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When to avoid exercise during pregnancy – 2024

Being active during pregnancy can be beneficial for both the mother and the baby, but it’s essential to do any exercise safely and with caution.

As your pregnancy progresses, you will need to adapt your workout routine so you can safely continue to exercise up until you give birth, however there are certain circumstances when exercise during pregnancy should be avoided.

This list aims not to instil fear but to enable you to familiarise yourself with the times when exercise during pregnancy should be avoided or when exercise during pregnancy should be approached with caution.

Absolute indications for exercise when you are pregnant

If you have any of the following conditions you should not exercise during pregnancy.

  • Heart disease – Depending on the severity and type of heart disease, exercise may be contraindicated due to the increased strain on the cardiovascular system during pregnancy.
  • Lung disease – Individuals with lung diseases such as severe asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may find it challenging to engage in strenuous physical activity and pregnancy can further affect lung function.
  • Incompetent cervix – An incompetent cervix is a condition where the cervix begins to shorten and open too early during pregnancy. In such cases, exercise can put added pressure on the cervix, potentially increasing the risk of premature birth.
  • Multiple gestation at risk of premature labour – Women carrying multiple fetuses (twins, triplets, etc.) are at a higher risk of premature labour therefore exercise is not recommended if there are also other risk factors present.
  • Persistent spotting/bleeding – Exercise can exacerbate bleeding, and in cases of unexplained or ongoing bleeding, it’s best to avoid strenuous physical activity until the cause is determined.
  • Complete/partial placenta previa – Placenta previa occurs when the placenta partially or completely covers the cervix. Engaging in exercise can cause trauma to the placenta or increase the risk of bleeding.
  • Premature labour – Women who have a history of premature labour or are at risk for it should not exercise, as certain movements or activities can potentially trigger contractions.
  • Ruptured membranes (waters breaking) – Ruptured membranes increase the risk of infection, and exercise can introduce bacteria into the uterus.
  • Uncontrolled type 1 diabetes or gestational diabetes – Properly managed diabetes during pregnancy usually allows for safe exercise. However, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels during physical activity, posing risks to both the mother and the baby.
  • Evidence of intrauterine growth restriction – Intrauterine growth restriction means the baby is not growing at the expected rate inside the womb. In such cases, it is important to prioritize rest and nutrition over exercise to support the baby’s growth.
  • Pregnancy induced hypertension or pre-eclampsia – These conditions involve high blood pressure and exercise can worsen the condition potentially leading to complications.
  • Uncontrolled epileptic fits – Physical activity could increase the risk of injury during a seizure.
  • Severe anaemia – Severe anaemia can cause fatigue and a reduced ability to transport oxygen to both the mother and the baby.
  • Cerclage – This is a temporary stitch sewing the cervix closed and physical activity can put extra pressure on the cervix so is not recommended.

Partial indications for exercise when you are pregnant

If you have any of the following conditions/symptoms when you are pregnant, speak to your doctor before exercising.

  • Chest pain – Any chest pain, including feelings of pain, pressure, heaviness, or tightness, should never be ignored because it could indicate a cardiac issue.
  • Bone or joint problem
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Taking prescription medication – Some medications can affect your ability to exercise safely during pregnancy.
  • Unusually short of breath with very light exertion
  • Unexplained pain in the abdomen, shoulders or arm
  • Severe dizzy spells or episodes of fainting
  • Lower leg pain
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat
  • Vaginal spotting
  • Calf pain or swelling (sign of a clot)
  • Previous preterm labour
  • Low lying placenta or marginal placenta previa
  • Previous decreased foetal movement
  • Suspected amniotic fluid leak
  • Dramatic weight gain/loss swelling or general noticeable appearance of puffiness
  • Itchiness – While mild itchiness is common during pregnancy due to skin stretching, severe or persistent itchiness could be a sign of a more serious condition like cholestasis, which should be discussed with your doctor.
  • Noticeable increase in thirst – Extreme thirst may indicate gestational diabetes which would need to be addressed by your doctor to enable you to exercise healthily during pregnancy.

Immediate indications for exercise when you are pregnant

If you get any of the following symptoms while you are exercise, stop exercising immediately and speak to your midwife/consultant before starting again.

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Dyspnoea (difficulty breathing before exertion) – If you find it hard to breathe even before you start exercising, it could be a sign of an underlying respiratory or cardiovascular issue.
  • Dizziness
  • Headache – Frequent or severe headaches during exercise could be related to changes in blood pressure so speak to your midwife to rule out any serious issues before continuing to exercise.
  • Chest pain – Pregnant or not, any chest pain, including feelings of pain, pressure, heaviness, or tightness, should never be ignored because it could indicate a cardiac issue.
  • Muscle weakness – Sudden muscle weakness could be a sign of dehydration or low blood sugar
  • Calf pain – Especially if it is persistent and accompanied by swelling, redness, or warmth in the area, needs to be evaluated promptly to rule out deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially serious condition.
  • Preterm labour – If you experience contractions, abdominal pain, lower back pain, or any signs of preterm labour, it’s crucial to stop exercising and seek immediate medical attention.
  • Decreased foetal movement – A noticeable decrease in fetal movement can be concerning, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Amniotic fluid leak – If you suspect your water has broken, stop exercising immediately. An amniotic fluid leak is a sign that your pregnancy may be progressing to labour.

It is very important to continue being active during pregnancy. Not only can minimise common side effects and help speed up recovery after birth but it may also play a part in them being healthier and more physically active later in life.