Exercise in pregnancy: how to stay active during each trimester
Regular movement not only helps you to stay in shape and ease common pregnancy niggles like nausea, water retention and fatigue, it’s also incredibly beneficial for your baby too. Not sure where to start? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fitness fanatic or exercise newbie, read on for everything you need to know about exercising safely throughout each trimester.
By Tammy Jacks | Last updated Apr 27, 2023
Determined to feel fit, strong and healthy throughout your pregnancy? Along with a nutritious diet and plenty of rest, moving your body regularly is a good place to start.
In fact, recent studies have shown that the benefits of prenatal exercise are vast for both you and your baby. Developing good, consistent exercise habits during pregnancy will not only prepare you for a smooth, safe labour, it’ll speed up recovery and help you shed those excess kilos after birth too.
Of course, your choice of exercise as well as how often you train depends largely on what your fitness level is, which trimester you’re in and how you’re feeling overall. It’s important to always listen to your body and avoid pushing past your comfort zone. Remember, exercise during pregnancy should make you feel better, not worse, and it’s certainly not the time to beat your fastest running times or enter the next Iron Man event.
So, should you dial down the cardio? Are certain moves off limits and how much exercise should you be aiming for each week? We answer your most pressing questions, and offer expert tips and advice to help you thrive throughout your pregnancy.
Is it safe to exercise during pregnancy?
Despite the age-old myth that exercising during pregnancy is harmful for you or your baby, more recent evidence shows that it’s perfectly safe and in fact recommended in uncomplicated pregnancies. According to the NHS, exercise isn’t dangerous for your baby and there’s some evidence that the more active you are, the less likely you’ll be to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour.
The Mayo Clinic highlights that having a high BMI or being obese (which is often linked to a sedentary lifestyle) raises the risk of miscarriage as well as other pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems, to name a few. Experts agree that eating healthily and staying active a few times a week is a good idea as it helps to minimise these risks throughout your pregnancy.
What are the benefits of exercise in pregnancy?
Here are just a few of the many benefits of prenatal exercise.
- Moving more helps you to sleep better.
- It helps to keep pregnancy weight gain in check, which is healthier for you and your baby.
- It gets those feel-good hormones called endorphins flowing, keeping anxiety and depression at bay.
- It can improve blood flow and reduce bloating and fluid retention.
- It reduces your chances of getting pre-eclampsia.
- It helps to prevent varicose veins and reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
- If you get gestational diabetes, exercise can help to control your blood sugar.
- You're less likely to suffer with pregnancy niggles such as backache, constipation and cramps
- You may well have a shorter labour.
- It helps to speed up recovery post birth, regardless of whether you have natural labour or a c-section.
What kind of exercises can I do in pregnancy?
The good news is that there are plenty of safe, effective exercises you can do throughout your pregnancy to stay in shape and prepare yourself for labour as well as the postpartum period.
Most forms of moderate exercise are safe to do, but listen to cues from your body and don't be surprised if you find things a little harder than they were before you had a bump to contend with. This is because your heart rate increases by 10 to 20 beats per minute during pregnancy, which means simple activities could leave you feeling more breathless than usual.
If you experience breathlessness before or following minimal exertion, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, muscle weakness affecting balance and calf pain or swelling, seek medical advice. You may also be advised to reduce or stop physical activity following pregnancy complications such as vaginal bleeding, regular painful contractions or amniotic fluid leakage.
Here are a few great exercise options for pregnancy.
1. Walking/hiking or running
- Walking/hiking: All trimesters
- Running: Trimesters one and two
Walking is one of the best low-impact activities you can do throughout pregnancy. In the largest ever study on running and pregnancy, results showed that running is safe during pregnancy and has no effect on due dates or a baby’s birth weight.
In early pregnancy, you just need to make sure you don't get too tired or overheat while running or hiking. This is common in the first trimester as your body adjusts to new hormone levels. You’ll also want to wear supportive running shoes or walking boots and a good sports bra. As you get bigger, you may need to modify your routine.
