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Exercising during the First Trimester

Your fitness trainer or therapist will likely be one of the first people you tell when you become pregnant (even if you haven't gone public with it yet). This can be important so your instructor is aware of what you are dealing with, also in case you require modifications to your exercise or movements.

However, telling anyone during your first trimester is a personal preference and this article addresses some of the common symptoms you may experience, how to adjust to your changing body, the role of the core/pelvic floor connection and how to adjust your exercise in the first trimester.

During the first trimester you will go through a lot of physical and psychological changes including changes in your body, energy levels and hormones, which may also affect your emotions. Your feelings about your body may regularly switch between overwhelm, apprehension and excitement!

One of the most supportive things you can do for yourself during this time is to listen to your body and honour the changes as they come!

The first trimester is general classified as extending to week 13 of your pregnancy, and is accompanied by some of all of these physiological changes:

  • Fatigue

  • Morning sickness (or in some case all-day sickness)

  • Tender, heavier breasts

  • Headaches

  • Increased urination

  • Increased breathlessness

  • Insomnia

  • Vivid dreams

If you’re someone who experiences many of these symptoms, your goal for this trimester is simply to make it through while taking care of yourself and resting as much as possible. You may not feel like moving your body much, and if that’s the case, just do the best you can to follow the workouts in the programme. You may find that you can only get in one or two workouts a week and that’s ok!

However, if you feel pretty good during your first trimester, you can follow the specific guidelines outlined below.

Exercise during the First Trimester

During this time, you may feel short of breath and have less energy but your exercise goals could include:

  • Increasing or maintaining your strength or muscle mass,

  • Strengthening your core and pelvic floor connection,

  • Developing a solid aerobic foundation,

  • Staying somewhat active despite experiencing mild to moderate fatigue (severe fatigue requires rest!).

Despite what you may have heard from well-meaning friends, and family members, exercise during pregnancy has many benefits. During pregnancy, you are training for one of the most physically demanding events of your life. Exercise during pregnancy is very important and its impact is multi-faceted.

Movement affects your body’s levels of hormones to improve your mood and your psychological health, and may also help alleviate common pregnancy symptoms, provide opportunities for social engagement with other pregnant women, improve your ability to recover from labour and delivery, attenuate excessive prenatal weight gain, and keep your body strong and structurally sound during pregnancy.

Maintaining good posture and alignment through exercise can help the baby sit in a position that allows for an easier labour and delivery experience, reduces lower back pain and muscle/joint problems. What’s more, physical activity during pregnancy can improve your ability to carry extra weight more comfortably.

During pregnancy, your body increases its production of hormone called relaxin, which, as the name suggests, works to relax and soften the ligaments in the pelvis (as well as soften and widen the cervix). While this is perfectly normal and very helpful in preparing your body for childbirth, it can lead to compensatory movement and overuse of certain muscles and muscle groups in some women causing pain around the pelvis and/or lower back. Exercise, specifically, strength training, helps improve movement patterns and may reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury during pregnancy.

Some women also find that exercise helps reduce or alleviate their nausea, fatigue, morning sickness, and headaches. However, this depends on how bad your symptoms are and should be evaluated on a case-by-case and day-by-day basis. Some women may find it helpful all of the time, while others may find it helpful some of the time. Still, others may find that it’s never helpful. But one this is for sure: You should never force yourself to exercise when you’re feeling awful.

When it comes to having a healthy first trimester that sets you and your baby up for healthy days ahead, the proper exercise programme should be designed to maintain proper posture and alignment, increase strength and lean muscle mass, strengthen the core and balance the tone of the pelvic floor, develop a solid aerobic foundation, promote health levels of body fat, and yield health improvements without over-stressing the body.

Gain Strength

Having strong, balanced muscles and good overall stability helps relieve stress on your tendons, ligaments and joints. That is particularly helpful as your body changes and your tummy grows throughout pregnancy. And since building muscle takes time, your best course of action is to begin strength training (or adapt your current strength training programme to meet you pre-pregnancy goals) now.

Muscles that deserve particular attention during pregnancy include those of the upper back, core, pelvic floor and glutes. For instance, while a strong upper back is important to help support your breasts as they increase in size throughout your pregnancy, a strong core helps your body carry the growing weight in your uterus. During pregnancy, the weight of your growing baby pulls the pelvis forward. Strong glutes can help to keep the sacrum, at the base of the spine, in a more neutral position, thereby reducing irritation on the sacroiliac joint and unnecessary stress on the pelvic floor muscles.

