Asian Young wearing maternity wear Pregnant Woman Exercise and stretching workout and copyspace

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: skaman306/Getty Images

Last spring, when Robin Arzón was pregnant with her son, Atlas, she found herself in a hotel gym, eager to move her body after a long day of traveling. Well into her second trimester, Arzón — the vice-president of fitness programming and head instructor at Peloton — felt energized after months of nausea and fatigue. “I remember walking into the gym that day being like, ‘I’ve got my energy back, I’m going to do what I can today,’” she recalls. As a pre- and postnatal certified trainer, Arzón was well aware of her limits. Yet not long after she started deadlifting, she noticed a man circling her. “Are you sure that you want to be putting that plate on there?” he asked as he pointed to her stomach. Accustomed to receiving unsolicited advice — especially from “folks who’ve never been pregnant” — the 27-time marathon and ultramarathon runner had a retort ready: “I can deadlift more than your body weight. We’re good.”

To anyone who’s ever been pregnant, Arzón’s story will likely sound familiar. For nine months, our baby bumps suspend ordinary social norms and parameters, emboldening people to touch our bellies, pontificate about our diets, and discuss how much weight we have (or haven’t) gained. Still, few things animate strangers’ concern quite like exercise: “Are you sure that’s safe?” some people ask us. “You’re putting your baby at risk,” caution others.

Over the past decade, professional athletes including Serena Williams, Dana Vollmer, Alysia Montaño, and Lindsey Weaver-Wright have repeatedly shown that pregnant women and new moms can train and compete, defying the archaic notion that childbearing women are fragile “vessels” in need of protection. Nevertheless, new and expecting moms must still contend with ongoing debates about pregnancy and exercise, fueled by widespread misinformation and misunderstanding. “I had, on a daily basis, people asking me if I should be running,” says Olympian Kara Goucher, who ran and lifted weights every day of her pregnancy.

These days, exercise during pregnancy is generally considered safe, but even for much of the last century, “pregnancy and exercise were seen as incompatible,” explains Dr. Francine Darroch, a professor who studies physical activity and pregnancy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) only released its first set of official recommendations for prenatal exercise in 1985, setting arbitrary limits on maximum heart rate (140 bpm) and workout duration (15 minutes).

Even today, such misinformation remains visible. Myths persist about exercise in pregnancy loosening the womb or depriving a fetus of oxygen, in turn increasing the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, or preterm labor. But by now, we have enough evidence to suggest that those fears are unfounded.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released an expert-led, five-part review that found that exercise in pregnancy is safe for both mother and fetus. Since then, study after study has affirmed the IOC’s findings, showing no relationship between exercise and adverse outcomes in pregnancy or delivery, including forms of vigorous exercise like weight lifting and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Informed by this research, ACOG maintains that it is safe for healthy pregnant women to exercise, suggesting a mix of aerobic activity and resistance training — think swimming, weights, cycling, jogging — especially for people who already have fitness routines. Before beginning any exercise regimen, ACOG recommends that all pregnant women receive a thorough clinical evaluation to identify any prohibitive conditions or contraindications, such as preeclampsia, placenta previa, and gestational hypertension. While outlining potential warning signs (dizziness and vaginal bleeding, for example) that indicate prenatal exercise might not be safe, ACOG also highlights activities that pregnant people should avoid, including hot yoga, contact sports, surfing, and scuba diving, together with anything that involves lying on one’s back or climbing above 6,000 feet.

Recent years have seen a paradigm shift, with more and more research showing that exercise in pregnancy is not just unharmful but potentially beneficial for those who choose to do it. Exercise in pregnancy has been associated with lower rates of gestational diabetes, hypertension, and preeclampsia; a substantial reduction in the odds and severity of depression; and better outcomes for babies, including a healthier heart and a lowered risk of developing chronic disease later in life. Still, “most researchers would agree that there is a lack of high-quality studies and direct evidence,” says Darroch. According to Dr. Margie Davenport, a professor who studies exercise and pregnancy at the University of Alberta, this lack is most especially felt by athletes who seek to exercise at a higher intensity and a longer duration. “We need to know if there are limits, and what those limits actually are,” she says.

