Your guide to safe cardio during pregnancy
If you live for the sweat, smashing your daily steps and pushing yourself to the limit, you may find pregnancy quite a big change of pace for your cardio routine. But as Emily says, pregnancy is NOT an illness – you don’t need to wrap yourself in cotton wool for the next 9 months!
So can (and should) you do cardio? And if it’s okay in trimester 1, can you still do it in trimester 3? Let’s clear up the confusion around doing cardio while pregnant.
What types of cardio can you do when pregnant?
Cardiovascular exercise is anything that raises your heart rate and gets you breathing more heavily – everything from running to boot camp or a hip hop dancing class. While contact sports and other activities where you’re at risk of a fall (e.g. horse riding, skiing, high-altitude hiking) should be stopped during pregnancy, you can continue to pursue other forms of cardio that you were taking part in before you were pregnant.
Swimming, elliptical and stationary bike, rowing machine and good old-fashioned walking are all low-impact options.
If you enjoy pounding the pavement, you can continue running, too – but be mindful of your surroundings as your balance changes (watch for uneven surfaces, etc), and always listen to your body. Even in your first trimester, you may not be able to run as fast or as far as you usually might.
While cardio during pregnancy can have many benefits (which we’ll get into below), safety is your highest priority during pregnancy. So if you have pre-existing conditions or you are ever uncertain about any element of your health and fitness, you must speak with your doctor.
What are the benefits of cardio during pregnancy?
Cardio exercise is fantastic for everyone, but there are some particular benefits for pregnant women.
- Cardio releases endorphins which can help to relieve any discomfort, help you sleep better and reduce stress.
- Cardio can help to alleviate uncomfortable swelling in the legs caused by fluid retention.
As pregnancy progresses, you’re more likely to feel out of breath and fatigued. When your muscles are pumping during a cardio session, you improve venous return (the flow of blood back to the heart), which improves circulation and keeps your muscles humming along.
- Cardio exercise can help to prepare you for labour (you’ll need the endurance!) and aid your recovery after birth.
Don’t just think of cardio as running. Your FIT Pregnancy workouts offer a great cardio challenge, too!
How much cardio can I do & how hard can I go?
You should not increase the amount of cardio you do during pregnancy. However, if you were fit and active pre-pregnancy, it’s okay to maintain that same level of exercise (as long as you’ve cleared it with your doctor), then adjust as needed by listening to your body.
Current guidelines for pregnant women suggest 150-300 minutes of exercise per week – including a mixture of cardio and strength training.
What intensity should you train at? Health professionals use the Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion scale to measure how hard you are pushing yourself during exercise. During pregnancy, it is recommended that your exertion rate is at 12-14 – that means your breathing is at the point where you can still talk to someone, but not sing.
Your body goes through many changes during pregnancy, which means your routine will have to adapt. Here’s a general guide to cardio exercise during each trimester.
Cardio during trimester 1
Continue to exercise as you have pre-pregnancy – but not too intensely or so much that you overheat. You may be feeling nauseous in this trimester, so it’s important to find cardio exercises you can do without vomiting, as this can make you dehydrated. While increased blood volume will make you feel more breathless than usual, excessive breathlessness is NOT normal.
From trimester 1 you should not participate in any exercises that involve high impact, collision or exposure to extreme heat.
Cardio during trimester 2
Fingers crossed any nausea has eased or gone completely. You can still do cardio exercise at a moderate intensity, but what felt easy in trimester 1 may start to feel moderate now, so listen to your body. Your body shape and centre of gravity will have changed, so be mindful of your balance. And be sure to wear a bra that gives you support but does not cut into your belly. (Your breast size is likely to have increased, so get fitted for a good sports bra.)
Cardio during trimester 3
By this point in your pregnancy, a light walk may feel like moderate-intensity exercise, and that’s OK. Listen to your body, avoid overheating and make sure you wear light and non-restrictive clothing.
When should I stop doing cardio while pregnant?
While cardio can be beneficial, if you experience any of these symptoms during exercise, stop immediately and contact your doctor:
Chest pain, tightness or heart palpitations.
Decreased foetal movement.
Dizziness, lightheadedness or the sensation that you’re about to faint.
Difficult or heavy breathing pre-exercise. If your breathing is laboured before you’ve even started exerting yourself – known as pre-exercise dyspnoea – don’t start the workout.
Excessive shortness of breath. If you can no longer carry on a conversation, stop exercising.
Feeling hot is a reason to stop exercising, but it can lead to other symptoms – so watch for signs of overheating including dizziness, headaches and dry skin.
Women’s health physiotherapist
Women’s health physiotherapist Phoebe Armfield has over 15 years’ experience in helping women take control of their bodies into co-designing the FIT Pregnancy and FIT Post-Pregnancy programs with Emily Skye. She holds a Master of Physiotherapy, a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise, is a certified Pilates Instructor (including pre and postnatal Pilates), and Certified Trainer.
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