Physical Activity, Nutrition and Weight Gain

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What is the connection between physical activity and pregnancy?

Physical activity is about moving around and keeping fit. It is important for all-around improved health and well-being and, ultimately, for a healthier pregnancy.

It’s great to get into an exercise routine before you become pregnant. During pregnancy, physical activity can help you:

  • Relieve stress, anxiety and depression
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Sleep better
  • Boost your energy
  • Fight off colds and flu by boosting your immune system (your body's defense system against bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites)
  • Have more strength and endurance to carry your baby both before and after she or he is born
  • Build the stamina you might need during labor
  • Improve the quality of your life in general

What kind(s) of physical activity should I do?

Current research suggests three types of activities:

  • Cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, cycling, swimming, aerobic dancing):
    • To strengthen your heart and lungs, 30 minutes a day is best, but at least 20 minutes a day three to five times a week is recommended. Studies show that three 10-minute sessions a day are as good as one 30-minute workout.
    • To lose weight, do at least 30 to 60 minutes of continuous exercise three or more times a week (along with portion control and other healthy eating practices).
    • Cardio exercise will also help build your endurance, a great way to prepare for labor and birth, as well as and parenthood.
  • Strength training (lifting free weights, using resistance machines, doing isometrics): Work all your major muscle groups twice a week. These activities strengthen your bones and muscles (and help prevent osteoporosis) and boost your metabolism (increase the number of calories you burn).
  • Flexibility training (stretching, yoga or tai chi): Do every day for 10 minutes. These exercises keep you flexible, reduce your risk of injuries and improve how you feel in general.

How can I work in more physical activity?

Some more ideas for staying active are:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Walk upstairs to another restroom in your home or office building
  • Walk to a co-worker's office instead of using the phone or email
  • Park farther away when going to the store, visiting a friend or going to work
  • Walk to the next bus stop before getting on
  • Don't use any drive-through services: get up, get out and walk
  • Do stretching or isometric exercises while you watch television
  • Go dancing
  • Work in the garden (but during pregnancy, it’s important to avoid digging in dirt due to the risk for harmful toxoplasmosis infection)
  • Take active vacations
  • Play a team sport or take lessons

What is considered healthy eating for women who are planning to become pregnant?

Choosing what to eat should be based on a balanced diet and the amount of calories you need to carry out your daily activities. Avoid fad diets and those that over-emphasize or downplay any of the six main dietary nutrients: water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals. Healthy eating will help you function at your best and achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

With two exceptions, healthy eating for pre-pregnant women is the same as healthy eating for most people of the same age, gender and physical activity level. Those exceptions are iron and folate/folic acid, which we cover later on this page.

New national dietary guidelines were released in 2015. They are important because healthy eating is one of the most powerful ways to maintain health and prevent disease. Overall, the new guidelines recommend eating a diet with:

  • More vegetables, including a variety of dark green, red and orange vegetables, as well as legumes (beans and peas)
  • More fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Various sources of protein, including seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), soy products, nuts and seeds
  • More whole grains and fewer refined grains
  • Oils from plants and in foods such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados (but very limited saturated and trans fats)
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese and fortified soy beverages
  • Very limited added sugar, including sugary beverages
  • Limited sodium (in processed foods and by added salt)
  • Adapting general recommendations to your preferences, traditions, culture and budget

Can I eat fish?

Yes! Fish has important benefits for fetal growth and development when you are pregnant and breastfeeding, so get in the habit of eating 8 to 12 ounces (2 to 3 servings) of a variety of fish that are lower in mercury each week. These include salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish and cod. Avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel, as these are high in mercury.

Why are folic acid and iron so important?

Folic acid (also called folate) is a B vitamin that helps the fetal neural tube – the part of the embryo that becomes the brain and spinal cord – develop properly. It is critical to start taking folic acid before you get pregnant and to continue taking it through the third month of pregnancy to prevent birth defects in the spine and skull.

You can get folic acid by taking a multivitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) of it daily. You will also find it in fortified breakfast cereals; citrus fruits and juices; dried peas and beans; and green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard and turnip greens and broccoli.

Iron is important during pregnancy because it prevents anemia, a condition in which the body isn't able to produce enough healthy red blood cells. Developing infants need a high level of red blood cells to get enough oxygen. Anemia in the mother can be passed on to her baby.

You can get iron by eating food such as red meats, fish and poultry (basically, food from animal sources). Iron-rich plant foods include cooked beans, lentils and enriched pasta. Many breakfast cereals are also iron-fortified.

Your body may also benefit from eating iron sources together with foods that help with iron absorption. These include oranges, orange juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, grapefruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomato, tomato juice, potatoes and green and red peppers.

As part of a healthy diet, what should I drink?

You should drink about eight cups of non-alcoholic liquids each day. Plain water is best, but you can also get the liquid you need from soups and juices (though, be careful; you'll add calories with these options). Research on the relationship between coffee or caffeine and fertility has not led to any clear conclusions.

Does my weight matter when I’m trying to get pregnant?

A healthy body weight promotes general health and reduces your risk for heart disease, some cancers and diabetes. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is making an investment in your health, your pregnancy health, many aspects of the health of your future baby and the well-being of your growing family.

In addition, weight can affect a woman's fertility. Studies have shown that a woman's ability to become pregnant may be negatively affected if she weighs way too little or way too much. Obesity also has a negative impact on male fertility.

Once you do get pregnant, your weight can affect the fetus. Underweight women often have smaller babies. Infants with low birth weight (weigh 2500 grams/5-1/2 pounds or less) are at a greater risk of death within the first month of life, as well as increased risk for developmental disabilities and illness throughout their lives.

Overweight women may suffer from medical problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes that can seriously complicate a pregnancy. If you are overweight, you have a higher risk of experiencing more difficulty during labor and delivery, giving birth via cesarean section, hemorrhaging, having a baby with certain birth defects (like neural tube defects) and other health problems throughout the child’s life and yourself experiencing various health challenges across your lifespan.

Take the time now, before you become pregnant, to examine your diet and eating patterns and begin to make changes that will help you get to a healthy weight before you get pregnant.

What if I think I have an eating disorder?

If you have or think you might have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, or if you are very overweight or underweight, visit your health care provider as soon as possible. These conditions can seriously affect your own health, your ability to become pregnant and the health of your baby. Learn more here.