Safe, Effective Cardio
When it comes to cardio exercise, Fit to Deliver co-authors Karen Nordahl, M.D., an OB-GYN in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Renee Jeffreys have a rule of thumb: "If you were really active before pregnancy, stay really active. If you weren't, now is a good time to become active." For beginners, Nordahl recommends 30 minutes of walking three days a week.
During pregnancy you'll need to scale back on the intensity. Gauge your intensity using the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale from 0 to 10: Aim for an intensity between 3 and 5 (you should be able to talk but not belt out show tunes). Ignore heart-rate readouts on the cardio machines; since your blood volume increases during pregnancy, and your resting heart rate is considerably higher than normal, heart rate isn't an accurate gauge of intensity.
Which cardio machine is best during pregnancy? Try them all. That way, if one becomes uncomfortable, your body will already be accustomed to the alternatives.
Treadmill - Walking on the treadmill is ideal since you can control the terrain. Add moderate hills when you're up to it; go flat when you're not or if hills trigger calf cramps. If you're a runner, let your body tell you when it's time to switch to walking; nearly everyone does.
Elliptical - The elliptical trainer places little stress on your joints. However, the motion may feel uncomfortable if you're experiencing symphysis pubic dysfunction (SPD)--a pain in the front of your crotch.
Stationary Bike - The recumbent and upright bikes are both good options. Many women like the back support the recumbent offers, although in the third trimester your belly might get in the way of your knees.
The Right Weight Routine
Strength training is safe and one of the best ways to minimize aches and pains. Weight machines are ideal, especially for gym newbies, because they control your range of motion. "During pregnancy, your joints get looser, and it's easy to move outside of your normal range," says Jeffreys. However, if you're accustomed to doing free-weight exercises, you can continue.
Steer clear of any machine with a pad that presses against your belly, such as the seated row machine or abdominal machines. In addition, forgo any overhead lift since this kind of motion can increase the curve in your lower spine (aka hyperlordosis).
The strength routine below targets the muscles that are key to reducing discomfort during pregnancy. Do one or two sets of 8 to 12 reps for each except the plank. Choose a weight that allows you to perform the repetitions properly and comfortably. And after the first trimester, avoid any exercise done while lying on your back.
Best Machines: Seated cable row, lat pulldown
Pregnancy Benefit: As your breasts get bigger, your shoulders round forward. Strengthening the muscles between your shoulder blades helps counteract the slump.
Best Machine: Seated chest-press
Pregnancy Benefit: It's important to create muscle balance in your upper body by working your pecs.
Best Machines: Biceps and triceps
Pregnancy Benefit: Strong arms. Soon you'll be schlepping a baby, a diaper bag--and the groceries.
Best Machines: Leg extension and seated leg-curl
Pregnancy Benefit: Your quadriceps and hamstrings bear the weight of your pregnancy as your belly grows.
Best Exercise: Plank
Pregnancy Benefit: Keeping your abs strong will help prevent pregnancy-induced back pain.
How to: Lower onto all fours so your wrists are directly under your shoulders. Lift your knees off the floor (don't arch your back) so your body forms a straight line. Hold for one to two breaths, working up to five breaths.
Suzanne Schlosberg is the mother of twins and the co-author of The Active Woman's Pregnancy Log (Ballantine, 2008).
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