Not All Prenatal Exercise is Created Equal

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The BIRTHFIT definition of fitness is this:

 

“To functionally train throughout the Motherhood Transition in all planes of motion to develop competencies and physical skills as well as enhance the main metabolic pathways.”

 

As an organization, most of the questions that we receive are in regard to fitness, despite the fact that BIRTHFIT comprises four pillars: fitness, nutrition, chiropractic, and mindset.  The other three pillars are generally regarded as safe without a lot of questioning (if you are still unsure of the role of chiropractic care and its safety and efficacy, I encourage you to check out the research at the ICPA website; although we do get questions regarding the implementation of the other three pillars, they tend not to get blanket “questioned” for their role in pregnancy as much as fitness).  

 

Luckily, there has actually been research published on the effects of exercise on pregnancy for both mom and baby.  Despite this, many well-meaning health professionals are still frightening women regarding their choice of exercise during pregnancy.  

 

If you’re familiar with the BIRTHFIT Prenatal Programming, you know that we don’t shy away from movement during pregnancy.  But much more than just bouncing around with a bump, we have created a specific program that is intended for the pregnant woman.  Not all prenatal exercise is created equally, but the important thing to recognize is that exercise can serve as a form of empowerment and preparation for a mom rather than a source of anxiety.

 

Although it was published in 2013 (and updated in 2015), there has been a recent resurgence of an article on the Lamaze website that put into question the role of more “strenuous exercise” during pregnancy.  The author listed the following as potential adverse baby outcomes from maternal exercise in pregnancy:

  1. Risk of congenital malformations
  2. Risk of physical injury to the fetus
  3. Effects of exercise in pregnancy on growth
  4. Risk of premature labor (1)

That should leave you feeling warm and fuzzy about grabbing your kettlebell, right?  To help quell your fears that these listed concerns likely stirred up, the research that supports this article was done in 2002.  While some research remains relevant years after its publication, a lot of it gets questioned further and as a result, we end up with more effective research.

 

As previously stated, there actually is research on the effects of vigorous exercise during pregnancy, and Dr. James Clapp and Ms. Catherine Cram provided us with this information in their aptly named book Exercising Through Your Pregnancy.  Per their studies, “Continuing regular, vigorous exercise throughout early pregnancy does not increase the incidence of either miscarriage or birth defects” (2).  The authors stated that these concerns “initially arose, then were supported by interpreting anecdotal information and scientific results out of context.  These concerns have been self-perpetuated by some health care providers who view the female recreational athlete as suffering from exercise-induced problems she doesn’t have”.  (As Magic Mel of BIRTHFIT Colorado tells us, this - like every single act - comes from a place of love.  We as a society want to protect our moms and babies, so we try to keep them as safe as possible.  Sometimes this means spreading misinformation because that’s all we have access to.)  

 

Dr. Clapp and Ms. Cram went on to state that while they didn’t find negative side effects, there wasn’t any apparent benefit to baby; they therefore looked further and concluded from examining the baby’s heart rate, bowel function, and physical activity in response to maternal exercises:

 

“All indicate that regular maternal exercise improves the baby’s ability to deal effectively with the intermittent reductions in uterine blood flow and oxygen delivery that are a part of everyday life.  This physiological benefit has real survival value for the baby because it provides additional protection when unanticipated maternal stresses occur, specifically during serious traumatic injury, other medical emergencies, and when complications arise during labor.”  Regarding fetal growth, the researchers found that “Recreational exercise may actually decrease the chances of both premature labor and the birth of a very small baby.”

 

From this excerpt, we learn that maternal exercise can actually help a baby adapt to potential stressors and can even decrease negative fetal outcomes!  This, of course, doesn’t mean that simply killing it in the gym or on the track is beneficial.  The authors caution that “in mid- and late pregnancy, a fall in the baby’s heart rate or no kicking for thirty minutes after exercise are two valuable warning signs to pregnant women and health fitness personnel that the woman should see her doctor and not exercise again until the situation is clarified.”  

 

One of the practices we recommend is journaling during pregnancy: upon waking, immediately after exercise, and to track the number of baby kicks/movements for a period of 20 minutes 30 minutes after exercise.  This gives us an idea of both mother and baby’s responses to exercise and can give a mother insight into how her baby is doing without having to purchase special equipment in order to do so.

 

Fitness is one portion of the overall health of a pregnant woman.  While it is not appropriate for Lamaze (or any organization) to spread misinformation regarding the safety of any specific practice, it would be inappropriate for us to just say “screw it, let’s lift!”  We want women to be in tune with their physical and non-physical selves during this transformative period.  For this reason, choosing to live out our four pillars is effective and necessary in addressing multiple aspects of health during the Motherhood Transition.

 

Lindsay Mumma, DC

@BIRTHFITNC

 

  1. Weiss, Lauren Bartell, Ph.D. “Weighing the Pros & Cons: CrossFit, Weight Lifting & Other Extreme Exercise In Pregnancy.” Lamaze International. Released: November 6, 2013. Updated: October 13, 2015. http://www.lamaze.org/p/bl/et/blogid=16&blogaid=917
  2. Clapp, J. F. III, MD & Cram, C. (2012). Exercising Through Your Pregnancy: Second Edition. Omaha, NE: Addicus Books.