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The Surprising Benefits of Prenatal Exercise

Over the past several decades, a significant evolution has occurred in the way we view pregnancy, and the role exercise plays.  Pregnancy used to be viewed as a “condition” or “illness.”  Over the years, however, research findings began to support the notion that activity during pregnancy is not just “a good idea,” but critical for the health of both parent and child. In fact, the benefits are so substantial that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) — the body that provides the official medical guidelines for exercise during pregnancy — now advises people with uncomplicated pregnancies to engage in “aerobic and strength conditioning exercise before, during, and after pregnancy” aiming for “at least 20–30 minutes per day on most or all days of the week.” 

Read on to discover what research has uncovered over the past several decades, and see how 9 months can truly have a lifetime impact. 

Benefits to Pregnant Body

  • Minimizes excess weight gain: This not only helps with postpartum weight loss, but also mitigating so many of the pregnancy-induced pains & injuries.
  • Reduces risk of gestational diabetes: Research has shown that participating in recreational activity within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy can decrease the risk of gestational diabetes by almost half (Dempsey et al., 2014).
  • Reduces risk of major pregnancy complications: Research has shown that regular exercise during pregnancy was associated with a 40% reduction in major pregnancy complications, such as pre-eclampsia and gestational hypertension. Exercise improves circulation to keep blood pressure in check (Meah, Davies, & Davenport 2020).
  • Helps prevent pregnancy pains & injuries: The physical and physiological changes of pregnancy can put a great deal of stress on the body, which can lead to pains and injuries like low back pain, diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction, SI joint pain, and more. Functional strength training and deep core work can dramatically reduce the risk of getting nearly all of these.
  • Reduces risk of nausea, constipation, heartburn, indigestion, swelling, and varicose veins: While exercise won’t guarantee you will avoid these, it has been shown to improve circulation and digestion, which can certainly help.
  • Improves sleep, mood, energy, and self-esteem: Exercise releases endorphins, which trigger a positive feeling in the body similar to morphine. Exercise can also improve sleep by reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms.  In fact, exercise has been linked with fewer feelings of stress, anxiety, insomnia, and depression during pregnancy (ACSM, 2014; Goodwin, Astbury, & McKeeken, 2000).
  • Facilitates easier labor (with less need for medical intervention): Cardiovascular exercise during pregnancy helps increase endurance, which can enable one to better endure the physical demands of labor (Cram & Hyatt, 2003). In addition, weight-bearing exercise performed throughout pregnancy as been shown to lead to a 50% reduction in the need for medical intervention due to heart rate abnormalities, and a 75% reduction in the need for forceps or a C-section (Clapp, 1998).
  • Expedites postpartum recovery and improves ability to carry out physical demands of parenthood: Exercise has been shown to facilitate a return to Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) 40% faster following labor with less discomfort from the physical demands of early parenthood (Clapp, 1998). In addition, a longer term study showed that 1 year after delivery, 75% of those who exercise regularly during their pregnancies had returned to their pre-pregnancy fitness levels vs. only 30% of those who did not exercise regularly (Clapp, 2002).

Benefits to Baby

  • Improves placental function: The placenta is an entirely new organ grown during pregnancy that provides the fetus all the oxygen and nutrients it needs to grow. Studies have shown that regular exercise in early to mid-pregnancy leads to a more rapid growth of the placenta and improved placental function.  At any rate of uterine blood flow, oxygen and nutrient delivery to the baby will be higher in a pregnant person who exercises than one who does not (Clapp, 1998; Wolfe, Brenner, & Mettola, 1994).
  • Improves baby’s health at birth: Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of premature labor or low birthweight babies (5lbs, 8oz or less), as well as babies being born with macrosomia (birthweight over 8lbs 13oz) (Berkowitz et al., 1983). Exercise during pregnancy is correlated with higher newborn APGAR scores (a measure of the baby’s physical condition at birth that takes into account baby’s appearance, strength of crying, muscle tone, and other physical characteristics).
  • Improves baby’s ability to manage stresses of labor and recover more quickly: Labor can be very stressful for babies too. However, babies born to those who exercised during pregnancy appear to be less stressed by labor and delivery and recover from birth more quickly (Hall & Kaufman, 1986).
  • Improves cardiorespiratory health of baby, even into childhood years: Congenital heart defects are one of the most common birth defects, affecting as many as 1 in 100 babies. Exercise has been shown to substantially reduce the risk of giving birth to babies with heart defects (Reynolds, 2015). Exercise has also been shown to improve cardiorespiratory health of the baby, resulting in a higher cardio fitness level that extends into childhood (Clapp & Little, 1995).
  • Reduces risk of becoming overweight or obese as a child: Some longer-term studies have shown that babies born to those who exercised regularly during their pregnancies maintained lower fat and weight levels as children (Moyer, Reoyo, & May, 2016).
  • May improve intelligence and memory: Longer-term studies have shown that babies born to those who exercised during pregnancy scored higher on general intelligence, memory tests, and oral language tests than children of non-exercising mothers — even when factoring out parental weight, height, education, socioeconomic status and several other factors that could influence a child’s development (Reynolds, 2013).

