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Pregnant Women Don't Get Enough Exercise

Study Shows Fewer Than 1 in 4 Meet Guidelines

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

April 1, 2010 -- Three out of four pregnant women in the U.S. do not get enough exercise, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill found that, at most, 23% of pregnant women engaged in as much physical activity as is recommended by government and private health groups.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) -- the nation's largest organization of ob-gyns -- calls for women with uncomplicated pregnancies to get 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise daily on most days.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week during pregnancy.

But the analysis of data from a nationally representative health survey confirms that a minority of women are meeting these exercise goals.

Exercise Benefits Mom, Baby

Due to deliver her first baby later this month, Nicole Rodriguez, 29, is in this minority.

A fourth-grade teacher in Nashville, Tenn., Rodriguez makes a point of exercising at least 30 minutes a day.

A jogger before becoming pregnant, Rodriguez now swims or takes brisk walks with her dog. Her husband, Javier -- whose competes in triathlons for fun -- keeps her motivated.

"I think it has really made a difference in how I feel," she tells WebMD. "I'm not as awkward as I thought I would be by now. Sometimes I almost forget I'm pregnant."

Studies suggest that women who exercise regularly during pregnancy have better outcomes, including lower rates of gestational diabetes, hypertension, and depression.

In the newly published study, the University of North Carolina researchers analyzed interviews with 1,280 pregnant women conducted between 1999 and 2006 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Moderate intensity exercise was defined as any activity that caused light sweating or a modest increase in breathing or heart rate. Vigorous exercise was defined as activity that caused heavy sweating or large increases in breathing or heart rate.

Women Exercised More in 1st Trimester

The analysis revealed that women engaged in more moderate to vigorous exercise during their first trimester than during their third.

While more than half of the surveyed women (56%) reported engaging in some type of moderate to vigorous activity within the past month, no more than one in four got as much exercise as was recommended.

The study appears in the latest issue of Preventive Medicine.

"This is the most comprehensive national examination of physical activity during pregnancy," study researcher Kelly Evenson, PhD, tells WebMD. "Between 14% and 23% of women met recommendations for physical activity, depending on the definition that was used."

Exercise Dos and Don'ts

Brisk walking, swimming, cycling, and aerobic classes are all considered safe by ACOG during uncomplicated pregnancies, even for women who have not exercised regularly before becoming pregnant.

Running, racquet sports, and strength training are also OK, in moderation, for women who have regularly engaged in them before pregnancy.

Activities that are not recommended include downhill snow skiing, contact sports, and scuba diving.

ACOG recommends that women who have not exercised regularly before becoming pregnant start slowly and build up to the recommended 30-minute a day minimum.

Other recommendations include:

  • Talk to you doctor before starting an exercise program.
  • After the first trimester, avoid exercises that require you to lie on your back.
  • Avoid exercising in hot, humid weather or when you have a fever.
  • Wear comfortable clothing and a bra that fits well and gives lots of support.
  • Drink plenty of water during exercise to avoid dehydration.
  • Stop exercising if you experience vaginal bleeding, dizziness, chest pain, headache, muscle weakness, calf pain or swelling, uterine contractions, decreased fetal movement, or fluid leaking from the vagina.

SOURCES: Evenson, K.R. Preventive Medicine, March 2010; vol 50: pp 123-128.

Kelly R. Evenson, PhD, research associate professor of epidemiology, University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, Chapel Hill.

Nicole Rodriquez, Nashville, Tenn.

WebMD Feature: "Exercise During Pregnancy: Myth vs. Fact."

American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologist: "Exercise During Pregnancy."

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