What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You: Outdated Guidelines for Pregnancy & Exercise

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Disclaimer: This post does not constitute medical advice. If you’re pregnant – and especially if either you or your pregnancy are considered high-risk – always check with your health care provider for exercise recommendations before starting new a fitness routine. 

In a recent physical therapy appointment, my PT asked about how workouts were going now that pregnancy has progressed to the “oh-she’s-definitely-pregnant-not-just-overindulging-during-the-holidays” stage.

For the most part, great, I told her. Although no training’s happening at the moment, I put myself on a loose schedule of cardio, strength training, PT exercises and workout classes throughout the week to keep moving.

The major difference between this and my first pregnancy? I’m feeling larger and dealing with the usual minor discomforts earlier this time around.

And the biggest similarity? Oddly enough, how other people are reacting to my current state – particularly when it comes to fitness: instead of addressing the obvious and offering advice/adjustments, it feels like most instructors simply opt for avoidance.

Yes, there are potential ramifications and legal complications for trainers giving pre- and post-natal fitness advice when they’re not qualified to do so. But given the fact that the average pregnant women isn’t sure what she should (or shouldn’t) be doing, some general guidance would be helpful.

Literally, I have to bite my tongue every time I see another pregnant woman past her first trimester doing sit-ups. 

And what’s even crazier is that some doctors still adhere to dated exercise principles (aka the heart rate one below). This is not to say you should ever go against your doctor’s advice, but rather that you should shop around and find someone who is up on the latest research if you’re wanting to work out at a certain level with baby on board.

So today we’re tackling a few of my biggest pregnancy pet peeves (outdated exercise guidelines and common myths!), as well as some common-sense do’s and don’ts for a happy, healthy pregnancy for both you and baby:

Myth #1: Keep your heart rate below 140 bpm. 

This is perhaps the most common preggo urban legend, but did you know that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynocologists (ACOG) actually removed this recommendation from their guidelines back in 1994?

It’s still a prevalent piece of advice, however – in fact,  a 2010 study of 93 practicing physicians and midwives found that 64 percent of all respondents believed that maternal exercise heart rate should not exceed 140 beats per minute.

Your best bet? Again, check with your doctor for specific metrics, but also consider using breathlessness and perceived exertion to keep yourself in check during workouts.

Myth #2: Don’t lift more than 25 pounds. 

This is actually an arbitrary number, meaning there are no studies that show that lifting more than 25 pounds has an effect on birth weight or premature labor.

It is true that a woman’s capacity to safely lift a load decreases throughout pregnancy, but this has more to do with a change in center of gravity affecting balance, as well as hormones causing connective tissue, ligaments and tendons to soften in preparation for labor.

The safest game plan? Gradually reduce your maximum load as pregnancy progresses, and pay special attention to keeping proper form to avoid unnecessary injury.

Myth #3: Vigorous exercise will overheat the baby. 

You’ve heard the term “bun in the oven” but no woman wants to inadvertently cook her poor fetus!

Interestingly enough, pregnant bodies have a few mechanisms in place to prevent this, however: First, increased blood volume and a lower sweat threshold make it easier to get rid of excess heat. And, second, mama’s weight gain means more tissue that needs to be kept warm.

Of course, use common sense and don’t run in the heat of the sun at the warmest time of day. But as long as you hydrate, hydrate, hydrate and keep cool with sweat-wicking fabrics and proper ventilation, etc., you should be good to go.

Myth #4: Ab workouts are off limits. 

Yes, doing crunches, sit-ups and other ab exercises on your back are a major no-no after the first trimester because they put you at an increased risk for diastasis recti. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore your core!

Depending on the state of your stomach (check with your doctor or a physical therapist first), things like planks may even be off-limits. So modify, as needed, and monitor for “coning” to help avoid separation of your abs.

What else can you do? My best advice here is to see a physical therapist who specializes in pre- and post-natal work to develop a personalized program to keep your core strong – yet safe – during pregnancy.

Myth #5: If you weren’t active before, now is not the time to start. 

You can use your pregnancy to get off the hook when it comes to a lot of stuff, but never – I repeat NEVER – is it an excuse to be totally inactive (unless you’re on doctor-prescribed bed rest, of course).

The exercise benefits to both mama and baby are so great that it’s worth the time and energy investment throughout your pregnancy – just (again) use common sense and stay away from activities that increase your risk of falling. Be mindful of the belly!

If you’ve been active, perfect – simply stick to your usual routine, dialing it back to adapt to your changing body. And if you’re new to working out, even better – now’s the best time to start a wonderful habit with lasting positive effects on both mama and baby for years to come.

Again, it’s worth repeating: Always clear any kind of activity and/or exercise with your doctor. S/he knows your unique situation and can give the best advice.

And, above all else, listen to your own body. You’d be surprised at how mama intuition kicks in when you leave expectations and ego at the door and simply appreciate what your body is able to do!

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