Eat & move with Derval O’Rourke: Exercising whilst pregnant and batch cooking

THIS week I’m chatting about exercise and pregnancy. Recipe wise, I’m focusing on batch cooking with my sweet potato shepherd’s pie and a delicious veggie curry

Pictures: Leah Barbour

I’m currently pregnant with my second baby. Just like I normally do I share snippets of my exercise routine on social media. It’s always amazing to see the responses and pregnancy and exercise definitely gets a big reaction. I have a very active background and this is my second pregnancy which helps me feel comfortable exercising whilst pregnant. Training whilst pregnant can be a little intimidating. Recent research shows that up to 25% of women feel they can’t or shouldn’t exercise whilst being pregnant. As someone who really feels the benefits of staying active whilst pregnant I find this statistic a little disappointing.

The recently published ‘2019 Canadian Guidelines for Physical Activity throughout Pregnancy’, demonstrate a positive relationship between prenatal physical activity and the health of both the expectant mum and baby. They advise that pregnant women should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week and that includes a variety of both aerobic and resistance training to achieve the greatest benefits.

    The benefits of this approach to exercise for the Mum have been shown as:

  • Reduced incidence of lower back pain
  • A 30% reduction in the risk of gestational diabetes
  • Reduced likelihood of an unplanned caesarean
  • Lower incidence and reduced severity of depression
  • Less pregnancy weight gain
  • Lower risk of urinary incontinence
  • Reduced incidence of pregnancy constipation
  • Less pregnancy tiredness.
  • The benefits to the baby have been shown as:

  • A healthier heart
  • Normal birth weight
  • Quicker to develop neurologically.

From my own personal experience, I remained physically active throughout my first pregnancy and hope to continue throughout my second. All pregnancies are different and it’s important to chat to your GP or midwife about what your exercise plans are. The areas I focus on are as follows:

Warm Up, Cool down and stretching:

With each session, I include a gentle warm-up and cool-down. This helps to avoid raising blood pressure or post-exercise low blood pressure. I don’t hold stretches for too long, I aim for 8-10 seconds at most.

How fit am I?

I was very honest with myself about how fit I currently am. I was at a good fitness level pre-pregnancy and concentrated on maintaining this for a number of weeks. However, if you are new to exercise then the guidelines suggest starting gently and building up gradually. Walking is an underrated but very effective form of exercise. Just because you are not where you would like to be fitness wise doesn’t mean you can’t exercise now.

Listening to my body is key:

Don’t be afraid to adapt your exercise as needed. My energy levels were very low and I was feeling quite sick during trimester 1. I was conscious to manage my energy levels whilst juggling work and a very busy 3-year-old! Rather than overly worrying about how little I was doing, I concentrated on what I could do. I genuinely always felt better after doing any amount of exercise. As the fatigue and nausea began to subside I found it easier to exercise more.

Changing as I go:

After 16 weeks I’m very aware that I need to adapt certain exercises and concentrate on different exercise goals. I include pelvic floor exercises in my regime, this is really important. There are some fantastic prenatal classes that can help with this. I’m an active weightlifter and I’m conscious of reducing the weight whilst slightly increasing the reps. As a runner, I like to keep a very close eye on my heart rate when I run and monitor how I’m feeling that way.

Activities I love:

I’ve found strength training really benefits me and I stay very active with this, I lifted very light weights the whole way through my first pregnancy. Post pregnancy life with a baby is very physical, there are buggies to be dragged around, car seats to deal with and a little baby to hold! Strength training helps me to do all this.

I love running and keep doing this for as long as I find it comfortable whilst pregnant, running and pregnancy tends to be very personal – listen to your body.

I’m not a great swimmer but I really enjoy swimming for the latter stages in pregnancy, I even do a little aqua jogging while I’m in the pool.

During my first pregnancy, I did pilates right up to my due date. In pregnancy 2 I’ve struggled to find the time to go to a class but I plan on starting.

A final point every pregnancy is different and please make sure to chat to your doctor about your pregnancy exercise routine.



Orla O’Brien is a former international kickboxer. She is a Mum of two little boys, she is a pregnancy and postpartum athleticism coach. Orla is a great follow on Instagram and a really down to earth practical source of advice. She regularly does seminars about pregnancy and exercise in Cork.

Sweet potato shepherd’s pie

Few things in life make me as happy as a plate of shepherd’s pie. It is the ultimate warming dish full of goodness. During these months the weather is windy and rainy so what better dish to cosy up to than a shepherd’s pie. I’ve given this version slight twist by using a sweet potato topping. I like to make two of these at a time and pop one in the freezer to use at a later date. I love this served with a side of green veg.

Serves: 4-6

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30-40 minutes

Nutritional information (if serving 6):

Protein – 30g

Fat – 40g

Carbohydrates – 46g

Calories – 650

2 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, chopped

Salt and pepper

3 tbsp mixed dried herbs

5 cloves of garlic, crushed

700g minced beef

500 ml beef stock

1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

4 tbsp tomato puree

100g peas

8 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered

60g butter

60g cheddar cheese

ml milk

Heat the oven to 180C.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat.

Add the onions, herbs and a pinch of salt. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the mince and cook for about 10 minutes, until browned. At this point, drain off any excess liquid. Stir in the beef stock, peas, Worcestershire sauce and tomato puree. Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the mash, boil the sweet potatoes in salted water for 10-15 minutes, until tender. Drain, season and mash well. Stir in the butter, cheese and milk.

Place the cooked mince in a large ovenproof dish and top with the mash.

Bake for 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Divide the pie between warmed serving plates.

Potato, mixed bean and courgette curry

Flavour-packed, slow-cooked dishes like this one are the simplest yet most satisfying and comforting meals. This curry can be made with meat, but I love using veggies to mix things up. This recipe makes enough for lunch the next day to make your co-workers envious. It’s a great meatless Monday option.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4-6

Nutritional information (not including rice):

Protein – 7g

Fat – 17g

Carbohydrates – 28g

Calories – 305

2 tbsp coconut oil

3 tsp Thai red curry paste

2 x 160ml cans

coconut cream

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks

300ml vegetable stock

2 tsp fish sauce

2 bay leaves

1 tsp runny honey

2 tins mixed beans

Half courgette, peeled and cut into small chunks

To serve:

Handful flaked almonds

Handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cooked brown rice

Melt the coconut oil in a saucepan over a medium heat, add the curry paste and fry for 1 minute, then stir in the coconut cream.

Add the cubed potato, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes, until lightly coloured.

Pour in the stock, add the fish sauce, bay leaves and honey, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the courgette and mixed beans and cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and the sauce has reduced.

Remove from the heat and transfer to warmed serving bowls.

Garnish with the coriander and flaked almonds and serve it some brown rice on the side to soak up the delicious sauce.

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