When running, aim for a gentle pace where you’re not so out of breath that you can’t hold a conversation. You're looking to maintain a steady pace, not beat any personal bests.
Route-wise, for both running and hiking, pick a course that’s fairly flat and predictable. Avoid terrain with loose rocks and tree roots that could make you fall as your centre of balance will begin to shift as your belly grows. Once in the third trimester, you may want to dial your run or hike down and walk briskly instead.
What Mumsnetters say
“I'm 22 weeks and still running and doing my normal Pilates class. In my previous pregnancy, I kept running until seven months and did Pilates right up to the end. Hoping to be able to do the same this time!” Koalaby
“I'm 24 weeks and still running four times a week. Obviously I'm a lot slower and don't run as far, but I'm going to keep going as long as I feel comfortable. I enjoy keeping fit and the midwife said it's absolutely fine and healthy.” Gossipgirl28
Best for: All trimesters, particularly the third trimester
Swimming is a great pregnancy exercise especially as you get bigger because the water supports your body weight and there’s less pressure on your back, neck and shoulders. The movement also improves circulation which can reduce any swelling in your extremities. Water offers some light resistance too, which helps to sculpt and tone muscles.
While most swim strokes are safe, you may want to avoid the butterfly as it could cause dizziness, lightheadedness or breathlessness. If you're suffering from any pelvic pain, stay away from 'frog leg' movements, like you’d do for breaststroke. It's also worth taking a pair of swimming goggles with you so you can put your face in the water rather than struggling to hold your head up, which can cause you to curve your spine a bit too much.
What Mumsnetters say
“Swimming is fantastic towards the end when you’re really heavy. The water makes you feel so much lighter. It was bliss in the last few weeks.” Parkermumma07
“Swimming is safe at any stage of pregnancy. I expect to spend most of the third trimester in the pool as the feeling of weightlessness is such a relief.” SiolGhoraidh
“Swimming is excellent during pregnancy. You'll feel great. I didn't want to get out of the pool for my last few weeks of pregnancy. I felt as light as a feather in the pool.” EightdaysaweekIloveu
Best for: All trimesters, with modifications
Yoga is a popular pregnancy workout and for good reason. The gentle stretches and poses ease aches and pains while elongating tight muscles, plus the meditation and visualisation aspect helps to reduce depression and anxiety, bringing about an overall sense of calm. Most forms of yoga also teach effective breathing techniques that can be used during labour.
In a traditional class, there may be certain moves you can’t or shouldn’t do, so it’s best to ask your yoga teacher for modifications if you’re in class or choose online yoga classes that are suitable for pregnancy.
What Mumsnetters say
“I do prenatal yoga at home using the Down Dog app. I have a stationary bike in the garage that I use occasionally, but I get so frustrated that I can’t do the things I used to do that I tend to stick to walks when it’s not raining!” RunnerDuck2020
“I second the Down Dog app. You can put together sessions that suit you according to which trimester you’re in, the time you want to spend doing it and the level. I’ve used it a lot and it’s helped loads with aches and pains, just doing 30 minutes most mornings.” Muriel84
"I’ve been doing yoga for years and really enjoy Five Parks Yoga channel on YouTube. I'm only six weeks pregnant so haven't stopped doing the same classes I used to do before I got pregnant. Some of the pregnancy yoga classes I looked at on YouTube were a bit too boring for me so I didn’t stick with them." Lightyathome
4. Pelvic floor exercises
Best for: All trimesters
Your pelvic floor is made up of a group of muscles that sit at the base of your pelvis, almost like a trampoline which supports your pelvic organs including your cervix, uterus and bladder.
During pregnancy pelvic floor exercises, also known as Kegel exercises (where you imagine you're having a wee and contract the muscles as though you’re trying to stop it mid-flow), will help your body cope with the growing weight of your baby as well as minimise the risk of incontinence, bowel problems and painful intercourse.
It’s safe to do Kegel exercises as often as possible throughout all trimesters. They can be done anytime, anywhere, and go well with other mat-based activities such as Pilates and yoga.
