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The Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

Women who exercise usually have a better pregnancy, in terms of being more comfortable physically and healthier for the duration of the pregnancy and afterwards. Often, they tolerate the stress and pain of labor better and sometimes they don't require as many meds during labor, or can even get away with taking no meds at all. Stretching exercises can be particularly useful for later ease in labor and delivery.

With regular exercise during pregnancy, women also recuperate faster after the birth of the baby, whether they have a vaginal delivery or a C-section. Obviously, an additional benefit is not gaining as much weight during pregnancy. In general, exercising seems to go along with eating better and maintaining a more positive attitude toward the pregnancy. Since exercising releases endorphins, it also helps with emotional stress and potential depression.

From the Doctor's Perspective...
Doctors know that exercise is truly beneficial for pregnant women. Many colleagues of mine (obviously females) make sure to follow an exercise regimen throughout their pregnancy. I once had a woman who exercised right up to her delivery. This woman came in to the hospital to get checked because she thought she might be in pre-labor (she'd had children before). Surprisingly, she was 8 centimeters dilated, and wasn't feeling too bad. She'd come straight to the hospital after pushing a lawnmower and mowing her entire lawn. Her labor only took an hour and a half, and she recovered quickly.

A Checklist Before Exercising
So, you've decided to exercise. Here are a few simple, but important, rules to follow.

Get Drunk on Perspective...
Most people walk around in a mildly dehydrated state, even when they are not pregnant. It's kind of dumb, because we feel better when we are adequately hydrated. A pregnant woman should strive for at least 8-10 glasses of water a day, which does not include soda, coffee, tea, or milk. Those beverages are extra after the water consumption. Try to drink as much water as possible during the pregnancy. It's good for both mother and baby.

Why water? Water helps with the blood flow, and it improves uterine profusion, meaning that it optimizes blood flow to the uterus. The benefits: the baby gets more oxygen and the exchange of waste and nutrients between mother and baby becomes more efficient. Insuring adequate water intake can contribute toward having a normal amount of amniotic fluid around the baby. The amniotic fluid keeps the baby floating and keeps the umbilical cord from being compressed. With a lower amount of amniotic fluid, there is more of a risk of the baby sitting on the cord and compressing it in the later stages of pregnancy. Unfortunately, you might not know this until you perceived less movement in the baby.

So...drink up! You can't hurt yourself by drinking too much water as long as your diet is well balanced.

When Not to Exercise
There are some definite conditions during pregnancy where exercise should be avoided at all costs. If you have pre-eclampsia or pre-term labor, your doctor will not let you exercise.

If you have pain, spotting, bleeding, or have an unusual discharge, do not exercise.

If you're feeling light-headed, don't exercise. Pregnant women have a higher tendency to feel light-headed due to changes in blood volume and blood pressure and how the blood vessels constrict and dilate during pregnancy. This normal condition can lead to dizziness if a woman gets up too fast or lies flat on her back (particularly during the second half of the second trimester). If you are light-headed, it could also be from dehydration. Take a break and drink some water or a sports drink.

Exercise While Traveling
Traveling naturally precludes exercising or moving around a whole lot, which can be dangerous for pregnant women. Make sure you get an aisle seat, so you can get up and move around easily. Women who are pregnant have a higher predisposition to forming blood clots in their legs, so movement of the legs is imperative. You should walk at least 10 minutes out of every hour on a flight.

It's wise to drink a liter of a sports drink before boarding the plane (in other words, tank up); then continue to drink water while flying because there is a tendency to get dehydrated while flying. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (i.e., drink, drink, drink). Of course, that aisle seat will be a necessity if you do – and you'll get your exercise naturally by marching back and forth to the bathroom.

The Ultimate Exercise – Sex! (or Sex – It's Still a Three-Letter Word)
Depending on your feelings about the matter (and your partner's), sex can be a fun (three letters) and natural type of exercise, particularly if your partner is amenable. In most cases, your sex life should not be curtailed in any way, barring unforeseen circumstances like morning sickness interfering. (It's not particularly sexy or flattering to upchuck while your partner is being amorous.) Occasionally, a woman will feel less like having sex because she's tired or not feeling well; however, just as frequently, a woman may have an increased libido – always good for her mate.

When to Have Sex
It's important for your marriage/relationship that you still make time for sex, even though you're pregnant. Again, to quote Nike – just do it! Otherwise, there is the risk that your husband might get jealous of the baby before it's even born or feel as if he's coming second in your life. It sounds immature, but it happens. Although you may feel like hibernating for a few months, your husband is still very much alive and needs your attention. Schedule dates and time alone. It will pay off in good feelings all-round.

An FYI: The baby does not know you're having sex; nor does he/she care, so don't worry about a "third person" watching you.

From the Doctor's Perspective...
Some doctors suggest that a woman who is at full term and ready to deliver should use sex to stimulate labor. Marta insists that it's an ancient tribal custom, although I've never heard that theory.

From the Patient's Perspective...
Sorry, but when I was ready to deliver, sex was the last thing on my mind. Ancient tribal customs aside (and I have heard it somewhere, Dr. John!), anyone who tried to touch me that way might not have lived to tell about it. A woman near labor is not a pretty thing to behold or be around (at least not in my case).

When Not to Have Sex
Use common sense about not having sex. If intercourse causes you pain, stop it and consult with your doctor as soon as possible. If you have any unusual discharge before, during, or after sex; or if you have a leakage of fluid, these are conditions to report to your doctor. If you're bleeding, and it is undiagnosed bleeding, it needs to be checked out immediately. If you're having any kind of uterine contractions that you're unsure about, it's probably not a good time to have sex, and you should report your condition to your doctor.

Always be careful that your partner does not hurt you in any way, particularly your abdomen. Prolonged direct compression of a woman's abdomen during intercourse (the missionary position) could be harmful for obvious reasons (particularly in the later stages of pregnancy), but most other positions are OK. If your back hurts, you can always prop pillows under it or do whatever it takes to get comfortable.

In most cases, physicians will recommend that you should not have sex if you're in pre-term labor, for fear that you might stimulate the labor. Also, if you have placenta previa, it is generally advisable not to have intercourse or put anything in the vagina (you don't want anything to have contact with the cervix). Of course, if your water breaks, skip sex and go straight to the hospital (do not pass go; do not collect $200).

It's probably alright to have oral sex, but doctors don't know for sure. Orgasm in a woman can cause contractions of the uterus. It's unclear what component of sex may contribute to increased uterine contractions that could lead to pre-term labor. Doctors don't know if it's related to chemical reactions or a prostaglandin release. In other words, is it the physical act of intercourse that stimulates the contractions or is it caused by a woman's orgasm? These questions are difficult to answer, since the data is limited, but this is the reason that most physicians still suggest pelvic rest (or no sex) if a woman is in pre-term labor.

The Absolute Minimum
If you can exercise comfortably and without pain, then get out there and move. Exercising will keep you in shape during the pregnancy and probably make your labor and delivery easier and more efficient.

Reproduced from Absolute Beginner's Guide to Pregnancy, by John Adams and Marta Justak, by permission of Pearson Education. Copyright © 2005 by Que Publishing. Please visit Amazon to order your own copy.

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