Some people are confused about exercise during pregnancy: Should you or shouldn't you? Barring any complications, you definitely should. Prenatal exercise strengthens the muscles you need for labor, decreases the risks of pregnancy complications, and improves the health of your baby — and it can speed your recovery after birth.
But which exercise is best? According to a 2015 review in American Journal of Perinatology, women benefit most from prenatal yoga. Authors of the review evaluated 10 studies between 2004 and 2014, and found that compared to other forms of exercise, yoga lowered the incidence of pregnancy complications and low birthweight, reduced pain and stress, and improved relationships.
Build Strength for Pregnancy and Childbirth
A strong, flexible body is better equipped to handle the physical stress of pregnancy and labor — not to mention motherhood. Strong core muscles help support the spine and lower back, which often bear much of the burden carrying around the weight of an unborn baby. Those same core muscles — including the pelvic floor muscles — also help when you need to push in the delivery room.
Prenatal yoga poses are specifically designed to target the muscles most important for pregnancy and birth. The breathing exercises release stress and tension, which can help relieve back pain and headaches pregnant women commonly experience. When it comes time to give birth, you can use those breathing techniques to calm and center yourself during labor.
Poor sleep is a top complaint among pregnant women. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 78 percent of pregnant women experience insomnia, which may include having trouble falling asleep, waking up often during the night, having difficulty falling back to sleep and not feeling refreshed after sleep. Lack of sleep can be detrimental to pregnancy and birth, having such ill effects as longer labor duration and increased chance of cesarean birth.
In addition to practicing good sleep hygiene, a regular yoga practice can help you get the sleep you need. Harvard University researchers looked at the effects of eight weeks of regular yoga practice among 20 participants suffering from chronic insomnia. The participants kept sleep diaries, and when the researchers analyzed them at the end of the study, they found improvements in sleep efficiency, sleep duration and time to fall asleep.
But you don't need science to help you understand how yoga benefits sleep; simply learning to relax and breathe deeply can help you when you're lying awake fretting about which color to paint the nursery.
Feel Grounded and Centered
Pregnancy can be a crazy time. Your hormones are out of whack, and you're nervous about your baby's health, giving birth, whether you're going to be a good mom... and on and on. A regular yoga practice can help you stay calm and cool through your pregnancy, and during childbirth too. The meditative aspects of yoga are partly responsible for this benefit, but yoga also has tangible effects on body systems involved in stress.
"Any mind-body practice has physiologic impacts like lowering blood pressure, increasing oxygen consumption and activating relaxation response in neurotransmitters," says board-certified obstetrician Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz. "Opposite of fight or flight, yoga can help accomplish some of these goals that improve pregnancy."
Meet Other Moms-to-Be
Having a community can be as important to your well-being during pregnancy as regular visits to your OB-GYN. Although you may have plenty of support from friends and family, you might not feel like anyone truly understands what you are going through. A prenatal yoga class is a room full of women just like you — aka an immediate support group.
This is an opportunity to share your concerns and give and get advice from other women who are experiencing the same physical symptoms, anxieties and practical concerns that you are.
For expectant moms who experience the not-uncommon "baby blues," a 2015 meta-analysis in BMC Psychiatry found that compared to women who tried other types of care — standard prenatal care, standard antenatal exercises, social support — women in prenatal yoga classes experienced significantly lower levels of depression.
Improve Your Relationship With Your Spouse
Anxiety and depression in pregnancy are risk factors for pre-term delivery, low birthweight and other complications. In addition, antenatal depression may have an effect on negative outcomes during a child's early schooling. According to a 2011 study in BMC Public Health, relationship dissatisfaction is the most common cause of emotional distress in expectant moms.
Couples who practice yoga together can improve bonding and intimacy. But practicing on your own can also help you feel grounded and more connected to yourself, be less emotional and reactive, and have compassion for the stresses your partner may also be under during this difficult time.
Lower Risk of Pregnancy Complications
Most pregnancies go off without a hitch, but anything you can do to safeguard yours is well worth it. As the 2015 review in American Journal of Perinatology discovered, a prenatal yoga practice can protect against complications better than other forms of exercise. "Gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction occurred less often in yoga-practicing pregnant moms in studies," says Gilberg-Lenz. Why this is, researchers are still unsure. "I think this all goes back to lowered stress and the anti-inflammatory impacts of lowered stress on our bodies," she says.
Make Labor Easier
Whether this is your first or your fifth baby, you probably already know that childbirth can be uncomfortable — and sometimes lengthy and painful. What many women don't realize is that what they do during pregnancy can help make labor easier.
In a study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice in 2008, women were divided into two groups. One group did six one-hour yoga classes at prescribed times during pregnancy and the other group did none. Using a variety of instruments to assess the mothers' comfort during labor, the researchers found that the yoga group experienced less labor pain and an overall shorter labor duration than the group that did not do yoga.
"This is likely related to yogic breathing and relaxation practices, or maybe increased flexibility, endurance and strength from yoga practice," says Gilberg-Lenz. "Pelvic floor and hip-opening as well as development of mind-body focus could also contribute to the medical literature's observations."
Reduce Pre-Existing Anxiety and Depression
If you experienced anxiety and depression before you became pregnant, the stress and fluctuating hormones can make it worse. Also, you may have to stop taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications during pregnancy. Women who are depressed during pregnancy are more likely to have a premature birth or a low-birthweight baby.
Numerous studies have shown that yoga is a powerful tool for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety — with or without prescription medication. In one study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2018, 52 women who participated in just 12 hatha yoga classes reported significantly reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.
- American Journal of Perinatology: Effects of yoga intervention during pregnancy: a review for current status.
- American Pregnancy Association: Exercise During Pregnancy
- Exercise During Pregnancy: Prenatal Yoga
- American Pregnancy Association: Insomnia During Pregnancy: Snooze Or Lose!
- Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz; Obstetrician; Beverly Hills, CA
- WebMD: Relationship Troubles Add to ‘Pre-Baby’ Blues
- BMC Public Health: Partner relationship satisfaction and maternal emotional distress in early pregnancy
- BMC Psychiatry: Yoga for prenatal depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice: Yoga during pregnancy: effects on maternal comfort, labor pain and birth outcomes.
- International Journal of Preventive Medicine: The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women
- Sleep Medicine Reviews: Sleep Deprivation during Pregnancy and Maternal and Fetal Outcomes: Is There a Relationship?
- Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback: Treatment of Chronic Insomnia with Yoga: A Preliminary Study with Sleep?Wake Diaries