Is yoga once a week enough to get me ready for pregnancy? Is running too intense or could I still train for a 10K? Is swimming okay when my partner and I are trying to conceive? Will cycling damage his sperm? Should I stop exercising altogether?
As soon as you embark on the baby-making process, stories and information from fertility gurus, friends, the media and the internet can make you feel confused, worried and unsure how to maximise your chances of a healthy conception and pregnancy. And if conception doesn’t happen within a few months, it’s all too easy to start obsessing about the finer details of your fitness regime and diet – an extra stress you don’t need when trying to make a baby!
Well, take a deep breath, and relax. Health & Fitness expert, personal trainer and mother of two Jane Wake, founder of exercise and wellbeing service Baby A-Wake, has the pre-conception exercise advice you need – and there’s no need for a drastic change in lifestyle, just a little preparation. Of course, eating a well-balanced diet packed with fresh fruit and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats is crucial for baby-making, but many couples focus on nutrition while not paying attention to their fitness. "There’s evidence to show being fit is not just about your health, it’s also about the health of your baby. Being pregnant can be a strain on you; you can feel sick, lethargic, tired and weak, but if you’re fit, you’re going to be able to handle that a lot better. You owe it to yourself and your baby to optimise your health before you get pregnant because you and your baby will reap the benefits. Also, the fitter and healthier you are and the closer you are to your ideal weight, the more chance you have of conceiving," adds Wake.
Zita West, renowned fertility expert and author of Plan to Get Pregnant (Dorling Kindersley, £14.99) agrees. "Exercise is of value for a sense of wellbeing and an endorphin release – it’s a great stress reliever – and it’s also about preparing your body for carrying a baby." Being at the right body weight can boost your chances of conceiving, so if you have any weight to lose, giving yourself three months to get fitter and leaner will improve your hormone balance.
As a fitter mum, your body should work much more efficiently during pregnancy, adds Wake. "The umbilical cords in women who are fitter tend to be thicker and stronger so the nutrient supply to the baby is often better. Moderate activity during pregnancy is also believed to have a positive effect on the health of the baby. Studies have shown babies of exercising mums are born leaner and healthier, which has benefits for the child for the rest of their life."
Wake’s own pregnancy, with her daughter Gracie, is a prime example. "Because I was already fit, I was able to continue training through my pregnancy, and it means you can recover quickly and train again more quickly after the birth. During my pregnancy I had hyperemesis gravidarum [severe pregnancy sickness]. Most women are hospitalised with this condition, but I worked with a nutritionist and was able to continue without being bedridden. During this time I couldn’t exercise to the level I would have done.
"I went for walks to keep myself moving. But I was really fit before I got pregnant; if I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up exercise again when I got better, which was after about five months."
Wake says to feel at your best and get to your ideal weight, it’s a good idea to get in training for conception three months in advance, by eating well, exercising and reducing the stress in your life. But it’s important to go easy on your workout intensity – we’re not talking preparing for an Ironman event here! "It’s not to say you’re not going to get pregnant if you train really hard, but this is about maximising your chances," says Wake. So that’s a no to things such as lifting really heavy weights and circuits with short, sharp sessions at high intensities. "It’s not about peaking your fitness but reaching the right level by doing consistent training."
West says many of the women she sees at her clinic are at the extremes – some doing no exercise and others way too much. "If you’re doing too much, such as 16 hours of workouts a week, it can affect your cycles and your weight." Being under- or overweight can disrupt your hormone levels, warns West, which could mean you don’t ovulate every cycle. And if you have an underlying condition, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), regular, moderate exercise can help you control your weight. After ovulation, you won’t know if you’re pregnant or not until your next period is due, so exercising at high intensities in this time can be risky. "Heat can be very damaging to the foetus and exercising to extremes raises your core body temperature which is detrimental to the growing foetus," says West.
And if you’re worried that high-impact workouts, such as running, could ‘dislodge’ an embryo, there’s no need. "Embryos don’t just drop out, but if you have a history of miscarriage and complications, you have to be more careful," says West.
Relax, enjoy the process and make love as often as you can, and not just during your most fertile days! ‘I don’t believe in focusing on sex around that point of ovulation when you are most fertile (usually three days),’ says Wake. "If you’re too clinical about this it can enhance stress and expectations. If you’re enjoying sex, you’re more likely to have more sex and more likely to get pregnant. Do what you can to enhance this feeling of wellbeing for you and your partner – it’s very powerful indeed!"
This article first appeared in Women’s Fitness
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