“I heard that exercise during pregnancy can help boost my baby’s brain development—is that true?”
A recent study suggests that yes, it can, but there are many reasons to be active during pregnancy. Researchers from the University of Montreal recruited women in their first trimester of pregnancy and divided them into 2 groups. The first group was asked to exercise for 20 minutes, three times per week. The other group did not exercise. Eight to twelve days later, they studied the babies’ brain activity by placing a small cap on their head that contained sensors. They found that the babies whose mothers exercised showed signs of more mature brain activity. This study is hopeful that exercise may improve brain development, but whether these benefits are long term remains unknown. The researchers looked at brain activity approximately 1-2 weeks after birth, so additional study is needed to see how prenatal exercise affects the children’s performance years later when they are in school.
Nonetheless, there are many reasons to be active in pregnancy. Exercise may help with sleep, relieve some of the common aches and muscle pain that can occur in pregnancy, and is great training for the all-important event—labor and delivery. It may help with sugar levels in the blood of patients diagnosed with diabetes in pregnancy. Additionally, exercise can help build stamina to run around with your little one once he or she is born.
Before starting an exercise regimen, check in with your OB/Gyn. Most of the time, they will agree that 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week is a benefit for your health during pregnancy. There are a few conditions where your doctor may not recommend exercise during pregnancy. These include:
- Heart or lung problems
- Problems with your cervix
- Multiple pregnancies (twins or more)
- Bleeding in pregnancy
- High blood pressure
- Other reasons that you may be at risk for early delivery
Great exercises to do in pregnancy include swimming, walking, and prenatal yoga. I often tell my patients that it is a great opportunity to go for a walk and connect with your partner before the baby arrives. And, once the baby is born, it is a wonderful time to share as a family.
As one might expect, there are a few activities that are better to avoid in pregnancy. These include:
- Contact sports—sports such as basketball or soccer can put you at risk of trauma
- Downhill skiing—especially with changes in center of gravity, you may be at a higher risk of falling
- Scuba diving—due to the risk of decompression sickness
- Exercises where you lie flat on your back after 18-20 weeks of pregnancy—as it can decrease blood return to your heart
It’s important to listen to your body during pregnancy. If you feel dizzy, faint, short of breath, those are all reasons to take a break. Stop exercising if you feel contractions, have vaginal bleeding or leakage of fluid. Let your doctor know if you notice any of these symptoms occur.
Pregnancy is a special time to celebrate the growth of this wonderful new life. It is a time to nurture yourself and maintain a healthy environment for your baby. Stay active!
Dr. Jeannette Lager is an Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine