By Chelsea Fuchs MS, Dietetic Intern at Teachers College, Columbia University
While my series of prenatal posts have mainly focused on achieving optimal nutrition during pregnancy, I thought it was also important to address another health related topic: physical activity. Many women are confused about how to exercise most effectively during and after pregnancy, and some are not even sure that it is safe to do so. The good news is that it is perfectly safe to exercise while pregnant. In fact, becoming active and exercising for at least 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week can actually benefit your health during pregnancy. A regular and predictable exercise routine can help to increase energy levels, improve mood, and may even improve your ability to cope with labor.
What type of activity to choose?
Walking is a terrific form of exercise for a pregnant woman because it is simple, efficient, and easy on the muscles. Other types of exercise to consider while pregnant include: prenatal yoga, swimming, cycling, and low impact aerobic activities. If you were a runner before getting pregnant, you can keep running during pregnancy, as long as you modify your routine. In terms of exercises to avoid, you will want to eliminate those activities where there is a high risk of falling, such as gymnastics, water skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding, and certain racquet sports. Contact sports like hockey, basketball, and soccer should also be avoided. After the first trimester of pregnancy, a pregnant woman should also eliminate any exercises that are performed on the back. Keep in mind that if it has been a while since you’ve exercised, it is best to start very slowly. Start with 5 minutes of exercise a day, and add 5 minutes each week until you can comfortably stay active at 30 minutes a day. Most importantly, listen to your body! The body is the best regulator and will let you know when to reduce your level of intensity.
Exercise with your baby
After the baby is born, and if everything went smoothly during pregnancy and delivery, most women are able to exercise a few weeks after having a child. Approval for resuming physical activity is usually obtained at the six-week checkup. Once you have the go-ahead from a health professional, the best strategy is to gradually return to a pre-pregnancy level of physical activity. Also, keep in mind that you can now include your baby into your exercise routine…taking a walk with the baby in the stroller counts as exercise! Many postnatal exercise classes will also allow mothers to bring their babies to class, and this helps new mothers to stay in a routine, meet new friends, and spend time with their baby.
Make it manageable
Of course, finding time to fit in exercise when you have a new baby can be quite challenging, so keep in mind that the thirty minutes of recommended exercise does not have to be continuous. Starting off with a ten-minute block of activity daily, and working your way up to at least three blocks of activity, is perfectly acceptable and effective. For example, consider taking a brisk walk at the mall while pushing your child in a stroller, going on a stationary bike a little later in the day, and then doing an exercise DVD at home for 10 minutes before dinner. Remember to stay adequately hydrated during exercise and to include light stretching before and after engaging in any sort of physical activity.
Be smart with breastfeeding routine
Breast-feeding mothers should try to nurse just before exercising for an extended period of time (approximately 30 minutes or more), as this is the best way to avoid any sort of discomfort and problems with acidity. Breast milk becomes more acidic from lactic acid, which is produced by working muscles, and many infants do not like the taste of this. Breast-feeding before engaging in prolonged physical activity will solve the acidity problem. Finally, be sure to hydrate properly before, during, and after exercise in order to ensure optimum performance.
Physical activity is important for building and toning muscles, increasing stamina and cardiovascular fitness, and enhancing mental health. This, along with eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will not only help a new mother get back into shape, but also provide her with the energy needed to keep up with the new addition to her family.
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Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During & After Pregnancy by Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.