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Maternal Exercise Programs

Physical Benefits of Maternal Exercise By Sheila S. Watkins

Research evidence continues to document the benefits of exercise during pregnancy without the risk to mom or baby. These include but are not limited to the following:

• Maintaining or increasing cardiovascular fitness can help increase work capacity and increase energy. This results in improved stamina and endurance, definite pluses during pregnancy, labor and delivery.

• Increased muscular strength can decrease the risk of joint and ligament injury due to the “loosening” effects of relaxin and progesterone. Strengthening the upper body prepares mom for the “tasks of mothering” (i.e., lifting her baby, the car seat, diaper bag, etc.) and helps with posture. Strong abdominal and back muscles (in conjunction with proper posture) take strain off the lower back and pelvic floor. This may help minimize or prevent permanent postural deviations.

• Increased muscular endurance is beneficial during labor and delivery. This “increased muscle efficiency” provides mom with more stamina and the increased ability to use the correct muscles with the right amount of force.

• Improved balance and coordination can improve mom’s “kinesthetic awareness” (where her body is in space). This is especially important during the latter months of pregnancy when mom feels awkward.

• Improved posture looks better, lessens back and neck pain and makes breathing easier.

• Improved support of pelvic organs via pelvic floor strength helps minimize or prevent urinary incontinence, bladder or uterine prolapse, etc.

• Women who start or continue an exercise program during pregnancy experience a decrease in the minor discomforts of pregnancy (varicose veins, back pan, leg cramps, swelling, constipation, etc.) when compared to non-exercising pregnancy.

• Improved body composition of fit pregnant exercises over non-exercising controls has been documented. Continuing exercise throughout pregnancy has a marked influence on weight gain, fat deposition, and fat reduction. This effect is most pronounced after the 20th week of pregnancy. Overall, weight gain has been found to be approximately 7 pounds less in exercisers, but still within the normal range. Continuing regular exercise was also found to decrease subcutaneous fat deposition during pregnancy.

• Fit women who continue weight-bearing exercise throughout their pregnancies tends to have shorter and less complicated labors with a marked decrease in the need for medical intervention. This includes the need for pain relief, labor induction or stimulation, intervention for fetal heart rate abnormalities, episiotomy, and certain operative interventions such as forceps delivery. Time in active labor has been shown to be decreased by a third.
• Women who start or continue to exercise throughout their pregnancies tend to have more energy during their pregnancies and recover faster after delivery than non-exercisers.

• Women who start or continue to exercise throughout their pregnancies tend to return to their pre-pregnancy weight sooner than non-exercisers.

Psychological Benefits of Maternal Exercise

• A general feeling of well being, improved body image and enhanced self-esteem are experienced by women who continue or begin an exercise program during their pregnancies. This may lead to fewer incidences of postpartum depression.

• Women who exercise during their pregnancies experience less tension, anxiety and fatigue than
their non-exercising counterparts.

• Women who exercise during their pregnancies feel more “in control” (i.e. body confidence) in an otherwise uncontrollable situation.

• Women who practice relaxation exercises as part of their exercise programs may help establish a stronger conditioned response to control labor discomforts.