What Mumsnetters say
“I do my pelvic floor exercises at least once daily and have never had a problem with urine leakage during or after pregnancy and had a fast, effective pushing stage with my daughter. I, of course, can't say for sure it's all down to doing the exercises, but I'm sure it certainly helps.” Jollitwiglet
5. Resistance training
- Light dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine ball: first and second trimester
- Bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, ankle weights: third trimester
Resistance training using any form of weight including dumbbells, resistance bands, ankle or wrist weights, kettlebells or simply your own body weight is one of the best ways to keep your waistline in check and build strength for birth and beyond.
If you’re a beginner, consider lifting lighter weights or use resistance bands with a balance station which help to control your range of motion and practice your balance. Choose exercises that engage all major muscle groups including the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, biceps, shoulders, triceps, chest and core. But be careful with the core exercises you choose – they need to be safe for pregnancy. It’s always a good idea to rest between sets, let your heart rate settle and drink plenty of water.
No equipment at home? No sweat! Consider performing a range of exercises with just your body weight such as lunges, squats, step-ups on a bench or step, tricep dips and easier push-ups (where you slowly lower yourself down in a kneeling position rather than from a plank position).
If you train in the gym, make sure to avoid any machine that presses against your belly such as the seated rowing machine or lying hamstring curl machine, and skip abdominal exercises such as leg lifts or weighted crunches.
What Mumsnetters say
“I was in early pregnancy in the last lockdown and I did at-home Crossfit workouts or walks, as well as a run before the running track closed too.” Garman
“I’m past my due date and still doing the odd pregnancy HIIT video. I search for them on YouTube. There’s a big variety and they often have variations in each exercise depending on your trimester. In some videos they use dumbbells, but you can do them without weights or I've been using wine bottles. I like this as it's free, you can do it in the living room and it’s quite easy to pace to your level.” Skyla01
“I’m 32 weeks and have been continuing weightlifting during the whole pregnancy as well as walking my dog for about two hours a day. There are certain exercises I’ve stopped due to discomfort as I’ve gotten bigger, but it’s kept me sane. Generally try to get to the gym three to four times a week and midwives have told me to carry on if I’ve always been so active.” Laura1609
Best for: All trimesters, with modifications
Pilates is ideal for pregnancy as it offers a low impact, effective workout where controlled movements can be modified to suit your fitness level and range of motion.
Specific Pilates exercises focus on safely strengthening your entire core region including your pelvic floor which will help you prepare for birth and the postpartum period. It may also improve balance and breathing, reduce back pain and strengthen your legs and glute muscles.
Check that your instructor is qualified to teach pregnant women or, better yet, find a dedicated class (in person or online) for pregnancy which will focus on the areas of the body most affected, and may also include preparation for birth.
What Mumsnetters say
“I did Pilates and yoga up to six months. In the first trimester I didn’t need to adapt anything. In the second trimester my instructor gave alternative exercises when the class was doing things laying on your front/twisting etc.” MilkLady02
“I go to an antenatal Pilates class. It’s really good and I’d highly recommend finding one in your area.” Letsallscreamatthesistene
How much exercise is recommended during pregnancy?
Official guidelines suggest that you should do around 150 minutes of ‘moderate intensity’ activity every week. But what is moderate intensity activity? Sadly, walking to the kitchen to satisfy cravings doesn't quite count. Rather, moderate activity is described as “activity that makes you breathe faster” while still being able to hold a conversation. The recommendations aim to reduce issues such as obesity, diabetes and other health concerns.
It's worth remembering that three 10-minute sessions are as beneficial as a half-an-hour block. What's more, everything from a brisk walk to the bus stop to a Pilates class counts as exercise, so you can adapt your routine to fit around your lifestyle.
When to start exercising during pregnancy
You may be wondering if it’s safe to exercise in the first trimester? The short answer is yes, it’s perfectly safe provided you listen to your body and avoid elevating your core body temperature too much as this could be damaging to your baby.
