• Pregnancy and birth are huge physical challenges as much as anything else 

  • Rehana Jawadwala explores the benefits of staying active throughout pregnancy – for health reasons, and to prepare for birth 

  • We have therapists who specialise in working with issues around pregnancy and postnatal health – find yours here

Humans are made to be on the move. All our systems, including our brain, thrive when we are experiencing our world through all our senses. Our body moving in space is a breathing barometer of our environment which is how we assimilate and interact with everything.

However, since the dawn of the industrial age we have been slowly engineering physical activity out of our lifestyles. Today we are at a point where even the basics of human functions such as giving birth has become the victim of this new age decadence.

We only need to go back as far as Aristotelian times to know that there was no mention of pregnancy being a “delicate” or “vulnerable” time for women. Women moved often, did their normal activities and in fact kept moving until and after birth. It was not until the 1700s the patriarchal tone of protecting pregnant women from physical labour (particularly the affluent noble women) is seen. This coincided with births being attended by male doctors and recumbent birthing positions. If women didn’t give birth in upright positions as their grandmothers and great grandmothers would have done then, they couldn’t appreciate how physical birth would be and the link to their lifestyle and birthing fatigue.

Physicality of birth

The physiological adaptations required to sustain the physicality of birth are not dissimilar to the ones we need to prepare for a big race such as a marathon or even an ultra-marathon. Being upright throughout labour requires energy, endurance capacity and strength. Fatigue in labour is cumulative and intensifies as labour progresses. Repeated muscular contractions of the uterus and the surrounding larger muscles of the abdomen and hips all require energy and endurance. 

Studies comparing the maternal cardiovascular system during labour to trained athletes show that the process of childbirth is not dissimilar to a long-distance race. Birth is one of the most physiologically, physically and psychologically demanding events of our lives. So, staying active throughout your pregnancy confers upon you the physiological adaptations that will help you sustain birth and may reduce the need for pain relief.

Exercising in all three trimesters 

It is now clear from good quality long-term studies that exercise during pregnancy does not cause any harm to mothers or babies. In fact, research is now indicating that an active lifestyle could be essential for your and your baby’s long-term health. The new Canadian guidelines for pregnancy exercise now say that, exercise is imperative during pregnancy. We and other countries should heed the evidence and follow suit.

Women who stay active in the early days of pregnancy signal a different placental growth to women who are sedentary. Exercising women have more vascular placenta, their placentas have more functional capacity and the exercise induced increase in antioxidant capacity may even protect the placenta and the growing foetus from inflammatory damage.

Staying active towards the latter half of your pregnancy has shown to help sustain birth, reduce your risks of falling and help with general aches and fatigue of late pregnancy.

If you have been active before getting pregnant then the evidence is clear in that you can continue your activities at the same level as before pregnancy. So, if you were used to doing a lot of exercise, there is no reason you should slow down. Slow down if you feel unwell or have a medical reason to do so, but not because of fear of miscarriage or harming your baby. 

At the same time, make sure if you are starting to get more active and lead a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy to take it slow and build up your practice. You do not want to do activities at levels that your body has not previously been used to. Just start with a simple mandate to move more. You don’t have to join any exercise class to be active. Just making sure you are not sitting down for more than 30-40 minutes can be a great way to slowly build up an active lifestyle.

If for any reason you are unable to exercise, then the best way to get some benefits is to incorporate a habit of some stretching or meditation/mindfulness type of activity in your day. Just creating a healthy habit will go a long way in keeping a positive mindset which has its own health benefits. I outline some simple tips and ways to incorporate physical activity in my book that can be applied to build or maintain an active lifestyle.

What kind of activities can a pregnant woman do? 

There is no particular activity that is better or worse during pregnancy, as long as you are moving often and spending less time being sedentary you will reap the benefits. A simple rule of thumb is that any activity that allows you to continue being able to talk in full sentences is not going to be too intense. You can mix it up and do strength training (lower your intensity by reducing the resistance but increasing the repetitions per set), go swimming and build strength and flexibility via yoga and pilates. Antenatal Yoga can be particularly appealing during pregnancy as it teaches you beneficial breath modulation practices which is great during birth and postnatal period. Breath modulation practices have shown some of the strongest impact on stress and anxiety management and helps improve mild to moderate depression symptoms.

Long-term benefits of pregnancy exercise

Favourable epigenetic changes in babies of exercising mothers have now been studied across the brain, heart, skeletal muscle and endocrine function. New research show that your exercise impacts your baby’s glucose tolerance, reduces risk of mammary tumours and Alzheimer’s. These changes can stay over 2–3 generations.

By being physically active during pregnancy we are effectively communicating with the cells of our baby, programming them for a lifetime of resilience to environmental insults and fluctuations in energy intake which lead to metabolic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Why Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Matter by Rehana Jawadwala is published by Pinter & Martin

Further reading

7 self-care tips to manage the intensity of being a new mother

Why does physical exercise improve mental health?

Maternal isolation: it takes a village to support a mother

How to change the way you think about exercise

6 ways to heal after birth trauma