Years ago, pregnant women were harshly advised by their doctors and midwives to stay off of their feet if they wanted to have a healthy baby, but in recent years, doctors and mothers alike have begun to change their tune.
Many studies have been conducted that have found the many benefits of women exercising while pregnant, from healthier weight gain for mothers-to-be to lower risks of preterm delivery and macrosomia, where a newborn is abnormally large and may need to be delivered by C-section, but a recent study done by Linda May, an associate professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and her team suggests that the infants of mothers who exercise during pregnancy may have more advanced motor skills.
May and her team compared 1-month-olds by looking at movements such as head turning and found that those whose mothers regularly did aerobic exercise during pregnancy tended to have stronger movement skills than those whose mothers did not engage in aerobic exercise.
The findings of the study have been published in the August issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
What Types of Exercises Should You Do?
So, what kind of exercise should pregnant mothers be engaging in? May says that anything that isn’t overly vigorous yet manages to get your heartrate up. If you’re breathing heavy and not able to talk, you’re pushing yourself too much. Things like walking, swimming, riding a stationary bike, or a gentle aerobics class are good examples of exercise fitting for pregnant women.
Why are motor skills so significant? Past research has demonstrated that babies that develop motor skills more quickly tend to be more active children as they grow up.
May and her team sectioned 71 healthy pregnant women into 2 groups; one group had supervised aerobic exercise sessions 3 times a week on a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical or through aerobics. The second group – or the “control” group – only participated in light-intensity exercise and supervised sessions on stretching and breathing.
A physical therapist assessed the motor skills of their babies at 1 month old and found that, though all the babies were in the range of typical development, the infants with exercising mothers did better.
So, what significance does a mother’s exercise habits have on their baby? It may be that exercise feeds fetal brain development by boosting the flow of blood and oxygen to the womb as well as aid overall growth and development through the release of proteins called growth factors.
One interesting finding, however, was that the exercise seemed to positively affect female infants more than males. Though she has not found why, May notes that the exercise may be more effective for female babies than for male infants.
James Pivarnik, director of the Center of Physical Activity and Health at Michigan State University, offered some insight. He notes that the findings are unclear and that it’s also uncertain whether exercise is the sole reason for the differences.
Too many other factors, like nutrition, for example, were left unaccounted for, and Pivarnik also noticed that the women in the exercised group gained an average of 13 pounds more than the “control” group – another unexplained factor. Lastly, he saw that there were no details on birth weight.
However, he did see the significance of performing studies like this one to learn the effects, positive and negative, of prenatal exercise on the development of babies.
“I think the message for pregnant women is, if you’re exercising, keep it up,” Pivarnik said. “And if you’re not exercising, you should start.”
From all the studies that have been done thus far, May recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.