Echoing Davenport, Darroch points to gender data gaps stemming from generations of “white male researchers setting research agendas and funding.” Despite recent advances, she says that these gaps continue to prevent pregnant women from feeling “confident in the decisions they’re making” regarding not only exercise, but also diet, medications, traveling, and more.

With jobs tied to their physical fitness, professional athletes have provided ample anecdotal evidence on pregnancy and exercise, even at the highest levels: While pregnant, Serena Williams won a Grand Slam, Dana Vollmer swam the 50-meter freestyle, and Alysia Montaño ran the 800-meter race at the U.S. track and field championships — twice. Montaño says that exercising during pregnancy was necessary for her physical and mental health. “I felt awful without moving my body,” she explains. As a professional athlete, the Olympian and seven-time national champion says she made the decision to compete while five and eight months pregnant to set an example for other women: “We have the platform, we have the viewership, and the stark example of our body as our business.” Looking to the future, she dreams of a day when pregnancy will no longer preclude a woman’s “ability to achieve.”

That does not mean things have been easy. In 2019, Montaño and Goucher joined Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix in revealing that Nike had stopped paying them when they became pregnant. “When I reached out, I was told I was suspended — with no timeline — because of my ‘medical condition,’” Goucher recalls. “They would never use the word ‘pregnancy.’” According to Goucher, the pressure to return to competition after giving birth was enormous. Within seven months of welcoming her son, she came in fifth at the Boston Marathon with a personal best. Though she doesn’t regret returning to running when she did — “I’m someone who needs movement,” she says — the pressure to perform so soon after birth left her with devastating injuries from which she has never fully recovered.

Since 2019, Nike has since amended its policy, guaranteeing full pay for eight months prior to an athlete’s due date and ten months after. Meanwhile, organizations like the WNBA, the WTA, and the LPGA have introduced maternity accommodations to help athletes take the time they need both during and after pregnancy. “There were certain phases of my pregnancy when I didn’t feel very good and didn’t go to the gym,” says pro golfer Amy Olson, who competed at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open while seven months pregnant. “It was okay to give myself a little bit of grace and take it easy when my body said, ‘You need to rest.’”

To know that working out while pregnant can be daunting even for elite athletes may be comforting to parents-to-be and new parents: Some days, you’re simply too exhausted, and that’s okay. Many people will feel no desire to hit the gym; others will not be able to. As is always the case with exercise, the key is listening to your body. “That was the most freeing part about training while pregnant,” Arzón notes. “I was very, very present in how I was feeling in that moment, that day, that hour, that minute.”

During her first pregnancy in 2021, Arzón launched an OB/GYN-approved pre- and postnatal fitness program through Peloton, featuring workouts that are safe as well as vigorous and dynamic. With a pregnant person front and center, her classes empower new and expecting moms to reclaim ownership over their bodies: “I knew there were going to be unexpected turns in pregnancy because there’s only so much you can control and plan for,” Arzón remembers of her first pregnancy with her daughter, Athena. “But I made the decision that I was going to allow them to come when they came and not preempt them by holding myself in some perception that pregnancy was a prison.”

Even as she makes a “conscious effort” to replace fear with self-confidence, Arzón understands how exercise during and after pregnancy can sometimes feel like a lose-lose, especially when it comes to weight and physical appearance. Much like professional athletes feel pressure to return to competition after giving birth, new moms often feel the need to “bounce back” to their prepregnancy bodies, losing as much weight as quickly as possible. Reflecting on comments people made about her own body — comments that she says “took the wind” right out of her — Arzón says she has no patience for bounce-back culture. At Peloton, she strives to disentangle exercise from physical appearance, prioritizing how new and expecting moms feel over how they look. Amid all the noise and misinformation, she encourages women to meet their bodies where they are and adopt a movement practice that makes sense for them: “You have days … when you just don’t feel at home in your body,” she says.

“But you will feel at home in your body again — in your new body, which is even more badass.”

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