Pregnant weightlifter just two weeks away from giving birth provokes online storm’
by Nicole LeMarie, in METRO, 18th September 2013
I read this article with great interest and felt compelled to write a response given that I’m a Women’s Health Physiotherapist whose primary job is to work with and treat women during pregnancy and postnataly, ensuring they partake in appropriate types of exercise and remain injury free.
Exercise during pregnancy brings with it so many health benefits and includes aerobic activities, resistance training (using weights) and flexibility exercises. It is known that exercise improves muscle strength and balance enabling women to better cope with the changing shape and physical demands that pregnancy and labour place on the body. It can help to improve energy levels, it may play a role in reducing the risk of developing gestational diabetes, and it can reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve sleep quality. In addition, research evidence suggests that babies of exercising women may tolerate labour better than those of non-exercisers.
Exercise programmes during pregnancy need to be individualised. Whether mum-to-be is sedentary, whether she exercises recreationally or is a competitive athlete will help to guide the intensity of activity prescribed. It’s really important to consider the type and intensity of exercise, as well as the duration and frequency of exercise sessions, in order to ensure a balance between potential benefits and harmful effects.
In support of guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) states that there is a lack of research that exists on strength training during pregnancy. Studies have concluded that relatively low weights with multiple repetitions appear to be safe and effective during pregnancy. However, the AmericanCollege of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advise that prudence should be exerted when partaking in repetitive heavy resistance weightlifting and exercise that results in a large increase in blood pressure during pregnancy.
According to the AmericanCollege of Sports Medicine ‘activities that pose a high risk of falling or abdominal trauma should be considered undesirable’ during pregnancy. Using heavy weights whilst pregnant therefore has risks associated with it. Firstly, when using barbells or dumbbells there is potential for the weight to hit or fall on mum-to-be’s tummy. Pregnant women should exercise caution when exercising with free weights particularly if they have little or no previous experience. Sudden and explosive straightening of joints or stretching to the extremes of range should be avoided.
Secondly, the Vasalva Manoeuvre is caused by bearing down while holding your breath. This can often occur when lifting heavy weights. As it isn’t known whether this manoeuvre causes increased stress on mum or baby’s cardiovascular system, it should be avoided when lifting weights. Thirdly, joints are more relaxed in pregnancy as a result of the hormone relaxin, so it’s really important to ensure safe amounts of weights are used, during controlled movements, in well aligned positions in order to avoid injury.
It’s important to realise that even elite athletes (like the bodybuilder in METRO’s article) who continue to train during pregnancy ‘require supervision by an obstetric care provider with the knowledge of the impact of strenuous exercise on maternal and fetal outcomes’.
In the majority of cases exercise is safe for both mum and baby during pregnancy and women should therefore be encouraged to start or continue exercise in order to experience the many health benefits. All pregnant women should seek advice from their doctor prior to starting a fitness regime.
However, depending on the type of exercise in question, pregnant women need to balance the benefits and risks to them and their unborn baby. Pregnant women can train with weights but need to be aware of the constraints and risks whilst further good quality research trials in this field are undertaken.
Claire-Anne Head, Clinical Specialist, Women’s Health Physiotherapist at Central Health Physiotherapy