Reap the Benefits

Of course, not all prenatal exercise is created equal. Some activities are unsafe, others are safe. However, we don’t just look at what’s “safe.” We have always been interested in what type of training is the most effective during pregnancy. The journey though pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum experience places very specific, high-stress demands on the body. Our goal is to ensure you can successfully manage those stresses, and not just mitigate injuries, but emerge even stronger. Learn more about our prenatal training programs and our approach.

If you are a professional interested in working with the pre & postnatal population, explore our education to become a Pre/Postnatal Performance Training Specialist. Discover the benefits you receive, and the impact you can have on multiple generations.

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Sources:

ACOG Committee Opinion number 804. Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period.  April 2020.

American College of Sports Medicine, 2014. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (9th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Berkowitz, G.S., J.L. Kelsey, T.R. Holford, and R.L. Berkowitz. (1983). “Physical Activity and the Risk of Spontaneous Preterm Delivery.” Journal of Reproductive Medicine 28:581-588.

Clapp, J. F., Ill. (1998). Exercising Through Your Pregnancy. Champaign, Ill. Human Kinetics.

Clapp, J.F. (2002). Exercising Through Your Pregnancy. Omaha, NE. Addicus Books.

Cram, C., and G. Hyatt. (2003). Prenatal and Postpartum Exercise Design. Tucson: Human Kinetics, Print.

Dempsey, J.C. et al. (2004). A case-control study of maternal recreational physical activity and risk of gestational diabetes mellitus.  Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 66, 203-215.

Goodwin, A., Astbury, J., & McKeeken, J. (2000). Body image and psychological well-being in pregnancy: A comparison of exercisers and non-exercisers. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 40, 4, 442-447.

Hall, D.C., and D.A. Kaufmann. (1986). “Effects of Aerobic and Strength Conditioning on Pregnancy Outcomes.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (November).

May LE, Glaros A, Yeh HW, Clapp JF, III, Gustafson KM. Aerobic exercise during pregnancy influences fetal cardiac autonomic control of heart rate and heart rate variability. Early Hum Dev. 2010;86(4):213–217.

Meah, V., Davies, G., Davenport, M. (2020). “Why can’t I exercise during pregnancy? Time to revisit medical ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ contraindications: systematic review of evidence of harm and a call to action.” British Journal of Sports Medicine. June 8.

Moyer, C., Reoyo, O., & May, L. (2016). “The Influence of Prenatal Exercise on Offspring Health: A Review.” Clin Med Insights Women’s Health. 2016; 9: 37 – 42.

Perales, M., Artal, R., & Lucia, A., (2017). “Exercise During Pregnancy.” Journal of the American Medical Association. Mar 21.

Reynolds, G. (2013). “Mother’s Exercise May Boost Baby’s Brain.” The New York Times. Nov 20.

Reynolds, G. (2015). ““Mother’s Exercise May Lower Heart Risks in Newborns.” The New York Times. April 8

Wolfe, L.A., Brenner, I., & Mottola, M. (1994). Maternal exercise, fetal well-being, and pregnancy outcome in exercise and sports science reviews. American College of Sports Medicine, 22, 145-194.

World Health Organization. Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health. https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/pa/en/