If the last time you danced was in your second-grade ballet recital or at your best friend's bachelorette party, pregnancy just might be the time to try it again. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that most pregnant women participate in 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise on most, if not all, days of the week. For women whose doctors have medically cleared them to exercise during pregnancy, dance can be a great alternative to the usual prescriptions of yoga and walking.
According to Ann Cowlin, the founder and director of Dancing Thru Pregnancy (DTP), a Connecticut-based fitness and well-being program that trains professionals to work with women of all ages, dancing during pregnancy, like yoga and walking, can provide numerous benefits for mom and baby. Among them are:
DTP classes around the world teach women a variety of skills through modern dance. In particular, the classes focus on the connection between mind and body. Cowlin explains that, "Mind-Body exercises evoke the Relaxation Response," which helps the brain and body counter stress, "which in turn helps women pay attention to their bodies while they work out. This improves motor efficiency and reduces the risk of injury, and is a central tenet of dance training." Some of the "Mind-Body exercises, or Centering, that is, balancing the body, deep abdominal breathing" are taught using techniques borrowed in the early 1980s from yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, and tai chi, explains Cowlin.
In addition to teaching women how to relax better, DTP classes teach women to strength their core in preparation for the intense work of labor. Students learn to "strengthen against resistance in motions that help prepare for labor and birth, including kegels, abdominal hiss/compress exercises and C-curves, as well as the abdominal core strength, upper back strength, and leg strength in dance-related movements," describes Cowlin. "These are treated as an integrated and flowing choreography (people sometimes say it reminds them of tai chi). We include strength in the class in part because when done correctly, it has been shown to help control gestational diabetes. It is also effective for preventing some common discomforts and helping maintain a more normal alignment."
If you needed any more reasons to join a maternity dance class, Cowlin says that dance can also help to reduce the risk of certain pregnancy complications. "Aerobic dancing is critical, as it is one of the few forms of exercise that has actually been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on pregnancy outcome, including reducing the risk of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (e.g., preeclampsia) and prematurity, as well as greatly shortening the recovery time following birth."
Additionally, Cowlin adds that "There is evidence that [aerobic dance] also helps prevent or reduce the severity of gestational diabetes. Research indicates that, if sufficient, it probably reduces the need for medical interventions in labor, including the need for cesarean birth."
As with any exercise regimen, it's important to keep a few key guidelines in mind:
Listen to your body. Cowlin recommends that pregnant women need to pay attention to how they feel, and then adjust their exercise -- and exercise level -- accordingly. Just the growth of the baby is enough to send a woman's body into overload, "which accounts in large part for why women so often feel ill at the start. Women need to have a healthy respect for modulating their activity as needed," Cowlin says. Should a woman begin to experience dizziness, shortness of breath, onset of pain, or vaginal bleeding, she should stop immediately and notify her healthcare provider.
Find a fully trained instructor. "Looking for an instructor or personal trainer who is trained and certified to work with pre/postnatal populations is important because there is so much to understand about the physiology of pregnancy and its interaction with exercise that one needs good training to be a safe instructor or personal trainer," says Cowlin. At Dancing Thru Pregnancy, women are "screened for prior experience and are taught to adjust their activities for their level and how they are feeling that day."
Follow proper nutritional guidelines. To avoid overheating, pregnant women should drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercise, and should steer clear of exercising in hot and humid places. Additionally, women should ensure they are consuming enough calories to gain the amount of weight recommended by their healthcare provider and support their level of physical activity.
Select positions and movements wisely. Pregnant women should avoid exercising on their back after the first trimester and standing still for extended periods of time, as both can reduce blood flow to the uterus.
Consider the demands of each trimester. If a woman who was active before pregnancy continues to exercise during her first trimester, she will probably feel better in the second semester for having done so and should continue to exercise, Cowlin says. "However, around week 20 she will likely begin to feel the misalignment beginning to hamper motion and should slow down some of her actions. In the third trimester, most of her change in motion will be to slow down and reduce intensity, but keep moving at what she feels is a moderate intensity. She may not feel as well again -- also due to adjustments in the immune system -- and needs to respect that, as well."
Finally, beyond the physical benefits of dancing during pregnancy, there's also that great thing called having a good time with other women. And it goes beyond just laughing it up while shaking your belly with other moms-to-be. "We have been able to demonstrate that what we call the 'tribal effect' of dancing together has a positive impact on the mother's experience of pregnancy and helps reduce stress," Cowlin says. "These are psychosocial benefits of group physical activity." Sounds like another great reason to start dancing!
Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, May 2006.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.