Exercise Can Lower Your Chance of Pregnancy Complications

There are a lot of complications that can have an impact on your pregnancy, birth, and postpartum period. Preeclampsia and gestational diabetes are just a couple, but the good news is that there is something you can do that may help you avoid both: exercise. In this blog post, we’ll discuss a 2018 scientific paper that looked into the evidence for the benefits of exercise during pregnancy, as well as discuss ways to fit in exercise while you’re expecting.

In 2018 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Margie Davenport, an expert in women’s cardiovascular health at the University of Alberta in Canada, and her colleagues published a study looking into the effects of exercise during pregnancy. [1] Rather than doing any experiments with new subjects themselves, the team instead analyzed the data from 106 studies that investigated the impact of exercise during pregnancy and had already been published. A study that combines all the data from other studies like this is powerful because it means that it considers a much wider group of people than any single study could, meaning it is more likely to accurately represent how things actually are in most individuals.

Davenport and her coauthors found that exercise lowered the risk of developing gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension (high blood pressure), and preeclampsia. Pregnant people who exercised at a moderate intensity for at least 25 minutes each day or at least three days per week for a total of 140 minutes had a 38 percent decrease in the odds of developing gestational diabetes, 39 percent decreased chance of developing gestational hypertension, and 41 percent decrease in the likelihood of developing preeclampsia. Those numbers don’t mean that exercise can prevent any of these complications on its own, but that it is a good idea to incorporate body movement as much as you want and are able to during pregnancy.

Another complication of pregnancy is postpartum mood disorders, namely postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, and it turns out that exercise during and after pregnancy may help lower your risk of developing those too. In a study published in 2017 in the journal Birth, researchers did another meta-analysis of 12 previously published studies and found that women who exercised regularly were less likely to show depressive symptoms. [2]

But what does moderate intensity exercise look like and how can you fit it into your day? In the first study, Davenport and colleagues wrote that brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a stationary bike, and lifting weights all qualify as moderate exercise, but there are lots of other options that might work. In the second study, the researchers also mentioned pilates, yoga, and walking with a pram or stroller. The key to fitting in exercise during pregnancy is to find something that you enjoy that fits into your life. If that’s a hike a few mornings each week, great. If you’d prefer to attend a class at your gym, that’s good too. Be as consistent as you can and you’re more likely to see the benefits.

In line with the evidence discussed above, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that healthy pregnant women get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. They also caution that certain conditions may make exercise during pregnancy inadvisable, including cervical cerclage, placenta previa after week 26 of pregnancy, and severe anemia. It’s always good to speak with your doctor or midwife before trying out any type of exercise, particularly if you have any possible contraindications.

Another thing to avoid during pregnancy is high intensity exercise. If you are already a long distance runner, it’s probably fine to continue as long as it feels good in your body, but pregnancy is not the time to start running marathons or sprinting a lot. Hot yoga is another practice that is best avoided during pregnancy, as the heat in the room could cause overstretching and lead to injury or at the least leave you uncomfortable.

  1. Davenport MH, Ruchat S, Poitras VJ, et al. Prenatal exercise for the prevention of gestational diabetes mellitus and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 
  2. Poyatos-León, R, García-Hermoso, A, Sanabria-Martínez, G, Álvarez-Bueno, C, Cavero-Redondo, I, Martínez-Vizcaíno, V. Effects of exercise-based interventions on postpartum depression: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Birth. 2017; 44: 200- 208.
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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