For a long time people thought you should avoid exercising during pregnancy. But newer research has shown that maintaining an exercise routine offers many health benefits for you and your baby — including better sleep. It can help decrease your chances of developing gestational diabetes, preeclampsia or a cesarean delivery, and it can even improve your postpartum recovery time.
As someone who maintains an active lifestyle, I’ve been able to keep exercising during my pregnancy with the help of a Future app coach. I was training with Future before my pregnancy and it’s been a smooth transition, since I was paired up with a coach who has the proper credentials and experience when it comes to training pregnant clients. I had to make some changes to my workout routine the further along I got into my pregnancy, to adjust to the physical changes that were occurring within my body. Even though I’m not aiming to hit any personal records at the moment, exercising has kept me healthy and has simultaneously functioned as a sleeping aid.
If you’re pregnant and looking to improve your sleep, here’s what to know about how exercise can help and which workouts to do. Remember to consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.
How often should you exercise and what modifications should you use?
According to the American College Of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pregnant individuals should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. “A good rule of thumb is to exercise 20 to 60 minutes, twice a week, with an intensity that is somewhat hard, but still able to talk through the exercise,” advises Dr. Jana Richardson, a Chicago-based pelvic floor physical therapist.
In the first trimester, pregnant people can continue with their prepregnancy exercise routines. I was able to exercise more or less like normal, but I had to make modifications due to morning sickness and exhaustion, which are very common in the first trimester. However, pregnant individuals should avoid contact sports, such as boxing, soccer or hockey, and any form of exercise that causes your body to overheat, like hot yoga.
In the second and third trimesters, focusing on exercises that minimize the risk of falling and provide better support for the growing belly are ideal. “Doing sit-ups, higher intensity jumping activities, or exercises that require one to stay on their back for an extended period of time should be modified,” explains Richardson. It’s also important to listen to your body, stop if an exercise doesn’t feel right and stay properly hydrated, especially during hot summer days.
What time of day should you work out?
Engaging in any form of exercise can be beneficial to getting better sleep. “Moderate exercise during the day helps to tire your body out, making it easier to fall asleep at night,” explains Laura Lynn LaCour, Future performance coach (and my trainer). She adds, “This is because by expending energy through physical activity, your body will naturally crave restorative sleep.”
Some people need to consider working out earlier in the day, because they may find it disrupts their sleep if they do it right before bed. Richardson says, “Pregnant people should aim to complete their workouts at least a few hours before bedtime.” LaCour agrees and says, “Exercise generally stimulates the body and increases heart rate, body temperature and adrenaline levels, which can make it harder for some individuals to fall asleep.”
If you must exercise close to bedtime, Richardson recommends focusing on low impact exercises such as prenatal yoga, light resistance training and walking. “These activities promote relaxation, reduce physical discomfort and ease stress, all of which can contribute to better sleep quality during pregnancy,” she says.
Since this varies per individual, knowing the time that’s most optimal for your body to work out without disruption to your sleep will be helpful in establishing an exercise routine.
What exercises can you do for better sleep?
Once you’ve figured out the time of day that’s best for you, you’ll need to decide which types of workouts you can safely do. Below are some of the expert-approved workouts to consider.
Walking: Going for a walk is a low-impact way to get your heart rate up, and it doesn’t require much, except a comfortable pair of shoes. You can even choose from some of our top walking shoe picks if you’re looking for a new pair. It doesn’t have to be a formal walk either — getting your steps in counts if you’re taking the dog for a walk or even running errands by foot around your neighborhood. I stopped running after the second trimester because it was no longer comfortable for me and the summer heat was fast approaching. Instead, I embraced going on walks while listening to podcasts to pass the time.
Swimming: If you enjoy hitting the pool, a good way to get in some cardio is by swimming. “Swimming is a fantastic low-impact exercise option during pregnancy, since it can help alleviate discomfort and promote relaxation, leading to better sleep,” says LaCour. This is especially helpful if you experience any joint pain attributed to pregnancy, since swimming takes pressure off your joints.
Pelvic floor exercises: You can’t mention pregnancy without talking about the importance of the pelvic floor. “Practicing pelvic floor exercises regularly can improve sleep quality, as it helps to reduce discomfort in the lower back region,” explains LaCour. These exercises are known as Kegels and they focus on strengthening the muscles that support the bladder, uterus and bowels. Richardson says pelvic floor exercises and controlled breathing techniques are essential for pregnant people.
“These exercises promote better blood flow to the pelvic region, relieve tension, and can help with common pregnancy discomforts like back pain and pelvic pressure, all of which can positively influence sleep,” Richardson says. Additionally, she says, pelvic floor exercises, particularly reverse Kegels, coordinated with breathing can improve overall birth outcomes.
Prenatal yoga: Prenatal yoga is a good way to remain limber, improve your balance and ease any pregnancy symptoms. LaCour says, “By doing gentle yoga poses and stretching, it can also help relax the body and mind before bed.” Richardson recommends prenatal yoga as a way to relieve any pressure caused by pregnancy. She says, “Prenatal yoga can target areas that are prone to tension during pregnancy, like the lower back and hips.”
Strength training: One of the forms of exercise I’ve maintained throughout my pregnancy isstrength training. This was a challenge because I was used to lifting heavy weights and doing certain movements that felt comfortable, but I had to change things up as my pregnancy progressed. Luckily, LaCour was able to guide me by creating a workout program that was modified to work with my pregnancy needs. She advises, “Pregnant individuals should ideally aim to strength train two to three times per week and should focus on low-impact and pregnancy-safe exercises that target major muscle groups.” This can include exercises such as squats, lunges, modified push-ups and seated rows. LaCour says each movement pattern mimics ADLs, or activities of daily living: “These are movements you’ll be doing with a heavy belly or baby, so we prepare you to do so with weight.” It’s also important to use proper form, avoid exercises that put strain on the abdomen, and listen to your body’s cues.
Here’s the takeaway
As you can expect, during pregnancy you have to make some adjustments to your lifestyle. But you don’t have to give up working out. Maintaining an exercise routine is a good way to help keep yourself healthy during this period, and it also helps you sleep well. If you’re uncertain of where to begin, first speak with your doctor to get clearance that you’re a healthy candidate to continue exercising during your pregnancy. Next, seek a fitness professional who has the proper pre- and postnatal exercise credentials and has worked with the pregnant population before. This will keep you safe and fit during your pregnancy and as a result contribute to healthy sleep habits.