Which exercises are safe during early pregnancy?
In this article, we explore the benefits of exercising during pregnancy and describe activities that are safe in the first trimester.
We also look at how to establish a good routine, how much exercise is healthful, and whether working out during early pregnancy can cause miscarriage.
Benefits of exercise during pregnancy
Walking is a low-impact exercise that is perfect for pregnant people.
Exercising is one of the best things a person can do for themselves and the baby, and advantages extend beyond the term of pregnancy.
For pregnant people, regular exercise has been linked with a wide range of health benefits, including:
- reduced morning sickness
- improved sleep
- improved mood
- reduced stress and anxiety
- reduced fatigue
- easier childbirth
- reduced risk of constipation and hemorrhoids
- reduced risk of gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced hypertension
- improved ability to manage weight gain and maintain a healthy weight during and after pregnancy
Also, a person who exercises regularly during pregnancy may be less likely to require a caesarian delivery.
Low-impact exercises are the safest during pregnancy. They are least likely to cause complications associated with congenital abnormalities and miscarriage.
A form of exercise may be harmful if it:
- places too much pressure on the uterus and fetus
- puts excessive strain on the joints, muscles, and bones
- leads to overheating
- causes dehydration
Most pregnant people benefit a mix of exercises that work the body in different ways.
During the first trimester, aim to establish good exercise habits gradually. The right amount of exercise will depend on how active a person was before becoming pregnant.
It is best to favor low-impact exercises, especially walking, yoga, swimming, and water aerobics.
Some slightly more vigorous exercises are often appropriate in the first trimester. Examples include running, jogging, and moderate weightlifting.
While the benefits generally outweigh the risks, speak with a doctor before starting any new exercises or workout routines.
A person who exercised regularly before becoming pregnant should consult a doctor, and if possible a personal trainer, about gradually decreasing the intensity of their workout to a level that is safe during pregnancy.
How much exercise to do
Most health authorities and agencies suggest that pregnant people get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, low-impact exercise each week.
These 150 minutes are best done as five 30-minute workouts. However, some pregnant people might prefer to exercise for 10–20 minutes throughout the day when symptoms such as nausea or lower back pain become uncomfortable.
Best exercises for the first trimester
The following are often recommended for people in the first trimester:
Kegel exercises, or pelvic floor exercises, work to strengthen muscles that support abdominal organs, including the uterus, vagina, bowels, and bladder.
These exercises also help to maintain control of bladder function and reduce the risk of hemorrhoids.
To find the Kegel muscles, insert a finger into the vagina and try to squeeze the finger with the surrounding muscles. These muscles are in the Kegel group.
With an empty bladder, squeeze the Kegel muscles and hold the contraction for 5–10 seconds before relaxing. Try to avoid using any surrounding muscles, such as those of the buttocks, legs, or abs.
A Kegel exercise routine involves doing 10–20 of these contractions, three or four times a day. They can be beneficial during and after pregnancy.
Walking and jogging
Walking on a flat, even surface is one of the most gentle, low-impact forms of exercise, making it ideal for pregnant people.
Swinging the arms in wide, rhythmic movements while walking can result in a moderate increase in heart rate. Walking in a calm, natural setting can also help to promote well-being and relaxation.
A person unaccustomed to taking walks should begin by taking a few 10-minute walks every week. During the first trimester, build up gradually to taking a 30-minute walk three to five times a week.
People who are used to running can gradually transition from walking to jogging during the first trimester, as long as they use a flat, even surface.
Anyone going for prolonged walks or jogs should wear correctly fitting, supportive footwear. They should also stretch when they feel their muscles becoming activated, or warm.
Swimming and water aerobics
Swimming and water aerobics are low-impact exercises.
These low-impact exercises are highly aerobic, and they can improve the flow of blood and oxygen.
Swimming and water aerobics also encourage muscle development and flexibility with a very low risk of strain or injury.
