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Outdoor Exercise Improves Health During and After Pregnancy

You’ve probably heard about the benefits of exercise during and after pregnancy over and over again, but have you thought about where you’re exercising? With COVID-19 still a problem in many places around the world, outdoor exercise deserves consideration. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the evidence for the benefits of outdoor exercise during pregnancy and after baby is born, as well as ideas for getting outside to move your body, whether your baby is already here or not.

This spring, Iris Lesser and Gillian Hatfield, both kinesiologists at University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in Canada, and their colleagues did a pilot study of 21 women who had babies less than nine months old. They invited the women to participate in twice-weekly outdoor exercise classes for eight weeks. Before and after each class, they asked participants to rate their anxiety levels, and after class, they also asked participants to report their level of physical exertion.

The initial findings of the study, which have not yet been published, but have been discussed online in both a perspective piece in The Conversation coauthored by Lesser [1] and a UFV news piece published in October [2], suggest that outdoor group exercise classes can reduce depression, stress, and anxiety in new moms. The researchers also saw that participants felt like their psychological needs were better met after the eight weeks of the program.

So what does this mean for you? If you can: get outside during pregnancy and after. To fit outdoor exercise into your schedule, you can try a variety of exercises:

Hiking is a great way to get outdoors, while getting exercise. You can bring your partner or a friend or family member for a nice social time together, or you can go alone (make sure someone knows where you are going). If you’re pregnant, this might be easier to plan without worrying about childcare, but if baby is already here, you can put them in a baby carrier or wrap and bring them with you.

Walking is even easier to get started with than hiking because it’s likely that you can just get outside near your home and walk around. Check out a local park to walk in or just walk around your neighborhood. Walking faster tends to be more intense, while walking slowly might feel more relaxing. Either way you get the benefits of being outside and moving your body. As with hiking, baby can come along in a baby carrier or stroller on a walk.

Running may not be your cup of tea, but if you enjoy it, it’s usually safe to start running a few months postpartum. If you want to bring baby along, it’s usually recommended that babies don’t ride in jogging strollers until at least six, and maybe more like nine, months due to the stability of their joints and how much jostling is good for them, so this might be a good thing to undertake when you have childcare.

Group fitness classes—the intervention that the researchers tested in the study described above—fulfill both the exercise requirement and add on a social support component that you won’t get if you’re exercising on your own. Check out offerings in your area. There may be a pre- or postnatal yoga class that’s offered outside when the weather is nice or an aerobics type class. In my area, there’s an option called Stroller Strides, group fitness classes for moms who are invited to bring their babies in their strollers.

Swimming was my favorite exercise to do during pregnancy, and it’s also lovely postpartum. Depending upon what part of the world you live in, it may not be a good time for swimming outside right now, but keep it in mind for when the weather is warm.

Finally, I mentioned yoga classes above, but an individual yoga practice, either self-guided or with any of the number of virtual teachers available online is another great option to move outside. It’s especially nice to start your day with yoga as the sun comes up.

  1. Lesser and S. Lear, “Outdoor exercise benefits new moms’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” The Conversation, 2021.
  2. Narcisco, “Fitness classes validate correlation between exercise and postpartum mental health,” UFV Today, 2021.
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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