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Serena Williams wowed fans Wednesday when she announced on Snapchat that she’s 20 weeks pregnant. After the initial congrats poured in, people did the math and realized that the tennis great won the Australian Open when she was pregnant — and then they were floored.
The Australian Open was in mid to late January, meaning Serena would have been about seven or eight weeks pregnant when she won her title. Naturally, people are asking, Is that really safe?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued its latest guidelines in May 2016 about exercising while pregnant. In it, the organization says that exercising during pregnancy is encouraged, and cites walking, swimming, stationary biking, and modified versions of yoga and pilates as good options. However, ACOG noted that some sports should be avoided, like contact sports (they specifically call out ice hockey, boxing, soccer, and basketball), skydiving, activities that might result in a fall, hot yoga, scuba diving, and activities performed above 6,000 feet, if a mom-to-be doesn’t already live at a high altitude.
The organization also said this: “If you are an experienced runner, jogger, or racquet-sports player, you may be able to keep doing these activities during pregnancy.”
Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Beauty that tennis is generally considered safe for pregnant women. “It really incorporates running and is not typically a contact sport,” she says. (In contact sports a pregnant woman’s stomach could be hit by an opponent, raising the risk of complications for the fetus and/or placenta, she explains.)
While the style of play that Williams does is pretty different from just lobbing the ball back and forth with a partner, Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Beauty that Williams was likely fine because, well, she’s Serena Williams. “For the average pregnant woman, playing at the level that these top tier tennis professionals play would not be advisable — some of these open tournaments last for four hours,” he says. “But somebody like Serena Williams, who is an elite athlete in top physical form who has trained for years to have her body adapt to this kind of high level exercise, she can probably withstand more than the average person.”
Doctors typically advise that, barring any complications, pregnant women can keep up with their regular exercise routine, provided it doesn’t fall into ACOG’s unsafe list, Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells Yahoo Beauty. “As long as you stay hydrated, don’t allow yourself to get too hot, and you can breathe, it’s generally safe,” she says.
Exercise is encouraged during pregnancy because it can help women maintain a certain level of fitness, which has myriad health benefits, and avoid excess weight gain that can increase the risk of pregnancy complications, like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, Greves says.
If you want to play tennis during your pregnancy, Schaffir says, it’s important to be mindful that your balance will change as your pregnancy progresses and your joints can soften, increasing your risk of injury. “Those are things to be aware of in the second half of pregnancy,” he says. “You may not be able to do as much as you could before or as quickly.” Simply put, it’s probably better to have non-competitive volleys in your third trimester vs. playing in a tournament.
Overall, experts say they’re impressed by Williams’s feat. “This is just a beautiful example of what a woman can do, even in pregnancy,” Shepherd says.
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