I fear the belly.
August 8, 2008 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about the health effects of pregnancy.

What are the positive and negative, short and long-term effects of pregnancy. For something that really seems to change your body and be a significant part of a woman's life, it seems like I can find little information on the negative things that happen and what you can do to head them off or minimize them. Everything seems to be about the fetus -- which is, of course, great and valuable information to have -- but I'd like to know how women keep themselves healthy before, during and after a pregnancy.

Right now the only exercise that I'm getting is regular bike commuting. This seems like not the ideal kind of physical exercise to count on in order to keep fit during pregnancy. What kind of regular exercise could I be getting into that could be sustained during pregnancy and after?
posted by amanda to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I really think a good google search could help you with this. As well as talking to your doctor. Every woman is different, there are going to be different food warnings and exercise ideas for each one.
posted by agregoli at 11:26 AM on August 8, 2008

Keeping fit during pregnancy is an interesting idea. Some say that one should exercise others say that minimal exercise is best. Bike commuting seems pretty intense. I'm 6 months pregnant and could imagine being on a bike right now. Walking to and from work is tough enough.

Similarly, what is healthy? I feel pretty okay and I just ate a huge ice cream thing. :)
posted by k8t at 11:29 AM on August 8, 2008

Best answer: So I've never been pregnant. But my wife has twice!

a) Pregnancy alters the risks for breast cancer, generally lowering them.

b) Swimming is a great exercise to do while pregnant. My wife swam until days before she delivered her first child. The second time around she couldn't swim as much because she had another child to take care of. My sister biked into her third trimester (again, first kid) which I found kind of weird but she enjoyed it. She said it wasn't uncomfortable for her at all.

Of all the (white, middle-class) women I know, having a child didn't seem to affect their general health in the long term. The ones who put on some weight long-term seemed to do so because of their underlying lifestyle. The ones who were fit before were generally fit after. This is purely anecdotal and YMMV.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on August 8, 2008

This is very much a talk with your doctor type of thing. They will run some tests and help you lay out exactly what you need to do to be healthy before, during and after pregnancy. Some doctors will even give you a literal planer of important health goals and milestones for the process.
one thing though: you will lose a shocking amount of calcium.
posted by French Fry at 11:32 AM on August 8, 2008

Best answer: I did prenatal pilates that I really enjoyed and it's supposedly good for strengthening the core muscles, which you'll definitely be needing for labor. Now, at 8 weeks post-partum, after an unexpected c-section, my midwife recommended starting up pilates, yoga and/or swimming to get those muscles back into shape!

Be prepared to be doing lots of lifting after the baby arrives - the baby only gets heavier and with all the car seats, strollers, and other gear, having some upper body strength is a good idea.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:37 AM on August 8, 2008

What kind of regular exercise could I be getting into that could be sustained during pregnancy and after?

Swimming :)
posted by DarlingBri at 11:38 AM on August 8, 2008

I really liked this pre-natal yoga video when I was pregnant :http://www.amazon.com/Prenatal-Yoga-Shiva-Rea/dp/B0000BYNMH

Walking was good, but got tougher as the belly got bigger! My walks got shorter and shorter and became more of a waddle than a walk by the end of my pregnancy. :o)

Walking was my absolute saviour once my son was born. I walked miles around my neighbourhood, pushing my newborn in the stroller. He slept, I got some fresh air and sunshine. It was an excellent mood boost.
posted by netsirk at 11:45 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I got nowhere doing research on this when I was pregnant. Studies are very hard to come by on exercise and pregnancy. Many of them are flawed or lack control groups or have other problems (it's hard to ethically do research studies on pregnant women.)

There aren't clear guidelines for doctors and I got different stories ("pregnancy is a great time to get in shape!" and "Don't get your heartrate over 140" (!)) from different doctors. In the end I did what I wanted and now I have a healthy five week old girl. In the interest of purely anecdotal evidence, here's what I did--my feeling about this when I was pregnant was that I was entirely on my own. Like I said, I did what made sense to me. All the standard internetty disclaimers apply:

I ran up to seven months and stopped due to discomfort (not pain, it just felt cruddy after a while). Then I switched to other forms of cardio--stairmaster, mostly. Up to the day before I had her(at 39 weeks, five days) I went to the gym five days a week and averaged 45 minutes each time. I started lifting weights (upper body) around month five, I think, because I thought upper body strength might hook me up in childbirth. It had the side effect of giving me something nice about my body to focus on when later I looked like a cross between a toad and the Buddha.

