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If the thought of working out during your pregnancy makes you want to head for the couch, consider this: Some exercises can ease the aches and pains of pregnancy and prepare your body for the rigors of labor.
Here's how these simple exercises can benefit you and how to do them properly:
Kegel exercises work the pelvic floor muscles that support your pelvic organs – the vagina, urethra, cervix, uterus, bladder, small intestines, and rectum. Strengthening your pelvic floor muscles provides better support for these organs and can help prevent or treat urinary stress incontinence.
There's even some evidence to suggest that having good control of your pelvic floor muscles may help during the pushing stage of labor. The theory is that if you can voluntarily relax those muscles, you can make it easier for your baby to be born.
You can do Kegels anywhere – sitting at your computer, watching TV, even standing in line at the supermarket. Your doctor or midwife can recommend specific exercises for you, but here are the basics:
- First, "find" your pelvic floor muscles: Can you tighten the muscles around your vagina and interrupt the flow of urine when going to the bathroom? If so, you've located your pelvic floor muscles and just performed a Kegel exercise. Practice several times while urinating to get comfortable activating that muscle group.
- Once you know how to isolate and control your pelvic floor muscles, try practicing long, slow contractions: Increase the contraction strength for a count of five seconds, hold for another five, then relax slowly for a count of five. Think of the pelvic floor as an elevator that is moving up a floor for each count of five, and going down as you relax for a count of five. Work up to 10 or 15 long, slow contractions twice a day.
- You can also perform "quick flicks": This exercise strengthens a different type of muscle fiber in the pelvic floor. Contract the muscles quickly by squeezing for two- to three-second pulses, for 10 to 20 repetitions. Work up to 40 to 60 quick flick contractions twice a day.
- Your buttocks, hips, and thighs shouldn't move when you do these exercises, so if you're having trouble isolating the right muscles, ask your healthcare provider for advice.
Pelvic tilt or angry cat
This variation of the pelvic tilt, done on all fours, strengthens the abdominal muscles and eases back pain during pregnancy and labor.
- Get down on your hands and knees, with your arms shoulder-width apart and your knees hip-width apart. Keep your arms straight, but don't lock your elbows.
- As you breathe in, tighten your abdominal muscles, tuck your buttocks under, and round your back.
- Relax your back into a neutral position as you breathe out.
- Repeat at your own pace, following the rhythm of your breath: Count to five as you slowly arch your back and tuck your pelvis under, and count to five as you slowly return to the neutral position. Repeat three to five times.
It may not be the most elegant position, but squatting is a time-tested way of preparing for and giving birth. This exercise strengthens your thighs and helps open your pelvis.
- Stand facing the back of a chair, with your feet slightly more than hip-width apart and your toes pointed outward. Hold the back of the chair for support.
- Contract your abdominal muscles, lift your chest, and relax your shoulders. Then lower your tailbone toward the floor as though you were sitting down on a chair. Find your balance – most of your weight should be toward your heels. Hold this position for as long as it's comfortable.
- Take a deep breath in and then exhale, pushing into your legs to rise to a standing position.
This exercise stretches the muscles along your spine and shoulders as well as the back of your legs. Try this stretch whenever you feel tension in your back. It can also help relieve muscle tightness during labor.
- Facing a wall, bend forward from the hips until your legs and upper body form a 90-degree angle. Your back should be flat, and your legs straight or slightly bent.
- Place your hands against the wall at shoulder level. Allow your head to relax and stay level with your arms as you face down, looking at the floor.
- Press your hands into the wall as you lean backward from your hips until you feel a stretch in your back and in the back of your legs. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then relax and return your hips to the previous position. Repeat two to three times.