When Erin Cella, a 35-year-old dancer and choreographer in New York, was pregnant with the first of her two children, she was nervous about exercising, wary of persistent superstitions about the risks of exercise during pregnancy. But movement wasn’t just her passion it was her job. Her doctor reassured her that it was completely safe to keep exercising so long as she felt okay, so Cella continued to exercise and even perform through her second trimester. That didn’t stop other people from judging her. “I actually heard people gasp and say ‘she’s pregnant!’ when the lights came up during performances,” she says. “It was a little sad to realize some people still see movement and pregnancy as mutually exclusive.”
Women are bombarded with unsolicited opinions about their bodies at just about every stage of life but it reaches a fever pitch during pregnancy. As a prenatal and postpartum certified personal trainer, I’ve heard all kinds of myths from concerned clients: that exercise can deprive a fetus of oxygen, that there’s a certain target heart rate you have to stay under, that jostling motions like running are inherently dangerous. The truth is, according to a deep library of research, exercising during pregnancy is highly beneficial for both mom and baby. Regular exercise has been shown to prevent gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and pre-eclampsia; it is beneficial for psychological well-being; it may even help your baby develop a healthy heart and reduce their risk of developing chronic disease later in life.
Still, mommy shaming is rampant at the gym. I’ve seen countless other gym-goers stare at my pregnant clients—once, a stranger even interrupted our session to march over to us to say, “Are you sure that’s safe?” And many pregnant people have the frustrating experience of being told they can’t take classes at their favorite studios once they disclose they’re pregnant. What gives?
As long as it feels okay and doesn’t pose a major risk of falling or being hit in the belly—pregnancy isn’t a great time to take up wrestling, for example—generally, you can continue any exercise you were doing before pregnancy. In fact, it’s recommended. Current guidelines say that healthy pregnant women with no pre-existing conditions should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, incorporating a mix of aerobic activity and resistance training.
“The key is hydration,” says Dr. Jennifer Aquino, M.D., an OB/GYN at NYU Langone Health. Water helps form the placenta and amniotic sac, and it helps to keep you cool during exercise. Since overheating is one of the biggest concerns of exercising while pregnant, you want to hydrate well, wear breathable clothes, and avoid any hot yoga. It’s also a good idea to have a snack after working out to make sure your blood sugar doesn’t get too low.
The more athletic you are, the more intense exercise during pregnancy you can likely tolerate. “I have lots of patients who ask if they can still take their HIIT classes,” says Aquino. “Absolutely, you can continue.” Pregnant women have run marathons after all. Just be sure to check in with your doctor about your training plans, Dr. Aquino adds.
Pregnant women do, however, need to modify—you might take the same class but drop the weights, take more breaks, and not push yourself quite as hard. It’s not just because your body is changing shape: the hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy causes other physiological changes that can require adjustments. In the first trimester, high levels of progesterone can make you feel sluggish. At the same time, blood volume, heart rate, and cardiac output are all increasing—a recipe for fatigue. Translation: prepare to take more breaks.