Pre and postnatal exercise

Healthy Habits for Two: Pre and postnatal exercise and nutrition

Becoming pregnant is an exciting time in a parent’s life. It’s also an anxious time as mothers-to-be concern themselves with what’s best for their developing baby. Having a healthy child, however, begins long before conception and continues throughout pregnancy and the first years of life. Establishing healthy behaviors early on – exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, etc. – can make pregnancies later in life less complicated for both mother and child.

Before conception

About half of all pregnancies are unplanned, so women of child-bearing age who are sexually active – even those using some form of birth control – should strongly consider adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors just in case. Regular physical activity, eating right, and supplementing with important nutrients like folic acid can reduce risk factors like obesity and diabetes and can help prevent pregnancy complications, birth defects, and low birth weight. Recommended healthy lifestyle behaviors include the following:

  • Engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to high intensity physical activity at least 5 days per week
  • Follow a sensible, balanced diet including fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats
  • Reduce risk factors like diabetes, hypertenstion, and obesity
  • Quit smoking, drinking alcohol, and using recreational drugs
  • Talk to a doctor about potential pregnancy complications from any prescription medicines or nutritional supplements
  • Supplement with 400-800 mg of folic acid per day or take a multivitamin that contains that amount – this can prevent neural tube defects and orofacial clefts (cleft lip and cleft palate)

During pregnancy

There is a reason why they call it “eating for two” (or even three or four or more); whatever the mom eats the baby in her belly “eats.” Throughout a pregnancy, it is important to continue following a sensible, balanced diet, but there are some foods and drinks mothers-to-be should avoid including:

  • Alcohol
  • Raw or undercooked meat, eggs, and seafood
  • Raw sprouts
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • Unpasteurized milk and cheese
  • Swordfish, shark, king mackerel and other seafood high in mercury
  • Processed meats (deli/lunch meats, hot dogs, etc.)
  • Herbal teas (unless approved by your doctor)
  • Limit caffeine (<100 mg per day) and most other types of seafood (especially farm-raised)

Even though a pregnant mother is eating for two, it’s not necessary to increase calories a whole lot. In most cases, an extra 200-300 calories per day will suffice, and over the course of a typical 36 week pregnancy, a woman should gain about 25-35 pounds. Routine check-ups with a doctor will help make sure mother and child are both growing appropriately. Women should continue to supplement with folic acid (400-800 mg/day) throughout their pregnancy, and should consider adding vitamin D (200-2000 IU depending on sun exposure) and fish oil (supplying at least 300 mg of DHA) as well.

It’s also important to continue to exercise during pregnancy. Physical activity can help reduce pregnancy-related physical discomfort including headaches, backache, fatigue, constipation, swelling, and hot flashes. It can also help reduce stress and improve mood and self-esteem. Exercise is beneficial for the baby, too, as it may result in better cardiovascular health later in life.

Exercise guidelines:

  • First trimester
    • Cardiovascular – 30-60 minutes at 60-75% of max heart rate 3 days/week
    • Weight training – 30-60 minutes 2-3 days/week
  • Second and third trimesters
    • Cardiovascular – 30-60 minutes at a comfortable pace 2-3 days/week
    • Weight training – 30 minutes 2-3 days/week, standing or seated exercises only
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid overheating
  • Adjust intensity and duration according to comfort level, especially as the pregnancy progresses
  • Stop immediately if there are any complications

After delivery

It is imperative that a newborn baby receives the nutrition, attention, and affection it needs to develop physiologically and psychologically. Most professional groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advocate breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life, and in combination with solid foods for months seven through twelve. Of course, there are physical and personal factors to consider when deciding whether to breastfeed, and modern formulas have become comparable to breast milk, but there are definite advantages to breastfeeding for both mother and child.

Benefits of breastfeeding for the baby:

  • Establishes healthy gut bacteria (lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) – breast milk is high in prebiotic oligosaccharides
  • Supports immune system development
  • Reduces the risk of death from diarrhea
  • Protects against flu, herpes, necrotizing enternal colitis (NEC), and other infections
  • Protects against atopy, asthma, eczema, and Celiac disease
  • May reduce the risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome
  • May enhance cognitive development, intelligence, and social development
  • Provides nurturing human contact developing babies need

Benefits for the mother:

  • Can make postpartum weight loss easier
  • Can help encourage child spacing by preventing conception
  • Requires less preparation than formula
  • Reduces health care costs for the baby through fewer illnesses
  • Provides an innate maternal connection to the baby which reduces stress
  • May decrease the risk of several types of cancer


It’s never too early to start practicing healthy lifestyle habits, and both men and women can reap the rewards thereof even if they decide not to have children. If they do decide to have a baby, then these practices can help increase their chances of conceiving, reduce the risk of complications, and instill in their children healthy habits they can utilize throughout their own lives.