While there is a lot of controversy and discussion surrounding exercise during pregnancy, the present literature on the subject suggests that it is indeed safe to exercise while pregnant.
Of course, there are a number of assumptions that must be met in order for this to hold true. For example, safely engaging in an exercise in contingent upon the health of the mother and the baby. For example, if the mother is having a complicated and/or high-risk pregnancy, or is pregnant with multiples, exercise may not be appropriate or recommended. In most of the studies conducted, inclusion was dependent upon the health of the mother and baby. First and foremost, expectant mothers consult a physician about whether it is safe to exercise.
Sanabria-Martinez, Garcia-Hermoso, Poyatos-Leon, Gonzales-Garcia, Sanchez-Lopez, and Martinez-Vizcaino conducted a meta-analysis on the effects of exercise interventions on neonatal outcomes (2016). They combined and synthesized the results from various studies which employed different exercise interventions at different intensities and cadences. They examined studies focused on aerobic exercise, resistance, toning, flexibility and strength training. Exercise session frequency varied between 2 and 5 times per week for 15-60 minutes.
The findings of their meta-analysis revealed that physical exercise during pregnancy can slightly reduce birth weight but that this reduced birth weight still falls within the normal birth weight range. They found no influence of exercise on gestational age at delivery. Overall, their results indicate that moderate intensity exercise during pregnancy is safe for both the mother and baby.
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Research conducted by Barakat, Perales, Bacchi, Coteron, and Refoyo (2014) also examined the effects of a physical conditioning exercise program during pregnancy. Participants in this study were 282 pregnant women with normal, healthy pregnancies. Participants were randomly assigned to either the exercise condition or the control condition. In the exercise condition, participants engaged in a physical conditioning program 3x per week for 55-60 minutes per session.
These sessions commenced early in the pregnancy (9-13 weeks of gestation) and continued to the end of the third trimester. The exercise sessions began with 5 minutes of walking and stretching. For the next 45-50 minutes, participants were guided through a series of toning, joint mobilization exercises, aerobic dance, balancing exercises, and pelvic exercises. Each session concluded with a 5-minute cooldown. The intensity of the exercise was light to moderate (55-60% of maximal heart rate) which is in line with the recommended intensity level for pregnant women. Women in the control group did not exercise during this period and experienced treatment as usual.
Measurements taken included:
- Maternal age
- Body mass index (BMI)
- Smoking habits
- Gestational age
- Maternal weight gain
- Preterm delivery
- Type of delivery
- Head circumference
- Birth weight
- Apgar score
Results indicated that the supervised physical conditioning program had no adverse effects on the mother’s health or that of the baby. Additionally, mothers in the physical exercise condition had less excessive weight gain compared to those in the control group. Understanding the complications and health issues associated with excessive weight gain during pregnancy (e.g. gestational diabetes, hypertension), these findings are important because they provide a non-pharmacological solution to a problem many pregnant women face.
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In addition to the physical challenges, it is also important to consider the mental and psychological challenges pregnant women often face. Many pregnant women suffer from depression and because pharmacological treatments are typically avoided during pregnancy, exercise is an appealing alternative.
A study conducted by Perales, Refoyo, Coteron, Bacchi, and Barakat examined the impact of exercise during pregnancy on prenatal depression. In this study, healthy pregnant women with singleton pregnancies were recruited for participation. Once enrolled, were randomly assigned to either the exercise group or the control group.
Furst, participants in the exercise condition participated in 55 to 60-minute exercise sessions 3x per week. Exercise sessions commenced when women were 9-12 weeks pregnant and continued into the third trimester (weeks 39-40). The exercise program began with a walking and stretching warm-up (5-8 minutes).
Next, the light-moderate aerobic exercise program (45 minutes) consisted of an aerobic dance section, balancing exercises, and pelvic muscle floor training. Each session ended with a 5-8 minute cooldown. The present study aimed for participants to reach 55-60% of maximal heart rate (HR). Participants in the control group did not exercise and received treatment as usual.
Consistent with other study’s results, the present study found that exercise had no adverse effects on the health of the baby. At the start of the study, both groups had similar depression scores (measured by the CES-D). At the end of the study, however, participants in the exercise condition had significantly lower levels of depression than those in the control group. These results are important because they illustrate the effectiveness of a non-pharmacological, pregnancy-safe, intervention for treating depressive symptoms.
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In conclusion, participating in light to moderate aerobic exercise 3x per week can minimize excessive weight gain during pregnancy and combat symptoms of depression without medication. Research indicates that the benefits that exercise brings to the mother have no adverse effects on the health of the baby. Of course, before engaging in exercise you should consult your physician to make sure it is safe.
Perales, M., Refoyo, I., Coteron, J., Bacchi, M., and Barakat, R. (2015). Exercise during
pregnancy attenuates prenatal depression: A randomized controlled trial. Evaluation & the Health Professionals, 38(1), 59-72.
Danabria-Martinez, G., Garcia-Hermoso, A., Poyatos-Leon, R., Gonzales-Garcia, A., Sanchez
Lopez, M., and Martinez-Vizcaino, V. (2016). Effects of exercise-based interventions on neonatal outcomes: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. American Journal of Health Promotion, 30(4), 214-233.
Barakat, R., Perales, M., Bacchi, M., Coteron, J., and Refoyo, I. (2014). A program of exercise
throughout pregnancy. Is it safe to mother and newborn? American Journal of Health Promotion, 29(1), 2-8.