Mums-to-be, there are plenty of exercises you can do safely throughout your pregnancy. Here’s how to fine-tune your fitness routine, according to fitness professionals.
Neo Ko Hui was a school track star in her teens who went on to play touch rugby.
But when she found out she was pregnant eight years ago, the physical education teacher ended up “just walking for long periods of time”.
In contrast, her second pregnancy last year saw her running and lifting weights right up to her last trimester.
“I realised that it was easier to get back into shape if I maintained or lessened the more strenuous workouts. It was tough with the daily demands of work and taking care of my first child, but the importance of staying healthy by eating right and keeping active kept me going,” says the 37-year-old, who started with lighter intensity workouts in the first trimester before resuming her normal pace from the second trimester.
If you’ve always been active like Ko Hui and don’t have medical or obstetric complications, it’s perfectly safe to continue until you give birth.
According to guidelines by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise a day on most, if not all, days of the week is recommended.
“Exercise improves stamina and keep muscles supple, which help ease the progress of labour,” explains Dr Irene Chua, senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Irene Chua Clinic for Women. “It also helps strengthen back muscles to cope with weight gain in pregnancy, thus easing backaches.”
However, bear in mind that the changes in hormonal levels will inevitably affect your stamina, coordination and strength. So, always listen to your body, say fitness experts who work with expectant mums.
“Exercise also releases endorphins, which boost the mood and help one sleep better,” Dr Chua adds.
But if you’ve never or hardly worked out before, she advises that you consult your doctor and start only after the first trimester – ideally in a group or under the guidance of a qualified instructor.
Another advantage of joining a fitness class: mums-to-be can exchange pregnancy tips and experiences, and build a wonderful support network, says Cham Lay Peng, a yoga instructor at The Yoga School and Como Shambhala Urban Escape Singapore, who has been teaching prenatal yoga for eight years.
Here, we ask the industry experts to weigh in on different workouts.
If you were a regular runner before you got pregnant, chances are, you can still run a reasonable distance. If you feel up to it, you can run during any stage of your pregnancy, says Kareen Lai, a former PE teacher and founder of Mums In Sync, which designs fitness and nutrition programmes for pregnant women and new mums.
“But if your body says ‘this doesn’t feel right’ – stop and don’t push yourself. This is not the time to test the ‘no pain, no gain’ theory,” she adds.
To train your cardio fitness, consider doing other aerobic exercises such as aqua aerobics, swimming, rowing, indoor cycling, and using the elliptical machine. These activities are considered low-impact, which means they put little or no pressure on your joints.
Low-impact exercises like prenatal yoga help prepare your body (physically), breath (energetically) and mind (mentally) for labour, delivery and motherhood, says yoga instructor Lay Peng. You learn to relax, rather than tense up when you feel uncomfortable.
As a rule of thumb, avoid hot yoga – it may lead to overheating and pose problems for fetal development. Also steer clear of jumping movements, closed twists like revolving side angle pose, fast-flowing poses and poses that put pressure on the abdomen and uterus, such as boat, cobra, locust and bow.
If you have been doing inversions like handstands before you were pregnant, you may continue to do so provided you still feel comfortable. If you experience heart burn or any health condition during pregnancy, it’s best to refrain from turning upside down, advises Lay Peng.
New to yoga? Going for prenatal yoga classes is a great way to start, as long as you have medical clearance from your doctor. These are usually catered to all levels, and will introduce you to safe ways to do yoga, including proper breathing techniques, during pregnancy.
For safety reasons, most pilates studios advise going for prenatal classes instead of regular pilates classes. The prenatal classes are tailored to help relieve common pregnancy symptoms (think achy back) and to prepare the body for labour, says Audrey D’Cotta, founder and principal instructor of The Moving Body Group.
The main objectives include learning breathing techniques that will help you relax during labour, activating the core muscles safely, strengthening the arms and back for carrying baby, and improving control of the pelvic floor muscles to prevent urinary incontinence.
Expect a prenatal pilates class to be slower-paced, with an emphasis on stabilising and stretching specific muscles that become tighter during pregnancy. “In prenatal pilates, we focus on strengthening the glutes, hamstrings, quads, upper and lower back, deep abdominal muscles, chest, shoulders and neck muscles to create a strong support system for the body,” says Rohini Sardesai, a senior instructor at Breathe Pilates.
Exercises are done on a mat or the reformer machine, a carriage that comes with bars, springs and pulleys, allowing you to adjust the intensity to suit your needs. First-timers may be required to attend one-on-one introductory sessions before joining a prenatal pilates class.
Been doing your plies and passes much? You don’t have to cancel barre classes just because you’re nursing a bump. Boutique barre studio WeBarre offers prenatal barre classes that you can join from the first trimester till you pop. Regular barre students are advised to switch to the prenatal class after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Just like a typical barre class, WeBarre’s prenatal class will work your body from head to toe, especially the arms, legs, glutes and core. Various props, such as resistance tubes, resistance bands and pregnancy wedges, are used to reduce pressure on the joints and the rest of the body.
“Barre is great for prenatal women as it’s low-impact yet very effective in strengthening your stabilisers and balancing out the changes in your body. We focus a lot on posture and alignment to help mummies-to-be maintain good form,” says Linda Tang, WeBarre’s co-founder. “Besides total-body toning, the endorphins released from the barre burn will make you feel good, lengthened out and more energetic throughout your pregnancy.”
Is it safe to do core exercises during pregnancy? The short answer is yes, if you modify them. Exercises that involve going on all fours (on your hands and knees), and being in a seated or side lying position can be done with a range of motion you’re comfortable with, says Audrey D’Cotta of The Moving Body Group. If you’ve been planking pre-pregnancy, scale down by doing planks on your knees to avoid overworking the lower back.
“Avoid core exercises that are done in a supine position, or those that require you to curl or twist up against the weight of baby. These moves could cause back strain, cut off nutrients and oxygen supply to the foetus, and even cause the connective tissues at the abdominals to have a wider split than is normal, resulting in a condition called diastasis recti.”
As a rule of thumb, movements should be done in a smooth and controlled manner, without too much stress on the abdominals and lower back. Minimise high-impact activities that add extra load to the back and pelvic floor, as those may cause issues during pregnancy or post-partum period, advises Audrey.
IF YOU DON’T EXERCISE REGULARLY
Don’t be afraid to start being active now, says Kareen of Mums In Sync. A safe – and possibly the easiest – activity is walking. Just put on a pair of comfortable shoes, head out for a leisurely walk and take in some fresh air.
Your body temperature may be slightly higher during pregnancy, so bring a bottle of water with you, she says. Drink regularly to keep yourself hydrated and avoid activities under the afternoon sun.
Get fit safely
Exercise during pregnancy is important, but don’t overlook these safety tips, says physiotherapist Katherine Macfarlane.
• Start slow. Begin with as little as five minutes per day and add five minutes each week, until you can stay active for 30 minutes a day. You may find it useful to consult a physiotherapist who is used to helping expectant women exercise, for their advice on getting you started.
• Always warm up and cool down.
• After the first trimester, avoid doing exercises that require you to lie flat on your back.
• Avoid brisk exercise in hot, humid weather.
• Wear comfortable clothing that will help you remain cool.
• Wear a bra that fits well and gives lots of support (especially when your breasts become larger towards the third trimester).
• Drink plenty of water to help keep you from overheating and becoming dehydrated.
• Make sure you consume the extra calories you need daily.
• Empty your bladder before exercising. The combination of increased fluid intake and the pressure of the enlarged uterus on the bladder can lead to urinary incontinence.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2015 print edition of Young Parents, with the headline ‘Bump up your workout’.