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Exercise During Pregnancy: My Experience and the Science Behind It

exercising during pregnancy kristina barbusci barbell2It’s funny how a little plastic stick with double pink lines has the power to change life as you know it. Through the first week after learning I was pregnant, I dealt with the gamut of emotions—and questions! What would my pregnancy be like? How would my body respond to this huge change? Do I have to change my nutrition? And, of course, will I be able to continue working out? Here's how I adapted expertise from my doctor, physical trainer, and scientist husband (maybe you know him!) to answer that last one.

First, let me introduce myself (and my husband)

My name is Kristina Barbusci, and I am the wife of InsideTracker Senior Scientist and Content Creator Jimmy Kennedy (maybe you've read some of his blogs!). I have been an athlete my whole life, so I knew that I wanted to continue doing what I loved while growing the precious little life inside of me. But, truthfully, I had no clue how to modify my training or how exactly the definition of "safe training" changed. This is all to say, I had a lot of questions. And though there are certainly some dos and don’ts of exercising while pregnant, many of the answers ultimately resided in what I was comfortable with. So it became an utmost priority for me to be as informed as possible.

The internet can be a black hole of information, and going down that road while pregnant can be a scary and intimidating thing. So, I first turned to my husband for his expertise in health science and personal training, and  to my trainers and most importantly, my doctor. Through them, I learned what was safe and healthy for me and my little one. Now, I'm thrilled to share what I learned about working out while pregnant. Through this post, you'll also read my husband's words, so you can get the scientist perspective I was so fortunate to have.

Husband’s thoughts: While researching safe methods for exercising while pregnant, it was quickly apparent that there are an infinite amount of opinions on what to do and—more notably—what not to do. It is very important that you consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program, particularly in your first trimester. If you do not have an established exercise routine, ask your doctor for guidance on how to incorporate fitness activities throughout your pregnancy. With the help of her doctor, Kristina listened to her body and found what worked best for her. Here at InsideTracker, we know no two people are the same, so it’s important to find out what works best for you.

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I wanted to maintain regular exercise during my pregnancy—and the science supports doing so

exercising during pregnancy kristina barbusciBefore becoming pregnant, I had no clue what exercise during pregnancy should or shouldn’t look like, so I naturally looked for advice from my OB/GYN. It was important for me to have an honest conversation with my doctor, both about traditional views of exercise during pregnancy and about my own fitness levels. This way, she was able to provide guidelines for me to work within, and I was able to adapt them to build a training regime that felt both safe and fun for me.

Husband’s thoughts: It is becoming widely accepted that regular physical exercise during pregnancy is highly beneficial to both the expecting mother and baby. The American Pregnancy Association notes that regular exercise can reduce back aches, increase energy, improve posture, and increase sleep. Evidence also shows women who exercise regularly through pregnancy carry their babies to full term more often and have a relatively low risk of developing preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.[1] And the benefits don’t just stop with mom! Research has shown that women who exercise during pregnancy give birth to babies with healthier body weights, increased cognitive performance, and decreased risk of developing chronic disease later in life.[2]

 

Exercises I avoided during pregnancy

I will say, my exercise routine—particularly the movements I incorporated—definitely had to be adapted. There were certain things I knew I had to avoid:

Anything that could cause me to fall or trip

It's just not worth it. I did not perform box jumps, rope climbs, runs, or any hanging movements from the moment I found out I was pregnant.

Husband’s thoughts: I was a nervous wreck watching Kristina in the gym and fully agree with leaving these out. However, running might be an exception—if you (and your doctor) feel comfortable with running, go for it!

Lifting a barbell heavier than 70% of my max lifts

As I was an avid exerciser before pregnancy, I knew what my weight limits were. Every time I picked up a barbell or dumbbell, I made sure to check in and be fully honest with myself about how each movement really felt in my body.

Husband’s thoughts: To properly lift heavy weights without the risk of injury, you must rely on tightening your core and increasing your abdominal pressure to stabilize your trunk and spine. Not only will this be hard to do with a human growing inside of you, the flexing and increased pressure could cause injury to mom or baby.

All frontal plane-focused movements

No crunches, sit-ups, toes-to-bar, or V-ups. This is incredibly important during pregnancy, as this can lead to Diastasis Recti postpartum. I recommend being keenly aware of any movements which cause your abdomen to cone.

Husband’s thoughts: It is certainly important to build a strong core while you’re pregnant—you'll be grateful you did during labor! But a strong core doesn't mean a six-pack. Frontal plane movements can split the abs, leading to Diastasis Recti, so opt for core-strengthening movements where you don’t twist or flex, like planks or “bird dogs."