In the third trimester, I kept my heart rate below 150 during cardio. I ate well and gained about 30 pounds during my pregnancy. I lost 26 pounds in the first month postpartum, which was kind of weird, I thought, but whatever. It's not because a leg fell off or anything.

I had her via a c-section (she was breech). She was eight pounds, seven ounces. I'm 38 and was in decent shape to start with, but wasn't and am not an athlete, I have stomach fat and love food, so I'm not like one of those women who runs marathons while pregnant.

My advice is do your own research and make your own decisions based on your own history. Everyone says 'ask your doctor' as if we all have the same doctor but we don't--everyone's doctor has a different agenda. My (female) ob gyn doctors were not particularly supportive of my exercising. My (male) GP was all for it.

My personal feeling is that the current medical model treats pregnancy like an illness. I got really sick and tired of being treated like a sick person, but at the same time I didn't want to take anything away from the baby in terms of nutrition, so I was pretty thoughtful about what I ate. Since I was trying to build a little muscle in my arms, I tried to eat a little extra protein so that there would be adequate building material for both the baby and my piddly little biceps--that kind of thing.

I LOVED working out when I was pregnant. Loved it. It was the time when I almost always felt good, strong, and awake. Be prepared to be stared at, however. You'll really want to cultivate a good 'I'm not noticing you' expression.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:16 PM on August 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

The advice that I have encountered a lot is that if you've been doing X exercise activity regularly beforehand, you're probably ok to keep doing it (minus things like crunches). So, if someone was pretty sedentary beforehand, it might not be the best idea to jump into a tough workout, but if you are a triathlete, you can probably handle keeping up a decent workout. For everyone in between, walking, swimming, pilates and other low-impact workouts are probably ok. However, if you do not much of anything for the 40+ weeks, you probably won't sentence yourself to a lifetime of bad health :)

I was pretty immobile from about 6 weeks to 12 weeks, due to lack of energy and nausea. I'm 18 weeks now and feeling much better and I've tried to walk as much as possible. It's amazing how much less stamina I have, though. I get tired and thirsty much more easily than I did pre-pregnancy.
posted by stefnet at 12:19 PM on August 8, 2008

Pregnancy puts you at greater risk for deep vein thrombosis (greater than the contraceptive pill) so you have to be aware of that if you are flying or whatever.

Regular exercise? I ran up until around 20 weeks or so, although in very early pregnancy fatigue was an issue and I literally went from running 10 km at a time to not being able to run 5K without stopping in the space of a week. In the second half of pregnancy I've been walking a lot (not difficult: I live in New York) and doing lots of stretching. Women who exercise regularly have lower birth-weight babies on average, and I think reduced likelihood of gestational diabetes, although I may be wrong because I'm typing this off the top of my head.

Any exercise you do should, of course, be in full knowledge of your health-care person.
posted by gaspode at 12:22 PM on August 8, 2008

(I should add: I'm 36 weeks pregnant. I work out at a gym 3 or 4 times a week, now walking uphill on a treadmill, and some weight machines)
posted by gaspode at 12:23 PM on August 8, 2008

Actually, you can continue riding your bike. Or at least my doctor told me I could continue riding mine, until I got too big for it to be comfortable (note: my doctor went mountain biking when she was nine months pregnant, but said I shouldn't follow her example). She said that it was fine to keep on at the level of exercise I had been doing pre-pregnancy, just not to try to up it.

I liked water aerobics when pregnant.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:42 PM on August 8, 2008

I found this website, The Shape of A Mother (nsfw) enlightening. Women submit photos of their bodies before, during and after pregnancy. I kind of feel like all the significant physical changes to a woman's body (sagging, stretchmarks, etc.) get glossed over in most literature about pregnancy.
posted by chiababe at 2:21 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ditto what everyone's said about maintaining an existing level of fitness. But it really depends on how you feel. My first pregnancy stopped me like a brick wall and I did almost nothing due to fatigue (I had been doing power yoga, swimming and cycling). For my current pregnancy, I'd started a weight training program about a six weeks before, on top of a basic level of cardiovascular strength, and I'm still doing it at 15 weeks. I wear a heart rate monitor and am very good about resting when I get to a maximum exertion and drinking lots of water. I'm also still cycling, swimming and walking. Go figure. I imagine it'll get unwieldy to bike ride rather than painful. Your question asks only about pregnancy, so of course these answers don't begin to address the fatigue and constant exhaustion of parenting. :-)

Other than that, I've read up on pregnancy being a buffer against breast cancer, but also aggravating calcium loss. On the aesthetic side of things, it really varies from woman to woman, but stretch marks and a different shape to your body are pretty normal (even if you do lose all the pregnancy weight).