Plus, once your baby arrives, you need to have the strength to haul around your baby and car seat and changing bag and pram and shopping etc.! You need to be strong to perform these everyday tasks safely.

Maintaining and even increasing your levels of lean muscle mass through strength training also encourages healthy body fat levels and insulin responses, thereby reducing the risk of gestational diabetes.

Core and Pelvic Floor

Good core and pelvic floor strength may increase your likelihood of carrying your baby in a good position (although this is influenced by many variables) and can help you feel stronger and more supported during your strength training and daily activities. Plus, it may reduce your risk of pelvic floor dysfunction, incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse – all of which are common during pregnancy.

That said, strength is not the only factor in establishing a healthy pelvic floor. And, in fact, many times women have hypertonic (i.e. always “tensed”) pelvic floor muscles that need to be retrained to fully relax, so that they can fully contract when necessary. Some signs that you may hold too much tension in your pelvic floor include pelvic pain, urinary frequency/urgency, constipation and pain with sex.

Some women grip their pelvic floor muscles too much or hold their breath during exercise which can have a long term implications on the functioning of the pelvic floor muscles which should support your pelvic organs, maintain continence and support the weight of your baby during pregnancy. The core and pelvic floor connection breath helps re-establish good coordination between the diaphragm and the pelvic floor - I cover this a lot during my classes, particularly Core & Floor, but you can also read this previous article.

Aerobic Exercise

Your cardiovascular fitness, also known as your aerobic foundation, refers to the ability of your lungs to provide oxygen to your working muscles and is a general marker of heart health. When it comes to preparing your body for pregnancy, good CV fitness is a must because once you’re pregnant, your heart and lungs are responsible for providing oxygen to two living beings!

Improving your aerobic fitness through CV exercise also increases your body’s ability to handle the physiological and psychological stress that comes with pregnancy. A good aerobic base is also linked to better quality sleep, which should be a big priority for your in this phase of life.

Research also shows that low-to-moderate intensity cardio is safe throughout pregnancy regardless of a women’s training state or previous bodyweight, meaning it’s fine to start exercising in pregnancy as long as your intensity is appropriate. Women who are overweight or obese should consider allotting themselves greater workout recovery time, performing lower-intensity exercise, and progressing their routines more gradually. With exercise, women who are overweight or obese can benefit from improved glucose tolerance, reduced risk of gestational diabetes, and attenuation of prenatal weight gain.

High-intensity cardio (including high intensity interval training/HIIT) can have its place in pregnancy as well; but that exact place is very individual. Listening to your body is key, and pregnant should be viewed as a time to potentially maintain aerobic fitness levels, but not necessarily increase them, in already trained women.

How hard should you exercise?

You may have heard the age-old advice, “Just keep doing what you were doing before you were pregnant, but don’t start anything new”. While this isn’t exactly poor advice, it’s not entirely accurate.

If you were training before you were pregnant, you can absolutely continue now that you’re pregnant (while listening to your body of course). But even if you were not exercising before pregnancy, by all means, you can start exercising now – given that your GP/midwife has cleared you for exercise.

The catch here is that while someone who was training at a moderate to high intensity pre-pregnancy can continue training at that intensity throughout pregnancy. If you were sedentary pre-pregnancy, you should be exercising at a low-to moderate intensity throughout your pregnancy.

Some signs that you are over-doing it include:

  • More post-exercise muscle soreness than usual

  • Post-exercise soreness that lasts for longer periods of time than usual

  • A lack of motivation to exercise

  • Major change in appetite (usually a decrease)

  • A decrease in leanness despite not changing nutrition programme/ exercise regime

  • A decrease in overall strength or exercise performance for several workouts in a row

  • Bouts of mild depression, fatigue and/or irritability

Every pregnant body is different but you should never continue an exercise that causes pain.

Pain or discomfort during an exercise can be due to a variety of factors from inappropriate exercise selection to poor technique. You should never continue an exercise that causes pain, and you should stop exercising and call you midwife immediately if you experience:

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Blurred vision

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Headache

  • Muscle weakness

  • Calf pain or swelling

  • Regular, painful uterine contractions

  • Bleeding from the vagina

  • Fluid leaking from the vagina

All classes at Willow Women's Wellness are suitable during pregnancy (apart from Lo-Core Motion). Take a look at the range of classes on offer and get in touch if you would like any specific advice. Before attending a class, you'll be asked to complete my Pregnancy Screening Form.


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