Exercising while Pregnant: A Catastrophe or a Breakthrough?

By: Nicole Soussana  |  September 19, 2019

Science and Technology

By Nicole Soussana, Staff Writer

Women’s placements in society have drastically shifted. Today, women have professional and personal lives. We have occupational, familial, and, for some, religious responsibilities. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that despite our busy lives, we must make time to care for our bodies. Not only has exercise been proven to benefit our health, but recent studies show increased benefits resulting from moderate exercise in women who are pregnant, both for themselves and their babies.

A study on the effects of exercise during pregnancy, published in August 2019, wished to discover if an increase in neuromotor skills and development of one-month-old babies could be linked to motherly exercise while the baby was in the womb. If so, we can further associate this exercise with a decrease in child obesity as children are more likely to continue activity if they develop early skills in movement. The team of researchers from East Carolina University randomly assigned 71 healthy pregnant women to either perform aerobic exercises (experimental group) or no exercises (control group). The exercises were moderate in intensity, supervised, and performed three times a week. 

The neurodevelopment of the one-month-old babies was finally determined using a method called the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales, which gauges motor skills, specifically reflexes, stationary, and locomotion. Results described male babies as scoring higher than female babies in the control group. In support of this finding, previous studies have shown that in relation to females, male newborns experience greater brain volume in the motor cortex region. Interestingly, females of the exercising mothers performed better than males overall. While this unexpected outcome requires further study, the paper explained the occurrence as a “ceiling effect” for the males. This describes male fetal brain development as reaching a sort of plateau, or maximum impact, whereas female brain cortexes can continue to mature. As a general trend, females whose mothers exercised, performed better than females in the control group (the same is said for males).

The study continues to explain that the presence of exercise in utero (before birth), could result in growth hormone excretion, essentially the cause for increased development. Additionally, fetal brain and nervous systems may benefit from increased oxygen, nutrients, and blood-flow through the placenta while the mothers are exercising.

Though this study speaks of the potential positive effects of exercise during pregnancy, there are still precautions and questions. As recent as 1990, exercise was discouraged for pregnant women. Many women today question whether they should exercise if they’ve never done so before. And how intense should these workouts be? When should we be concerned for the baby’s health?

There are certain guidelines for physical activity during pregnancy. But if followed correctly, not only can it benefit the health and development of the baby, but the mother herself. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Pregnancy is an ideal time for maintaining or adopting a healthy lifestyle.” Benefits to these women include general fitness, weight management, decreased risk for obese women to develop gestational diabetes, and higher levels of psychological wellbeing. Other benefits include decreased GDM (glucose intolerance), faster postpartum recovery, less lower back pain, and prevention of preeclampsia (high blood pressure).

While the experiment of the East Carolina University researchers was not perfect, as the article did not describe a control for home life of the mothers, the infants of mothers who exercised displayed more advanced motor skills at one-month of age in comparison to infants whose mothers did not. Additionally, though the participants of this study were few, the results are promising and can be used as a template for further studies.