On preview, wow, cool site chiababe!
posted by cocoagirl at 2:31 PM on August 8, 2008

I did yoga and walking. I would recommend though any woman thinking about becoming pregnant to work on strengthening your back muscles! Carrying my now 7 kg squirming bundle around is beginning to take a toll.
posted by gomichild at 3:15 PM on August 8, 2008

I did cardio and weights throughout my pregnancy, gained about 30 pounds, and was 2 lbs under my pre-pregnancy weight at my 6-week followup.

While I was pregnant, I didn't do abdominal exercises, but I did a lot of upper-body, roman bench for the back, and some lower-body weight work.
posted by mogget at 4:02 PM on August 8, 2008

A friend loved swimming during her third trimester because she felt nice and light in the water and could float on her stomach after months of not being able to lie on it.
posted by Airhen at 4:10 PM on August 8, 2008

My manager at a college job I had did a triathlon 6 months into her pregnancy. She was kind of a badass, though.

I definitely got creeped out about getting pregnant when I heard about the baby sucking out your calcium. My grandma blames her two children for all the dental work she's had to have done.
posted by crinklebat at 7:11 PM on August 8, 2008


Work those hips! It really help during labour, especially if you sit on a birthing ball and roll the hips. I've been told by several middle eastern women that it is traditional to belly dance during pregnancy and labour. I am a lazy slug but I walk a lot and I credit the multiple circuits around my neighbourhood during labour with having a quick, one hour labour with my last baby. And do kegels constantly. you are thinking about them now so do five quick ones! When it's time to push, you want the muscles, and I get my vagina back to normal tightness within a week of the birth.

Negative effects of pregnancy include weakening of the teeth and often changing your vision. I'm too tired to read the entire article but I wonder if this June 2006 article Effects of Pregnancy on the Army Physical Fitness Test may have some information for you.
posted by saucysault at 10:09 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

My friend's teeth all started going bad after she had a baby. My mom said she never had a problem with her periods until after I was born, after which (after the initial lochia phase) she started bleeding more than she ever had.

Do Kegel exercises to spring your muscles back into shape and prevent incontinence.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:50 AM on August 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the good advice and anecdotes here -- just what I was looking for. Of course, I will talk to my doctor.

I'd like to point out that the comment by IndigoRain right there... incontinence? What? Why? Who will be incontinent?

That's the stuff I fear (among other things) and I've never heard about the calcium issue.
posted by amanda at 10:58 AM on August 9, 2008

Re: incontinence...

You may find that while pregnant and after that you aren't as in control of your tinkle when laughing. Basically, a little might escape if you have to go really bad or laugh/cough/etc. You aren't going to start completely wetting yourself but all of those muscles down there get really loose (which is why constipation can also be an issue during pregnancy). Kegels help to keep those muscles more toned and in use.
posted by stefnet at 1:48 PM on August 9, 2008

It's the internet so I won't let my uncertainty about 'facts' get in the way of my replying: I think incontinence can be caused by weak pelvic floor muscles and/or loss of muscle tone in general. Your body secretes a hormone that causes lots of stuff to relax in preparation for childbirth. Your teeth move a little easier (nothing dramatic). You'll be more stretchy in general. So there's that.

There's also the dreaded potential of episiotomy and childbirth trauma that can make it harder to use those muscles, and thus a little more likely to pee when you sneeze, etc. These things don't happen to everyone, and in some cases it's a bigger deal. Like everything else people tell you about being pregnant, it's a 'maybe' and nothing to get too worked up about. Kegels supposedly help but I rarely did them and laughed hard enough to pee my pants several times when I was pregnant. I just don't care.

Then I had a c section and now all peeing systems are normal.

Re. calcium loss: I think that's due to breastfeeding, not pregnancy. But either way, supplements are a good idea, even for non-pregnant, non-breastfeeding women.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:53 PM on August 9, 2008

My dentist told me that the teeth thing ("A tooth for every baby") was a myth -- although it might seem true, as mothers of infants are less likely to have time to brush and floss as often as they should.

