Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Can exercising during pregnancy make labour shorter? Easier? Less painful?

This is one of the most challenging questions we get asked.  We would love to simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but neither answer is 100% true.

Clapp & Dickenson (1984) found that pregnant women who exercised regularly throughout their pregnancies had a higher incidence of uncomplicated, spontaneous delivery and their labours were 1/3 shorter than the control group.  They also observed that the pregnant women who stopped exercising regularly midway through pregnancy had similar outcomes to the control group.

There have been similar studies that support the labour benefits of regular exercise throughout pregnancy.  It makes sense that fitter women might have an advantage over women who are unfit.  That said, after working with pregnant women for over 9 years I also recognize that there are many factors out of our control.  For example, baby might decide to put her hand by her face while trying to exit the birth canal.  A fit mom is as likely as a non fit woman to have placenta previa.  A fit mom’s labour can be slowed by the same factors that can slow an unfit woman’s labour.

So what do we do with all this information?  Well, if we know that an active pregnancy is one factor that we can control (assuming a normal pregnancy) then it makes sense to get moving and keep moving.  Not sure where to start?  Read on.

Cardiovascular Endurance
Labour could be 4 hours.  Labour could be 2 days.  Either way, a strong cardiovascular system is going to help you to cope with the demands of childbirth.  If you have a caesarean birth, being fit can also help speed up your recovery.  Aim for 30 minutes of cardio (not including warm up or cool down) 4 days a week.

Muscular Endurance
Research shows that changing positions in labour and being able to get into a squat position significantly effects length of labour and increases your chance of having an uncomplicated vaginal birth. Labour takes strength and stamina.  Aim for 2 sets of 10-15 reps for each major muscle group.  A  Fit 4 Two class is great way to learn safe and effective muscular endurance exercises that you can also do on your own.

Hands and Knees
At Fit 4 Two, we like to incorporate several 4-point prone exercises into each class.  This position relieved lower back discomfort (most common complaint of pregnancy) during pregnancy and encourages the fetus to stay in the optimal position: head down, back against mom’s tummy.  Optimal fetal position usually means a less invasive, shorter, more comfortable birth.

Pelvic Floor
A toned pelvic floor is a more elastic pelvic floor. A more elastic pelvic floor means an easier exit for baby (all things being equal).  Be sure to incorporate pelvic floor exercises, often called Kegels, into your daily routine.  We recommend reading our recent posts 5 Reasons Pregnant Women Need a Strong Pelvic Floor and Dear Gymnasts, Dancers,Waitresses and Horseback Riders.

Mental Preparation
Many women who exercised regularly through their pregnancies report feeling that their labours were more manageable, easier or quicker.  Perhaps this is because these women had more confidence in their bodies' ability to cope with the sensations of labour.  Through exercise, they had seen what their bodies were capable of.  Perhaps they prepared themselves mentally for the strenuous task ahead of them and were able to send themselves the same positive messages like "I am safe", "My body was designed to birth my baby" and "Every contraction means I am closer to the "finish line".  It's food for thought.

Motivated to get moving?  Come try a Fit 4 Two class.  Click here to find a prenatal fitness classes in your community. 


  1. great article I believe that being physically fit is a huge part of handling pain. especially if you are looking towards a natural childbirth.

  2. Thanks for the comment Kira. I was just training a client who though incredibly fit in her first pregnancy, was unable to have a drug-free vaginal birth. She had to be induced which caused the snowball effect of interventions. What impresses me is that in her second pregnancy, she is still choosing an active lifestyle. She could easily have thrown in the towel. I am very proud of her.


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