You might already be aware of some of the numerous benefits of prenatal exercise for you, but did you know that your baby also receives a long list of perks as well?
In this piece, we’ll take a look at how exercising during pregnancy makes your baby healthier. We will break this down into three areas:
- Benefits of Exercise on Fetal Development
- Benefits of Exercise on Labor Experience
- Longer-Term Benefits (Childhood & Beyond)
1. Benefits of Exercise on Fetal Development
First, it’s important to understand that the placenta is an entirely new organ grown during pregnancy that provides the fetus all the oxygen and nutrients it needs to grow. During exercise, blood flow is redistributed from organs — like the placenta — to working muscles. For this reason, many years ago, there was a concern that prenatal exercise could result in decreased oxygen and nutrient delivery to the fetus.
However, here is why that is just not the case…
While it is true that the placenta (like other organs) receives less blood flow and nutrients during exercise, this is actually “good stress” that results in greater vascularization, which makes it more efficient at delivering oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, even when at rest.
So, just as exercise “stresses” your heart a bit — which in turn makes your heart healthier and stronger — the same is true for the placenta.
In fact, studies have shown that exercise during pregnancy may contribute to an improvement in placental function through an enhanced ability for nutrient and gas exchange from the placenta to the fetus (Kubler et al., 2022).”
This improved placental function can lead to many benefits. Below are some of the other benefits shown to the fetus:
- Healthier Birthweight
- 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).
- Higher “APGAR” scores
- Exercise is correlated with higher newborn APGAR scores (a measure of the baby’s physical condition at birth that considers appearance, strength of crying, muscle tone, and other physical characteristics).
- Improved cardiac health
- 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 heart defects (Reynolds, 2015).
2. Benefits of Exercise on Labor Experience
Just as exercise can help facilitate an easier labor for you, the same is true for your baby:
- Improved ability to manage the stresses of labor
- Labor can be stressful for babies too! However, babies born to those who exercise during pregnancy are better able to manage the stresses of labor, and recover from it faster (Hall & Kaufman, 1986).
- Faster heart rate recovery
- Fetuses exposed to maternal exercise have a quicker heart rate recovery to baseline, indicating a more well-conditioned cardiovascular system (Roldan-Reoyo et al., 2019). This helps the fetus better manage through the heart rate fluctuations that can occur during labor.
- More efficient trip down the birth canal
- The baby’s descent down the birth canal involves an intricate series of movements, which requires the baby to interact with the bodily structures to know when to perform what move. When the baby’s head touches the pelvic floor, it is signaled to begin a final rotation that results in the exit through the pelvis. If you have more “responsive” pelvic floor muscles — muscles that are supple, yet strong — this helps facilitate an easier exit for your little one. See tips at the end of this post that can help you develop responsive pelvic floor muscles.
3. Longer-Term Benefits (Childhood & Beyond)
This is a truly fascinating area, as more research continues to look into the longer-term impact of prenatal exercise on the fetus. Literally, 9 months can have a lifetime impact. Here are just a few of the benefits that have been shown thus far:
- Improved cardiorespiratory health
- Research has shown that the improved cardiorespiratory fitness levels seen at birth extends into childhood (Clapp & Little, 1995).
- Potentially greater motor coordination
- One study from 2019 demonstrated potentially greater motor coordination for one-month old babies who were born to more active moms (McMillan, et. al, 2019).
- Reduced 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).
- Potentially improved intelligence, language, 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 those who did not exercise – even when factoring out parental weight, height, education, socioeconomic status, and several other factors that could influence a child’s development (Reynolds, 2013).
Beyond these incredible benefits for your child, there are so many benefits for YOU. Learn more about the benefits for you in this piece on The Surprising Benefits of Prenatal Exercise.
Want Additional Resources?
For additional resources to help you exercise safely and effectively during pregnancy, explore our training programs and services. You’ll find a variety of offerings tailored to different needs — from education, to self-guided programs, to the ability to work with an expert coach.
Or, if you’re a health & fitness pro interested in coaching pre & postnatal clients, check out our ProNatal Education & Certification.
ACOG Committee Opinion number 804. Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period. April 2020.
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. (2002). Exercising Through Your Pregnancy. Omaha, NE. Addicus Books.
Cram, C., and G. Hyatt. (2003). Prenatal and Postpartum Exercise Design. Tucson: Human Kinetics, Print.
Hall, D.C. & Kaufmann, D.A. (1986). Effects of Aerobic and Strength Conditioning on Pregnancy Outcomes. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (November).
Kubler, J.M., Clifton, V.L., Moholdt, T., Beetham, K.S. (2022). The effects of exercise during pregnancy on placental composition: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Placenta, 117, 39-46.
May, L.E., Glaros, A, Yeh, H.W., Clapp, J.F. III, Gustafson, K.M. (2010). Aerobic exercise during pregnancy influences fetal cardiac autonomic control of heart rate and heart rate variability. Early Hum Dev. 86(4):213–217.
McMillan, A.G., May, L.E., Gaines, G.G., Isler, C., & Kuehn, D. (2019). Effects of Aerobic Exercise during Pregnancy on 1-Month Infant Neuromotor Skills. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 51(8),1671-1676.
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Roldan-Reoyo, O., Pelaez, M., May, L., Barakat, R. (2019). Influence of maternal physical exercise on fetal and maternal heart rate responses. German Journal of Exercise and Sport Research. 49, 446–453.
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.
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