How to Safely Exercise Your Spine While Pregnant

It's safe to exercise your back while pregnant. Be strong for pregnancy, labor and delivery.

While it is not safe for a pregnant woman to begin a totally new exercise routine, it is perfectly safe and often necessary to utilize some new, low-intensity back exercises during pregnancy. The weight from the uterus  pulls the lumbar spine forward, straining weak muscles in the middle, upper and lower back. Strengthening the muscles that surround the spine with prenatal-safe exercises will lessen spinal discomfort and tightness.

Your pregnant belly needs to know you've got its back. As a fitness professional with a degree in Exercise and Sports Science, I recommend the following back exercises for use during pregnancy. As a mom who has stayed active through two pregnancies, and also as a certified group fitness instructor with prenatal training, I can attest to these exercises' safety and benefits. However, you should always consult with your OB/GYN or midwife before beginning a new routine.

"Cats and Cows" are a set of yoga poses that will strengthen and stretch your back and abs. Start in an all-fours position on an even, padded surface. If your wrists hurt or tingle because of carpal tunnel, this exercise can be done on your elbows and knees instead of your hands and knees. Once you are on all-fours, begin to alternately arch and round your spine. Inhale as you lift your hips and look up at the ceiling while flexing your back (cow), and then exhale as you tuck your head and your tailbone under while flexing your abs (cat). Imagine pushing your belly toward the floor, and then suck your stomach inward as you round your spine. This is also known as a pelvic tilt or pelvic rock, and this movement will move baby into the correct presentation for birth during the latter weeks of pregnancy. Do anywhere from 5 to 15 repetitions (reps) as often as you like. This is a therapeutic exercise.

Alternating Half-Locust is also done on all-fours. Sometime during the thirteenth to seventeenth week of pregnancy, mom will no longer feel comfortable on her stomach because of the growing "baby bump." This exercise is an excellent alternative to the Pilates exercises normally done on the tummy. Keep your back level and your abs gently pulled upward against your spine while you raise your right arm straight out in front of you and your left leg straight out behind you. Keep your neck neutral, and don't raise your limbs any higher than your hips and shoulders. Think about length, not height. Imagine you are being pulled in two opposite directions like the rope in a game of tug-of-war. Breathe out as you lift your limbs, tightening your abs; breathe in as you lower your limbs. Start with four on each side (right arm, left leg ... left arm, right leg) and work up to 15 reps every other day.

Child's Pose is a good place to rest and stretch your spine between exercises. From an all-fours position, push your hips back until your fanny is as close to your feet as possible. Lower your forehead to the floor or rest your head on a rolled towel, foam block or pillow, allowing your neck to relax. As your belly grows, open your knees to make room for it. Place a pillow between your feet and bottom and a towel under your knees for extra comfort. Also, leaning forward on a big stack of pillows in a very modified child's pose is a good laboring position.

The Bent Dumbbell Row will strengthen both the upper and lower back. When lifting weights, it is especially crucial for pregnant women to breathe deeply. Holding your breath is known as the "Valsava Maneuver," and it will raise your blood pressure. Unless you are accustomed to heavier weights, use small dumbbells, starting with one to five pounds in each hand. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, feeling a sense of sturdiness. Soften the knees so they are just a little bent and not locked. Lean forward, hinging at the hips, letting your arms hang down, sticking out your chest, and pulling your shoulder-blades together. You should look like you are ready to swing a golf club. Breathe out as you lift your elbows up behind you, like you are rowing. Your wrists should graze your belly on both sides. Inhale as you lower the dumbbells until your arms are straight again. Focus on the image of squishing a ripe banana between your shoulder blades, because that is where you want to feel this exercise.

The Shoulder Bridge is done on your back with your feet flat on the ground. (Think pelvic exam) Press your arms gently into the floor, palms down at your sides, while you lift your hips as high into the air as you can. You can do simple up-and-down motions, you can pulse your hips at the top for a few counts, and you could also try balancing on just one foot. Squeeze a few Kegels in, too, by pinching a piece of paper between your knees while your hips are lifted. This is another baby-positioning pose, often prescribed by midwives to help turn a breech baby. For example, in the movie, The Business of Being Born, a woman finds herself in early labor with a baby presenting breech. Her midwife has pillows under her hips, holding her in a supported shoulder-bridge in an effort to turn the baby and slow labor.

Exercising on your back isn't safe if it makes you feel nauseous, dizzy or just "weird." Women are often told to avoid all exercises on their back because the weight of the uterus presses against the inferior venae cavae (big blood vessel) and may cut of blood supply to the mother and the baby. However, all pelvic exams during pregnancy are done laying down, and it takes several minutes for the doctor to measure the fundus and find the fetal heartbeat. Many women deliver healthy babies afer spending hours on their backs in labor, a position that is necessary for epidural births when the mother loses sensation in her legs, even though laying backward is known to slow labor and increase "back labor." And pregnant women wake up on their backs all the time with no ill-effects. All of that said, it is okay to spend limited amounts of time on your back while pregnant for the sake of rest or exercise, provided you do not feel "funny" or have not been advised otherwise for medical reasons.

If your back starts to ache during exercise, stop and make a mental note of how many reps you did before you fatigued. Rest for a couple days and try again. (If you notice any bright red discharge during or after exercising, if you lose consciousness or vomit, contact your physician right away.) As time passes, you will get stronger and be able to do slightly more. Keeping your back strong during pregnancy will help you feel better and take better care of your baby after he or she is born. Feeding a baby can ruin your posture, but a healthy spine can stand up to the challenge.


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kazim mertcan
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Posted on Mar 21, 2010