The lower calcium while breastfeeding is temporary. No supplements needed.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:08 PM on August 9, 2008

The potential calcium loss is *not* just during breastfeeding. As the fetus develops, it has the potential to steal your calcium in its efforts to build its bones. It's a needy little bugger.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:55 PM on August 9, 2008

Also, urinary incontinence during and after pregnancy.

And, I hate to say it, fecal incontinence (though not as prevalent).
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:59 PM on August 9, 2008

Oh gosh yeah, incontinence! I was still slightly incontinent 2 years after my first. Two weeks after I started jumping rope (about 3 minutes at a time, 3 times a week), the problem was solved. Best unintended result ever.

Also, itchy skin. Itchy nipples and itchy tummy and, for me, itchy thighs.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:56 AM on August 10, 2008

To reassure you though I had a bitch of an episiotomy and no issues with incontinence. Doesn't hurt to do some kegels though.

On the plus side - you will improve on arm wrestling from the muscles you build carrying your child and all the paraphernalia around.
posted by gomichild at 7:23 AM on August 10, 2008

Here I sit with a 12 week old baby, delivered at 32 weeks due to pre-eclampsia.

Positive health effects: great nails, great hair, great skin. Lower-than-normal blood pressure up to third trimester. I have asthma and actually felt like my symptoms got better during my pregnancy.

Negative health effects: Pre-eclampsia. My blood pressure inexplicably raised to 200/100 on its worst day at 31 weeks. I spent 10 days in the hospital and had to deliver early. I had a vaginal delivery but a lot of women can't tolerate that and have c-sections. The bedrest that I was forced to endure could lead to thrombosis or embolism from inactivity. For most women, pre-e resolves within 6 weeks after pregnancy, but some have high blood pressure (hypertension) for the rest of their lives, even when they were fine before they got pregnant. Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease/heart attack, stroke and virtually all diseases where cholesterol and the blood are concerned. Most doctors will not allow you to go on hormones for birth control or menopause when you have blood pressure over 120/80 (which would be considered pre-hypertension, according to US guidelines). This can be a major problem for women who want to control their period, control the effects of menopause or for whom hormonal swings are a cause of migraine. (FWIW, my BP has resolved back to pre-pregnancy levels and I was 2 lbs. under my pre-pregnancy week at my 6-week post-partum checkup.)

Gestational diabetes. This has been documented to raise your chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. It can also lead to a large baby, which can lead to a C-section.

C-sections, like any abdominal surgery, can lead to pain while nerves re-connect, incision site pain, scar tissue, adhesions if you are not really careful and the necessity of having c-sections for any subsequent deliveries.

Post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis can affect a woman after having a baby.

If you choose to breastfeed, it is not advisable to choose regular birth control pills (as opposed to the mini-pill) because the estrogen in regular pills can inhibit your milk.

The swelling during pregnancy makes a lot of women unable or unwilling to exercise. The fatigue, especially in the first trimester, can be overwhelming, as can the morning sickness (nausea/vomiting/general feeling of sickness) which can last all day. Sometimes, women's feet change sizes. In my case, swelling was so bad with my pre-e that my eyelids and even my gums were swollen (my teeth actually shifted around an then came back to normal post-partum).

Women who breastfeed stand a higher risk of dental cavities. Calcium supplements are advised.

During labor and delivery: if you do it in a hospital, they will probably want to put an IV line in you, which is always a potential source of infection. So is a Foley catheter (required if you have an epidural). Anesthesia and analgesia pose risks. You can pick up infections in a hospital that can follow you forever--for example, MRSA. Some are more temporary but can be quite dreadful (C. diff.).

There are a lot of food, drink and common drugs that are not recommended or advised for pregnant or lactating women, at least in the US. This may pose a significant challenge to your lifestyle. For example, you may want to treat the common cold with Sudafed, but your doctor will not recommend it. My doctor did, but would not let me take Robitussin for the ensuing cough.

And, of course smoking is detrimental to a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby. Alcohol is debatable and depends on your doctor and where in the world you live.

A lot of this is anecdotal. There are few studies of women who are pregnant because no one wants to be responsible for dismal outcomes. You would probably find no two doctors have the same opinion about what is fine and what is not. You have to make the decisions for yourself. You can't tell what is going to happen to you during pregnancy until you are deep in the throes of it. It's totally unpredictable and can change on a dime. Everyone is different, everyone has different tolerance levels. This is the beginning of a life-long "you can't compare yourself or your child to anyone else." I hope you have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.
posted by FergieBelle at 10:18 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

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