“We go by the principles of Fit: frequency, intensity and time,” says Joan Murphy, co-founder of pregnancy programme Mumhood at London gym Frame. “Reduce the time, distance, weight and how often, but you can keep going. If someone asks ‘can I do this?’ our response is always: ‘Yes,’ followed quickly by: ‘But how does it feel?’”
Murphy’s advice feels like both a licence to behave in a way your body wants and encouragement for when it doesn’t. When she says: “You wouldn’t run a marathon without doing some exercise in preparation, so why go into a marathon labour without getting your body ready?” I find myself slamming my glass on the table and cheering. “If you have a base level of fitness, your body’s used to that,” says Murphy. According to NHS guidelines, you can keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise for as long as you feel comfortable. There is even some evidence that active women are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour.
“But there is a list of things you need to be aware of,” warns Murphy. “Stay hydrated, don’t overheat, stop if you feel dizzy. Also, as you get the release of the hormone relaxin, your pelvis will start to move apart and your joints will loosen, so be careful of any impact exercise that will put strain on your hips, knees and ankles. Don’t do anything that really puts you off balance, like skiing or horse riding. This isn’t the time to go for your personal best. This is a time when you have to let go of those expectations. The more you let go, the better it’ll be postnatally.”
Still, there are scores of myths around exercising while pregnant. You may, for example, have heard that exercising on your back after 16 weeks is a no-no. “That’s really old school,” Murphy says, rolling her eyes. “Depending on where the baby is, they could lie on the vein that pumps fresh blood to the heart and stop the blood flow. But when the baby does that – you know. It will be very uncomfortable and you’ll roll over. You will feel if you should be lying on your back. And there are lots of great ways to work on your core without lying on your back, of course. It’s also really important through the whole pregnancy to work on your glutes, because they’re what will hold the pelvis stable. That will help alleviate back pain.”
From experience, the link between physical and mental health – which can become even more important during pregnancy – seems to be the least considered aspect in the broader conversation. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends exercise as a key factor in maintaining mental wellbeing during pregnancy, while recent research from the University of Southampton has shown that moderate intensity exercise is associated with lower rates of antenatal depression (which affects around one in 10 women at some point during pregnancy). “We’re all operating on a mental health spectrum and where you sit on that spectrum will change, of course,” says Murphy.
“Fitness can offer you time out, away from your phone, in an environment where you are comfortable, but number one it is about breathing. If you’re feeling stressed or depressed or anxious, you need to breathe properly. And exercise can help you regulate that.”