In Summary
  • Experts generally agree that moderate activity is healthy and advisable for most pregnant women.
  • But some experts worry that strenuous exercise could tire or injure a pregnant woman and possibly rob her child of oxygen or nutrients.
  • But new research undercuts widely held beliefs about strenuous physical training and pregnancy.

New research undercuts widely held beliefs about strenuous physical training and pregnancy.

Female athletes seem to be able to exercise safely and intensively both before and during pregnancy without increasing their risk for birth-related complications, even if they are trekking up Mount Everest, according to two eye-opening new studies.

Together, the new research undercuts widely held beliefs about strenuous physical training and pregnancy.

As anyone who has experienced pregnancy knows, it is physically taxing. That cherished little foetus-slash-vampire requires a share of its mother’s blood, fuel and oxygen.

The mother’s body adapts to the child’s needs, adding blood vessels and volume, but the environment inside the womb remains almost otherworldly, with levels of oxygen flowing to the baby that are similar to those in the thin air near the top of Mount Everest, according to past research.

CONCERN

Babies obviously can thrive in this milieu or the human species would not exist. But some doctors and other experts have raised concerns about layering vigorous exercise onto the existing physical demands of pregnancy.

Experts generally agree that moderate activity is healthy and advisable for most pregnant women.

Current exercise guidelines recommend that pregnant women complete about 150 minutes per week of brisk walking or other moderate exercise, the same recommendation as for people who are not pregnant.

But some experts worry that strenuous exercise, such as intensive running, cycling or weight training, could tire or injure a pregnant woman and possibly rob her child of oxygen or nutrients.

Some also believe that strenuous, high-impact exercise before or during pregnancy will increase the size and tightness of a woman’s pelvic-floor muscles, potentially increasing the risk for tears of the perineum, the tissue that connects the vagina and the anus, and otherwise making labour and delivery more difficult.

But there has been surprisingly little research into the actual effects of vigorous activity on pregnancy and delivery.

INTENSE TRAINING

So for one of the new studies, which was published in September in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers from the University of Iceland and other Nordic institutions decided to look at birth outcomes among a group of national-team and other elite athletes, who, by definition, train intensively.

They asked 130 elite female athletes and mothers about their training in the three years before they gave birth and during their pregnancies.

Some of the athletes competed in sports that involved pounding and impact, such as running and soccer. Others engaged in lower-impact sports like swimming and equestrian events.

The researchers also asked about the exercise habits before and during pregnancy of 118 Icelandic mothers who were not athletes.

Then (with permission), they examined records in the Icelandic Medical Birth Registry about each woman’s labour and delivery.

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