 

What I found really worked for me

These hurdles weren't going to keep me from my plan to exercise throughout my pregnancy. Fortunately, I was able to really figure out what worked for me and how to maintain my fitness in a way that was both safe and satisfying.

Setting my pace

I was always sure to maintain a conversational pace and controlled breathing. The goal was to always be able to cheer on the person working out beside me! 

Husband’s thoughts: While organizations like the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic don’t set target heart rates during exercise for pregnant women, working out at high intensities can cause loss of breathing control and can divert blood flow away from the baby. So it's best to refrain from these types of workouts.

Prioritizing squatting

squatting during pregnancy

I loved to squat before pregnancy, and was therefore thrilled to hear that the movement would help me while pregnant and, of course, during labor. I made sure that 3 of my workouts each week included some form of a squatting movement.

Husband’s thoughts: Squatting can be highly beneficial during pregnancy to help strengthen the pelvic floor, open the hips, and strengthen the muscles employed during labor.

Moving for 20 minutes each day

While pregnant, workouts that are quick, immediately cause labored breathing, and leave you lying on the floor are simply not helpful. I made sure that my sessions consisted of a steady pace for 20-25 minutes, and prioritized my breath and quality of movement.

Husband’s thoughts: Though this is not necessarily medical advice, focusing on longer, moderate-intensity workouts can better prepare you and your body for labor, which will most likely not be short.  

 

How training during pregnancy affected my labor...

As soon as I learned I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to try to have a natural labor and delivery. Of course, not all women can make this a reality, but barring any unforeseen complications, I wanted to try. With that being said, I can now confidently sit here and write that unmedicated birth was the hardest, greatest, and most rewarding physical challenge of my entire life—and I truly do not believe that it would have been possible without the training I maintained throughout my pregnancy. 

Continuing to work out through pregnancy allowed me to connect with my changing body, focus on my breathing, and remain present when my heart rate increased. Those skills helped me tremendously while in labor, from my very first contraction all the way to the last push.

Husband’s thoughts: I am truly at a loss of words. Other fathers, you understand!

 

...And how it's affected me postpartum

I can say with absolute confidence that maintaining a training schedule throughout pregnancy not only benefited me during my pregnancy and delivery but also in my recovery and postpartum period. After giving birth, I waited the recommended six weeks before performing any activity. I started with some very light stretching and yoga in order to remind my body what it was like to move and bend again. When I had two weeks of low intensity movement under my belt, I felt like I was ready to start to challenge myself again. Honestly, I feared that all the fitness I worked so hard to build was gone for good. However, I was very pleasantly surprised that my muscles surely did have memory, and slowly but surely, my training is looking similar to what it was before I was pregnant. Of course, my body is different now, but my quick recovery is definitely attributed to my commitment to move my body throughout pregnancy.

 

Husband's thoughts: The take-home message

As a physical trainer and someone who (obviously) has a vested interest in Kristina's well being, I wanted to be involved in figuring out what made the most sense for her and her exercise routine. Here are some of the most valuable, practical takeaways we have from that time:
  • Her go-to movements were light or non-weighted squats, lunges, step-ups and the stationary bike
  • Instead of a barbell, which is awkward to navigate around a growing belly, Kristina opted to use dumbbells for strength work.
  • For a workout structure, we set the clock for a definitive time, and Kristina performed as many rounds as she could in that time. This allowed her to work at a consistent pace while still ensuring she got a good workout.

pregnancy workout (1)

Kristina also relied on some accessories that help a lot:

  • A belly band that provided some mild compression and lower back relief and helped round-ligament pain.
  • An elastic band that she placed around her knees when squatting. This kind of band ensures that you press your knees outwards, thereby activating your glutes and hamstrings and taking pressure off the lower back.

 

And, of course, my own take-home message

Pregnancy is a very exciting (and sometimes very scary) journey. But ultimately, exercise helped me both physically and mentally throughout one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. Honoring my body and all that it is capable of by moving, breathing, and simply being with my thoughts while exercising helped me to build a very strong foundation going into both the childbirth and postpartum periods. In the end, I could not recommend pre- or post-natal exercise more!

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kristina barbusci jimmy kennedyKristina Barbusci & Jimmy Kennedy, CF-L1
Kristina and Jimmy are the parents to a beautiful little girl, Scottie. As they met at their local gym, fitness and exercise have always been a large part of their lives and they can’t wait for little Scottie to join them in their workouts. Jimmy is a Scientist and Content Creator at InsideTracker, and when Kristina isn’t being super mom, she’s the manager at lululemon.

References:

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5075987/

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30817721/

[3] https://www.mayoclinic.org

[4] https://www.americanpregnancy.org