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Ask Dr. Sears: Pregnancy Exercise

Q. I'm four months pregnant and still doing my regular exercise routine. I jog for about 30 minutes and do some toning with dumbbells. When will I have to give this up? Can you recommend anything else that I can do when I'm closer to my due date?

A. If your baby were already born and could talk, he or she would look at you and say, "Thanks, mom, for taking such good care of yourself while you were growing me inside!" Once upon a time pregnancy was dubbed "confinement." Today's healthy pregnant women are anything but confined.

Some studies show that physically fit mothers have shorter labors and fewer birth complications. Presumably, this is due to improved muscle efficiency and less fatigue during labor. One interesting study showed that pregnant women who exercise regularly have hearts that operate more efficiently and deliver more blood to vital organs when it needs to. This includes the uterus. There is still some scientific confusion about the exact effects of exercise during pregnancy. However, it stands to reason that if you bring a well-toned body into the birthing room, that body is going to labor better for you than if it is not fit.

Besides the physical effects of exercise during pregnancy, exercise raises the body's level of endorphins. I call these the "happy hormones" because they enhance your feeling of well-being. Yet, it's important to realize that because your body is going through so many physiological changes during pregnancy, you will need to take these exercise precautions:

Ask your doctor. Because you are presently doing an exercise routine, it's likely that you don't have any medical complications to prevent you from continuing. But before you sign up for any pregnancy exercise program, be sure to get the okay from your doctor.

Go easy on your joints. Pregnancy hormones loosen your ligaments in preparation for all the stretching you're going to be doing to grow and deliver a baby. These loose ligaments make your joints less stable and more prone to injury if overstretched. Go especially easy on the joints in your lower back, knees, and pelvis. Avoid sudden back arching and knee bends. Be particularly careful when lifting. Squat, don't bend over, to lift things. (Better yet, get somebody else to do the lifting for you.)

Metal weights are risky during pregnancy, since it's too easy to overdo them and suddenly jar your joints. As your pregnancy progresses, put away your dumbbells. Instead, try exercise bands -- stretchy, rubber bands available from sporting good stores. Stretch bands don't put as much sudden pressure on the muscles, ligaments, or joints, but still provide the muscle and ligament toning that dumbbells do. The bands should come with package inserts to demonstrate various exercises.

Switch from running to swimming. Eventually you'll start to find that jogging stresses your joints too much, and eventually you're going to be thrown off balance. If possible, take to the pool. Swimming is not only more relaxing, but it is easier on the pregnant body than other exercise. This is especially beneficial in the third trimester when exercising becomes increasingly uncomfortable. In fact, it's actually easier to swim while pregnant because you are more buoyant. Moving in the water is easier on the joints, since gravity takes much of the weight off your joints and your movements are smoother and less jerky than with land exercises. While you are swimming in your pool, imagine what baby feels like swimming in hers.

Dress for the occasion. As your body changes, so does your exercise wardrobe. Ankle and knee joints are particularly prone to pain and injury. To protect your heel and knee bones, wear a shock-absorbing heel cushion in your shoes and wear running shoes that have a cushiony shock-absorbing heel, such as Nike Air. Wear a sport bra that limits bouncing, and you'll notice that you'll need to gradually increase the size. Before running or brisk walking, coat your nipples with a protective emollient, such as Lansinoh (a hypoallergenic lanolin ointment).

Slow as you grow. As your baby and uterus grows and needs more of your blood, your heart will have to work even harder when you are exercising. Therefore, slow the intensity of your exercise routine. Gradually go from jogging, to brisk walking, to slow walking, to swimming. Be sure to keep yourself from becoming overheated. Slow down exercising in hot and humid weather, and be sure to pre-hydrate and rehydrate with two 8-ounce glasses of water before and after exercising.

Listen to your body and use these precautions to exercise safely and sensibly during pregnancy. Remember, you are exercising for two.