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Monday Medical: Exercise during pregnancy

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

When you’re pregnant, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. But it’s an important part of maintaining physical and mental health and has far-reaching benefits for you and your baby.

Jennifer Allen, a certified nurse midwife with UCHealth Women’s Care Clinic in Steamboat Springs, outlines what you need to know about exercise and pregnancy below.

Benefits to mom and baby

Exercise minimizes weight gain, maintains cardiovascular health, improves sleep and can decrease rate of Cesarean delivery.

“By talking about the importance of exercise early on during pregnancy or before pregnancy, it helps us empower the patient to have some control over outcomes and to have the healthiest pregnancy possible,” Allen said.

Exercise can decrease lower back pain, which is one of the most common complaints that Allen hears from pregnant women, and can lower the risk for both mom and baby of developing diabetes during a pregnancy.

“There’s also less risk of blood pressure problems and fewer low-birth weight babies,” Allen said. “Any pregnant woman living at altitude has an increased risk for both conditions.”

How to exercise

Allen recommends 30 minutes of exercise that elevates your heart rate, five to seven times a week. But just how much your heart rate should increase depends on the individual.

“Everybody comes to pregnancy at a different level of conditioning,” Allen said. “The best guide is that it should be somewhat of a challenge, but a woman should easily be able to carry on a light conversation. That means she’s continuing to oxygenate her baby.”

Allen recommends choosing an activity that you enjoy and can consistently do throughout the entire pregnancy.

“I have personally found that if a woman chooses something that becomes more difficult as pregnancy progresses, she may stop altogether instead of choosing another exercise,” Allen said. 

Swimming and water aerobics can be a good choice. Or, try Allen’s favorite recommendation: ride a stationary recumbent bike while using hand weights.

“It’s easy to buy a cheap, used recumbent bike, and you can put it in your living room and have no excuses, no matter what the weather is like,” Allen said.

Exercise precautions

When exercising outdoors, bring a buddy in case the need for help arises. And avoid activities that have a risk of falling.

“Unfortunately, that includes skiing and biking,” Allen said. “Even if you’re an expert skier or biker, your balance changes so drastically during pregnancy. And falling one time can completely risk a pregnancy.”

While walking isn’t a bad option, Allen reminds women that it can be hard during winter with snow and ice and may not increase heart rate enough. Yoga also may not increase heart rate enough, but it is great for stretching and helping prepare for delivery.

The altitude affect

Allen recommends women don’t travel above 8,500 feet during pregnancy and don’t exercise at altitude unless they’ve acclimated for four or five days.

“Theoretically, it decreases oxygenation to the baby,” Allen said. “Women will say, ‘I hike Fourteeners all the time.’ But even women who do that will notice that the higher you go, the more your legs burn. You’re just not circulating oxygen well at those altitudes.”

And at higher altitudes, it takes extra time to get help. “In pregnancy, when help is needed, it’s needed quickly,” Allen said.

The mental connection

“During pregnancy, as well as labor and birth, things can seem out of control or may not go as someone initially intended,” Allen said. “The best preparation is to consistently practice managing stress. You can do that with exercise, and don’t forget other self-care measures, such as meditation.

“I like to think in terms of both physical and mental fitness, and look at it from the whole-woman perspective.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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