Doing regular physical activity has health benefits during pregnancy and also helps to prepare the body for childbirth. However, it is important to modify or choose a suitable exercise program because pregnancy affects the body's response to exercise.
Be sensible about the level of exercise that you do. Consult a doctor, physiotherapist or healthcare professional to make sure the exercise routine is not harmful for you or your baby. If the pregnancy is complicated (such as expecting more than one baby, high blood pressure, heart disease, pre-eclampsia or risk of premature births) it is best to talk to a doctor.
Don't exhaust yourself — a light to moderate exercise program should be the aim. You may need to slow down as your pregnancy progresses or if your maternity team advises you to. If in doubt, consult your maternity team. As a general rule, a light to moderate level should allow you to hold a conversation as you exercise when pregnant. If you become breathless as you talk, you're probably exercising too strenuously.
If you weren't active before you got pregnant, don't suddenly take up strenuous exercise. If you start an aerobic exercise program, tell the instructor that you're pregnant and build up. You could begin with no more than 15 minutes of continuous exercise, 3 times a week and increase this gradually to up to 2½ hours a week.
Remember that exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to be beneficial — and any physical activity is better than none.
Exercise tips when you're pregnant:
- Always warm up before exercising, and cool down afterwards.
- Try to keep active on a daily basis; 30 minutes of walking each day can be enough, but if you can't manage that, any amount is better than nothing. If you haven’t been active or are overweight, start with 3 to 4 days spread across the week.
- Avoid strenuous exercise in hot or humid weather.
- Drink plenty of water and other fluids.
- If you go to exercise classes, make sure your teacher is properly qualified, and knows that you're pregnant and how many weeks pregnant you are.
- You might like to try swimming because the water will support your increased weight. Some local swimming pools provide aquanatal classes with qualified instructors.
- Walking is a great exercise — it is a moderate aerobic activity but will have minimal stress on your joints. Other good choices are low-impact aerobics and cycling on a stationary bike.
Exercises to avoid
Avoid these physical activities:
- lying flat on your back, particularly after 16 weeks, because the weight of your bump presses on the big blood vessels and can make you feel faint and reduce blood flow to your baby
- contact sports where there’s a risk of being hit, such as kickboxing, judo, squash, tennis, football and hockey
- horse riding, downhill skiing, ice hockey, gymnastics and cycling, because there’s a risk of falling
- big changes in pressure like scuba-diving, because the baby has no protection against decompression sickness and gas embolism (gas bubbles in the bloodstream)
- exercise at heights over 2,500m above sea level until you have acclimatised. This is because you and your baby are at risk of altitude sickness (a decrease in oxygen)
- repetitive high impact exercise, or with lots of twists and turns, high stepping or sudden stops that cause joint discomfort
- exercise where you get too hot. Your body’s temperature is slightly higher when you are pregnant. Intensive exercise may cause your core temperature to rise to an unsafe level for your baby. Limit your exercise to moderate intensity, drink plenty of water, wear lightweight clothing and only exercise in cool, well ventilated places (no spas or saunas)
When to stop exercising
Signs that you need to stop exercising and should see your doctor or midwife immediately include:
- chest pain
- unexplained shortness of breath
- dizziness, feeling faint or headache
- muscle weakness
- calf pain, swelling or redness
- sudden swelling of the ankles, hands or face
- vaginal bleeding
- nausea and vomiting
- reduced movement of your baby
Exercises for a fitter pregnancy
Try to fit the exercises listed below into your daily routine. They will strengthen your muscles so that you can carry the extra weight of pregnancy. They'll also make joints stronger, improve circulation, ease backache and generally help you feel well.
As your baby gets bigger, you may find that the hollow in your lower back increases and this can give you backache. These exercises strengthen stomach (abdominal) muscles and ease backache, which can be a problem in pregnancy:
- Start in a box position (on all fours) with knees under hips, hands under shoulders, with fingers facing forward and abdominals lifted to keep your back straight.
- Pull in your stomach muscles and raise your back up towards the ceiling, curling the trunk and allowing your head to relax gently forward. Don't let your elbows lock.
- Hold for a few seconds then slowly return to the box position.
- Take care not to hollow your back; it should always return to a straight/neutral position. Do this slowly and rhythmically 10 times, making your muscles work hard and moving your back carefully.
- Only move your back as far as you can comfortably.
Pelvic tilt exercises
- Stand with your shoulders and bottom against a wall.
- Keep your knees soft.
- Pull your tummy button towards your spine, so that your back flattens against the wall; hold for four seconds and release.
- Repeat up to 10 times.
Pelvic floor exercises
Pelvic floor exercises help to strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor, which come under great strain in pregnancy and childbirth. The pelvic floor consists of layers of muscles that stretch like a supportive hammock from the pubic bone (in front) to the end of the backbone.
Read more on pelvic floor exercises.
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Last reviewed: August 2020