It’s important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, avoid exercising in the heat of the day during warmer months and keep your heart rate in check – no extreme huffing and puffing or gasping for air, even if you’re fit.
Here are just a few health and safety factors to consider before you get started:
- Do a good warm-up and cool-down before and after each exercise session.
- If you go to an exercise class, tell the instructor you’re pregnant. They may be able to advise you on any modifications you can do if the exercises prove too strenuous.
- Don't exercise on an empty stomach - eat three or four hours before exercising and again straight after.
- If you’re new to exercise, start slowly and stay consistent even if it's just a daily walk.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
- The pregnancy hormone, relaxin, makes certain tendons and ligaments a bit floppy and more prone to injury – so take care not to overexert with high-impact moves.
- Stop immediately if you feel unwell, short of breath, experience deep pelvic pain, dizziness, loss of fluid from the vagina, spotting or Braxton Hicks contractions.
You’ll also want to check with your GP or midwife before starting an exercise regime as some women (for example those with certain conditions such as placenta praevia or very high blood pressure) may need to steer clear of exercise in pregnancy.
Can I work out at home during pregnancy?
At-home workouts are safe and convenient in pregnancy, plus they offer flexibility (who wouldn’t want to train in their pyjamas?), privacy and you can go at your own pace.
There are lots of DVDs and online videos suitable for pregnancy that you can do in your bedroom or lounge. Yoga is particularly good, and there are strengthening exercises you can do any time to keep you fit and prepare you for childbirth.
If you’re finding floor exercises difficult, try doing them sitting on a gym or birthing ball. This supports your pelvic floor nicely and gives you a solid base to do upper body movements. If you need a change of scenery, try to head out for walks or swims, then do the rest of your workouts at home.
Exercise classes specifically designed for pregnancy are a good option – and there's so much choice available now, with classes in everything from aquanatal fitness to prenatal ballet or barre classes. Many classes are available online through live streaming as well as in a studio, so make sure to check out all available options.
What Mumsnetters say:
“You can get a bunch of Les Mills workouts on YouTube. They've got stuff like yoga and body combat which vary in times. Ideal for when it’s raining and dark and getting outside is really not tempting! You don’t need any equipment for those, just a bit of space!” leftitlate37
“I try to go for a walk during the day. I book it in my diary so I can go in the light and get some vitamin D, plus I do antenatal yoga classes online. I just search for them on YouTube as I like to have a variety and save the ones I enjoy. I also bought an exercise ball as I find it useful for stretching, balance etc, and I might use it as a birth ball when the time comes. Obviously no sit-ups!” Blueberrypancake21
“I'm 25 weeks and doing about three classes a week (spin, Body Bump and circuits) plus a gym session alone (normally row or bike, stair machine, weights and pelvic floor work). I tried pregnancy Pilates but it’s not for me so I’m just sticking to an additional home yoga/Pilates routine a week. I stopped doing high-impact stuff like running, anything jumpy, squash etc at 19/20 weeks but that's just because I personally found it to be uncomfortable and make me feel like I desperately needed the loo!” Kathryn19
What kinds of exercise should I avoid in pregnancy?
There are a few exercises that are best avoided during pregnancy:
- Anything with rapid twisting and jumping movements, such as high-intensity aerobics.
- Contact sports, or anything where you might get hit, so no judo, boxing, hockey, squash or similar.
- Any exercises involving lying flat on your back should be avoided after about 16 weeks. The weight of your uterus can put pressure on your blood vessels, particularly the major blood vessel called the vena cava, which can disrupt blood flow to your baby and leave you feeling nauseas, short of breath and dizzy.
- Sit-ups are a no-no after the first trimester, as well as any abdominal exercises that pull on your tummy or put pressure on your lower back.
- Exercises where there's a high risk of falling, such as ice skating, skiing or horse riding.
- No scuba diving as your baby has no protection against decompression sickness and gas embolism.
- Mountain climbing above 2,500 metres is out due to the risk of altitude sickness.