may end up being born brainier! Says Dr Neema Sharma, Director, Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj, “It’s recommended that pregnant women do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercises a week. In general, if you’re healthy and your pregnancy is normal, it’s safe to exercise. So, all those who were already running regularly before pregnancy can continue while pregnant. It is very important to stay fit during pregnancy as exercise helps in controlling blood sugar, blood pressure, emotions, mood swings and in ensuring normal delivery.”
Why running or jogging is good for the expectant mother
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists ACOG) recommends exercise throughout pregnancy—at least 20 to 30 minutes a day on most or all days. Doing so, it says, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes, pre-term birth, pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure) and a caesarean section.
“Exercising can help a woman stay in shape and prepare the body for labour and delivery while reducing the risk of a C-section delivery, having a low birth weight baby or a pre-term birth. Additionally, it can also have several other health benefits like reducing backaches, constipation, bloating, swelling or boosting one’s mood and energy levels. It helps an expectant woman sleep better and promote muscle tone, strength and endurance,” says Dr Mannan Gupta, gynaecologist and IVF expert and MD, Elantis Healthcare, New Delhi.
In case of a normal pregnancy, moderate intensity exercises and aerobic activities like brisk walking and slow-jogging are not only safe but are also needed for the health of the foetus. “During the first trimester, the embryo is getting attached to the uterus to receive the proper nutrients and conditioning. Moderate-intensity exercises like walking, swimming and modified yoga (according to the individual body) are some of the safer forms of exercise in pregnancy, providing support to the body, reducing stress, improving flexibility and promoting focussed breathing,” she adds.
How much exercise is needed?
Dr Gupta recommends fit women to do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercises on most days of the week. “Brisk walking is known to be an excellent form of exercise, offering mild aerobic conditioning while putting little strain on your joints,” says she. Dr Sharma suggests that “women who never exercise and have a sedentary lifestyle should begin with slow walks. Then they can go up to doing yoga and pre-natal exercises.”
Pregnancy is an absolutely normal condition during which the woman is allowed to do her routine physical activities provided she has plenty of water and sufficient calories for both the foetus and herself. “There is no evidence of restricted physical activity in pregnancy unless the woman has some history of multiple miscarriages or twins or history of pre-term delivery,” says Dr Gupta. She has a word of warning against overdoing things. “Exercises like heavy weightlifting and high intensity aerobic activities like running, resulting in overexertion, can have several harmful effects in the development of the baby. Exercising too much or too intensely can put pressure on the uterus and the body.”
What about contraindications?
Of course, any physical activity is good provided there are no contra-indications. As Dr Sharma says, “There are certain contra-indications like bleeding during the first trimester. Study the ultrasound to see if there is some kind of bleeding around the baby. One has to be careful if one has a shorter mouth of the uterus or cervical length. Pregnancies with twins, triplets or low-lying placenta demand a customised care routine. Patients with pre-term labour history, low haemoglobin, high BP, cervical stitches should not risk running or jogging.”
Precautions for exercising
Of course, it is always advisable to be safe during exercising. “Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You are swelling up, so you may need to buy a bigger size of shoes and clothes. Choose supportive innerwear and bands. Drink plenty of water 30 minutes before your routine as you need it to build amniotic fluid, higher blood volume, ease digestion and remove waste. If you are exercising rigorously and not gaining weight, then you need to modify your diet. Avoid overheating your body while exercising. Avoid standing straight and lying flat. Posture should be right or left lateral position,” advises Dr Sharma.
What problems can occur during your exercises
Anaemia and weight gain can cause breathing difficulties. “You are already working your body harder. This is not a competition. So do take those breaks in between. Fatigue is a common symptom in early pregnancy because of hormones. Sometimes it is difficult to keep running in the first trimester because of nausea and fatigue. The second trimester may be better without the nausea while the third makes your run uncomfortable,” says Dr Gupta. Even competitive runners reduce their training during pregnancy. A study of 110 long-distance competitive runners found that only 31 per cent ran during their third trimester. On average, they cut their training intensity by about half. If you do not overdo things and work with your doctor, then running may actually help you sail through the nine months.