Exercising during pregnancy: How much is too much?

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During the past few weeks many people have been talking to me about running marathons, and not just because I finished my first marathon this weekend. In addition to wishing me luck, they were asking my opinion, as both a runner and midwife, about the woman who was 39 weeks pregnant and ran the Chicago marathon.

People wanted to know if I thought this woman was endangering her baby by running such a long distance. Others asked if she was just plain crazy.  When I read the news article online, I saw that many commenters were spreading misinformation that exercising during pregnancy is dangerous.

In fact exercising is not only perfectly safe, but encouraged during pregnancy, as long as the mother is healthy, and there are no complications. Benefits include reducing the risk and severity of gestational diabetes, helping expecting mothers maintain a healthy weight while eating for two, and easing common aches and pains.

I do not recommend that pregnant women begin vigorous exercise, such as long distance running, spinning or weight lifting. However, these activities are fine for experienced athletes. In most cases, vigorous exercise routines like these will need to be modified as the pregnancy advances but not completely eliminated. 

I encourage sedentary pregnant women to begin some sort of gentle fitness routine early in the pregnancy. Walking, elliptical training, swimming, stationary biking and yoga are all wonderful options for these women. Yoga is particularly good for stretching and strengthening the muscles needed for labor and birth. 

The pregnant Chicago marathoner was an experienced runner and had gotten clearance from her provider to do a combination of walking and running for the race, according to news reports. She averaged a 15-minute mile and completed the marathon in about 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

I imagine the pregnant marathoner took extra care to stay hydrated and kept a slow pace. She did go into labor shortly after finishing the marathon, delivering a healthy baby girl later that evening. 

As I ran my own 26.2 miles this weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about this woman. I was not pregnant, and yet this marathon was one of the most difficult and painful things I've ever done.

I've previously compared long distance running and childbirth, and never was this observation more true than this past weekend. It was the only other time in my life, aside from giving birth to my sons, that I have doubted my body's ability to finish something even as I knew that I had the strength deep within.

I don't think the pregnant marathoner was crazy. I admire her stamina and determination, and I bet that she was thinking of that long run as she gave birth to her daughter hours later. The midwife in me just hopes that she opted for natural childbirth!

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