If a person is accustomed to swimming or doing water aerobics, their usual routine will often be safe during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Newcomers should start by taking two or three 30-minute classes each week. Once a person becomes more confident, they can go for 30-minute swims or sessions a few times a week, or as often as feels comfortable without being tiring.
Yoga allows the body to gently stretch and develop strength. It also encourages mindfulness skills that can be very helpful during labor, such as controlled breathing and meditation.
Most yoga studios offer classes for pregnant people. Newcomers should try to attend one 30-minute session per week.
People accustomed to doing yoga can often continue with their usual routine during the first trimester, as long as they are practicing in a warm environment.
However, during pregnancy, avoid:
- Bikram or "hot" yoga
- positions that involve raising the feet above the head and heart
- positions that involve laying on the back
- positions that involve abdominal twists
- positions that require a good sense of balance
Pilates can improve core strength and balance, which may reduce the risk of falling.
It can also help to ease lower back pain associated with weight gain, especially in the front of the body.
A newcomer to Pilates should gradually start doing a few sessions a week, each lasting 5–10 minutes. A person may work their way toward sessions lasting 30–60 minutes once or twice a week.
Pregnant people who are accustomed to Pilates can often maintain their usual routine during the first trimester, though they should avoid:
- twisting the belly or abdomen
- laying on the back
- raising the legs above the head and heart
- being still for extended periods
Many studios and gyms offer prenatal Pilates classes, and similar lessons are available online.
Low-intensity weight training
During the first trimester of pregnancy, it is generally safe to do moderate weightlifting.
Using free weights and weight machines can help to maintain a healthy weight and improve overall strength. Having a stronger core can also help to improve stability and reduce the risk of falling.
While weightlifting, avoid:
- laying on the back
- lifting weights over the belly
- lifting weights that are too heavy
Newcomers should begin gradually and use light free weights.
Spin classes or cycling with a stationary bike
Spin classes offer a healthful alternative to standard cycling.
Standard cycling is not a good option for people who are pregnant, due to the risk of falling and injury. Stationary bikes and spin classes offer a healthful alternative, with good aerobic exercise and significantly less risk.
For the first few weeks, newcomers should attend sessions that each last 10–15 minutes. They can then extend sessions to 30–60 minutes at a moderate intensity when comfortable.
If a person is used to spinning or using a stationary bike, they can often maintain their normal routine during the first trimester.
Pregnant people should do low-impact, moderate-intensity exercises that lead to light sweating and slight increases in heart rate.
Tips for exercising safely during the first trimester include:
- Stay hydrated.
- Stay cool and wear loose-fitting clothing.
- Wear well-fitting, supportive, non-slip shoes.
- Recognize when to exercise less often or reduce the intensity of exercises.
- Set realistic goals and try to stick to them.
- Remember to breathe and be aware of the heart rate during workouts.
Also, it is important to stop and rest anytime a person feels tired or weak.
To prevent complications, avoid:
- high-impact exercises
- contact sports
- sudden movements
- exercises with a high risk of falling, such as gymnastic or aerial sports
- bouncing or leaping
- high-intensity exercises that raise the heart and breathing rates so that it is hard to hold a conversation
- sports that cause excessive sweating
- exercises that involve significant twisting of the body and torso, such as skiing
- bending backward
- lying on the back
- raising the feet above the head
- exercises that place jarring pressure on the pelvis and torso, such as horseback riding
- exercises or environments that increase the risk of overheating
- standing for too long, which can cause blood to pool in the legs
Can exercise during early pregnancy cause miscarriage?
Pregnant people who do high-impact exercises or play contact sports may be putting too much pressure on the uterus. This can cause complications such as bleeding and preterm labor.
When the core temperature of a person in the first trimester exceeds 102°F for more than 10 minutes, this is considered overheating. It has been linked with fetal neural abnormalities and miscarriage.
As always, stop exercising when:
- dizzy or lightheaded
- having trouble breathing
- having an uncomfortable or unsteady heart rate
- having a headache
Pregnant people who experience the following should seek emergency medical care: