pregnant moms exercising

Is It Safe to Exercise with Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is considered the leading cause of pregnancy-related illness or death and affects between 5 to 8% of all pregnancies in the United States. While there's no cure aside from delivering your baby, it is manageable with the proper treatment and a healthy routine. But is exercise safe if you have preeclampsia? Here, we'll discuss everything you need to know about this condition and how exercise affects it.

What is Preeclampsia?

Normal blood pressure is about 120 mm HG systolic over 80 mm Hg diastolic. This is usually written as 120/80 mm Hg. Preeclampsia is considered a complication of pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure (at or above 140 mm/Hg systolic or greater and/or 90 mm/Hg diastolic or greater) after the 20th week of pregnancy. This is paired with high protein levels in the urine (proteinuria), kidney or liver problems, fluid in the lungs, and more. There are treatment options, but women with preeclampsia are at a higher risk of several complications, such as organ damage, fetal growth restriction, placental abruption, preterm labor or birth, eclampsia, cardiovascular disease, and more. Therefore, it's crucial to talk to your doctor if any signs and symptoms appear.

What Causes Preeclampsia?

Several factors may contribute to the development of preeclampsia, but many experts agree that it seems to originate from the placenta. During early pregnancy, your body forms several new blood vessels to help ensure your baby gets the necessary oxygen and nutrients for development. However, women who have preeclampsia don't seem to properly develop these blood vessels, which can lead to irregular blood pressure regulation and subsequent issues. This may be caused by diabetes, smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, and other factors that lead to narrowing blood vessels. Moreover, preeclampsia can occur gradually or have a sudden onset in the second or third trimester of pregnancy.

Risks of Developing Preeclampsia

The risk of preeclampsia is broken down into two categories: high-risk factors and moderate-risk factors. The high-risk factors are:

  • Preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Kidney disease
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Being pregnant with multiples (i.e., twins, triplets, etc.)
  • Having type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • Chronic high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Pregnancies after IVF, IUI, ICI, or IVI
  • Having multiple moderate risk factors

    Other factors are associated with a more moderate preeclampsia risk. These include:

  • Obesity
  • Family history of preeclampsia
  • Age (35 and older have a slightly higher risk)
  • Complications in previous pregnancies
  • First pregnancy
  • Long breaks between pregnancies (10+ years)

    Symptoms of Preeclampsia

    Unfortunately, preeclampsia can occur with no noticeable symptoms. Keeping regular prenatal appointments can help you catch any signs early in pregnancy and utilize the appropriate treatment options. If you do experience symptoms, they can include things such as:

  • Severe headaches
  • Changes in vision
  • Temporary loss of vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the hands or face
  • Pain in the upper abdomen, usually under the ribs
  • Anxiety
  • Mental confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

    If you notice any of these symptoms throughout pregnancy, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

    Other Types of High Blood Pressure in Pregnant Women

    Preeclampsia involves blood pressure changes and strain on the kidneys. It often begins in women with no previous history of high blood pressure. However, it's not the only type of high blood pressure in pregnancy. Additional hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are as follows:

  • Gestational Hypertension — high blood pressure that develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It usually resolves after childbirth.
  • Chronic Hypertension — high blood pressure that's present before becoming pregnant or before 20 weeks of gestation. Chronic hypertension can increase the risk of complications during pregnancy.
  • Chronic Hypertension with Preeclampsia — women with pre-existing chronic hypertension who develop preeclampsia during pregnancy, leading to additional complications.

    How to Manage Preeclampsia or Elevated Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

    While preeclampsia can be scary, it's important to know that most women who have preeclampsia go on to have healthy babies. The key is catching it and undergoing the necessary treatment provided by your doctor. Since any high blood pressure is often asymptomatic, it's important that you attend all of your prenatal visits. This can help monitor placental development and reduce the risk of developing complications from preeclampsia. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help lower blood pressure and schedule more frequent visits to keep an eye on things. Severe preeclampsia may require hospitalization. However, the only way to "cure" preeclampsia is to deliver your baby, so it's best to manage the condition until it's safe to do so.

    Is It Safe to Exercise with Preeclampsia?

    While exercise is not only safe but also highly recommended for women experiencing a healthy, normal pregnancy, what about if you've been diagnosed with preeclampsia? What are the effects of exercise training on preeclampsia? Is exercising with preeclampsia safe during pregnancy?

    Generally speaking, it is safe to perform moderate exercise with preeclampsia as long as it's not severe. However, you should never begin a new exercise routine without discussing it with your doctor first. Physical exercise has several benefits, but not for all expecting mothers. Each individual is unique; therefore, each pregnancy and risk is unique. Discuss exercise and preeclampsia prevention or treatment during your prenatal care visit to better understand your circumstances.

    Can Exercise Prevent Preeclampsia?

    Not entirely. Preeclampsia cannot be entirely prevented, but it's well-known that a healthy diet and exercise can help lower blood pressure. Adopting a healthy prenatal exercise program can, therefore, help you manage your blood pressure and the subsequent risks associated with preeclampsia.

    Benefits of Exercise During Pregnancy

    Regular exercise may decrease the risk of preeclampsia, but that doesn't mean it will prevent it entirely. Preeclampsia can be unexpected, but it's still important to do what you can to increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy. One way to do that is through recreational physical activity. Exercise has been shown to have several additional benefits for expecting moms, including some of the following:

  • Aerobic activity improves your energy levels
  • Exercise can reduce backaches, constipation, and bloating
  • Resistance training builds muscle tone and strength
  • Working out reduces blood pressure
  • Regular physical activity improves pregnancy outcomes
  • Reduce the risk of preeclampsia
  • Blood volume increases from exercise may lead to improved placental development
  • Lowers oxidative stress
  • Improves metabolic function
  • Can help prevent or treat gestational diabetes
  • Improves your overall mood and outlook
  • Helps improve your posture
  • Contributes to better sleep

Exercise can also have benefits for expecting moms during labor. Some studies suggest that higher fitness levels during pregnancy may contribute to shorter labor, less exhaustion, and fewer medical interventions. It won't change the pain levels experienced, but exercise can help you prepare for a healthy, uncomplicated delivery.

Tips for Safe Physical Activity During Pregnancy

Regular exercise can help lower your risk for preeclampsia while providing several other health benefits. Consider the following tips to ensure you're safe during your workouts.

Talk to Your Doctor First

Before starting, it's important to talk to your doctor about the impact of exercise on your pregnancy. They'll be able to provide personalized advice based on your health history, any existing medical conditions (like preeclampsia), and the specific circumstances of your pregnancy.

Choose Pregnancy-Approved Exercises

Aside from high-impact sports or professional bodybuilding, most exercises are safe for pregnancy. Still, some types of exercise are more geared toward your growing belly at the end of pregnancy. Try out some low-impact activities like walking, swimming, and prenatal yoga. Aerobic exercise paired with light strength training will provide plenty of benefits.

Ease into a New Exercise Routine

If you're new to exercise or introducing a new activity during pregnancy, it's advisable to start slowly and gradually increase intensity. This gradual approach allows your body to adapt to the physical demands, reducing the risk of injury. Begin with shorter durations and lower intensity, then progressively build up as your fitness level and comfort permit.

Get Help from a Professional

If you don't know what you're doing, try getting help from a fitness professional or a certified prenatal exercise specialist.

Monitor Intensity

During your workouts, keep an eye on your heart rate and level of exertion during exercise. Take breaks as needed, and try not to overexert yourself.

Eat to Fuel Your Workouts

Maintain a well-balanced and nutritious diet to support your energy needs during pregnancy, especially if you're engaging in physical activity. Prioritize foods that provide essential nutrients and stay adequately hydrated.

Listen to Your Body

Pay close attention to your body's signals during exercise. Stop and consult your healthcare provider immediately if you experience any pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, or discomfort.


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