Physical activity in pregnancy

Evidence shows that moderate or gentle physical activity during pregnancy, where there is no known medical condition that would prevent it, far outweighs any risks and can have many benefits for the mother and the developing baby. It is reasonable for women during pregnancy and the postpartum period to follow the moderate intensity physical activity recommendations set for adults unless specific medical concerns warrant a reduction in activity.

Habitual exercisers with high fitness levels undergoing a healthy pregnancy need not drastically reduce their activity levels, provided that they remain asymptomatic and maintain open communication with their healthcare providers so that adjustments can be made if necessary. This same communication should be continued into the postpartum period, where the time needed before a women returns to performing regular physical activity should be governed by medical safety concerns, rather than a set time period.

In most cases:

  • for those who are already active, continuing to do 150 minutes throughout the week  of safe activities, such as walking, swimming, low impact aerobics or dancing will be beneficial.
  • for those not already active, they should aim to increase their physical activity gently (in short bouts of 10 minutes) to build up to the recommended guideline of 150 minutes per week. As the pregnancy develops, the amount or type of activity may need to be reduced.

Find more information from the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Women's Health.

Physical activity and inequalities in pregnancy

Levels of physical activity are generally lower among women than men.  Within women those living in living in the most deprived areas are less likley to be active. In pregnancy, low levels of physical activity can contribute to a range of health problems.

There is good, evidence-based guidance on interventions that can improve outcomes.

Quick links:

What are health inequalities?

Health inequalities are avoidable differences in health status or determinants between population groups. Reducing health inequalities requires a universal approach:

'To reduce the steepness of the social gradient in health, actions must be universal, but with a scale and intensity that is proportionate to the level of disadvantage. We call this proportionate universalism' Marmot Review (external link). They are not usually the result of a single factor but rather a complex matrix of lifestyle choices, personal life circumstances and access to services.

How do inequalities impact on health in Scotland?

Inequalities begin before birth, can adversely impact health throughout adult life, and can persist across generations. In Scotland in 2005-06, healthy life expectancy at birth was 67.9 years for men and 69 years for women. Meanwhile, in the most deprived 15% of areas, healthy life expectancy at birth was 57.3 years for men and 59 years for women (from Equally Well).

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Policy context

Let's Make Scotland More Active (external link) is Scotland's 20-year action plan for increasing levels of physical activity. Its aims, objectives and methods were reviewed and re-endorsed in 2009 in the Five-year review of 'Let's Make Scotland More Active, a strategy for physical activity (external link).

Activity in this area is also consistent with policy commitments and priorities detailed in The Early Years Framework (external link), Equally Well and Achieving our Potential (external link).

It is also relevant to Scotland's national practice model for child-centered services: Getting it Right for Every Child (external link).

Additional relevent policies include On your marks... get set.. go: A games legacy for Scotland and Preventing Overweight and Obesity in Scotland: A routemap to healthy weight

How do inequalities relate to physical activity in pregnancy?

Proportions of women meeting minimum physical activity recommendations are lowest among those living in the most deprived areas of Scotland Scottish Health Survey 2012,  (external link).

They also suffer from greater health inequalities, both physical and mental, which can be reduced by increasing physical activity levels. Meeting the recommended levels of physical activity before, during and after pregnancy can be beneficial for both mother and baby. Meanwhile, women from vulnerable groups are less likely to access antenatal services and other sources of support before and during pregnancy - a high risk factor for maternal and infant mortality.

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What are the risks from physical inactivity in pregnancy?

Physical inactivity such as sitting for long periods of time, before and during pregnancy can contribute to problems including gestational diabetes, hypertension, and weight gain. .

Protective factors associated with remaining active during pregnancy

Evidence suggests that maintaining recommended levels of safe physical activity during pregnancy can have a range of benefits for pregnant women:

  • improve posture and reduce lower back pain
  • reduce the chances of developing high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy
  • can contribute to a quicker recovery after birth
  • reduce the risk of circulatory problems in the legs such as thrombosis (blood clots) and varicose veins
  • contribute to the promotion of mental well-being during pregnancy
  • can reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia

Remaining active during pregnancy, along with a healthy diet, also helps maintain a healthy weight (from Active Living - Keeping Active During and After Pregnancy) (external link).

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Identifying those at risk

A range of risk factors should be considered, including socioeconomic circumstances, literacy and education levels, substance misuse, existing health and mobility problems, and relationship issues. For a fuller discussion of risk factors, see Inequalities in Antenatal Care.

A Pathway of Care for Vulnerable Families (0-3) (external link) sets out key contact points and interactions for those working with vulnerable families.

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Articles in this topic



Professional support materials

Information for the public

  • External Resource

    Active Nation website

    Active Nation is packed with advice, top tips and great ideas to help you fit more activity into your life.

    • When was this published? 9/26/2010
  • External Resource

    Active Scotland website

    Active Scotland helps people look for ways to get active in their local area.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Asthma UK Scotland

    Asthma UK is the charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of the 5.4 million people in the UK whose lives are affected by asthma.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    My Pregnancy My Choice

    Book for expectant parents with learning disabilities. This book is available free of charge to Early Years professionals in Scotland from NHS Health Scotland as an alternative to Ready Steady Baby! To order contact

    • When was this published? 5/27/2013
  • External Resource

    Pregnant pause

    A guide for lesbians on how to get pregnant. This guide has been specifically tailored to the needs of lesbian women. It contains information on conception, looking after yourself during pregnancy, antenatal health care, giving birth, parental rights and responsibilties, looking after a new born

    • When was this published? 2/16/2011
  • External Resource

    Ready Steady Baby!

    A website for the public providing information and advice through pregnancy and the baby's first days.

    • When was this published? 8/18/2010
  • External Resource

    Take life on website

    This website contains handy tips to help you improve your health and wellbeing

    • When was this published? 9/26/2010