Aerobic Exercise During Pregnancy: Its Relationship with Childhood Obesity

Cardio exercise equipment

Optimal health starts at a very young age. In fact, it begins prenatally, or in the mother’s womb. Maternal exercise has been proven to be one component to promoting a healthy start for your baby. Pregnancy is an exciting time for many women. The excitement that surrounds the anticipation of “becoming a mom,” whether for the first time or the fourth time, is typically undeniable. With that excitement, mothers tend to develop an innate feeling of, “I want to do what is best for my child”, and this thought can begin very early on…even before the baby is born. However, how does one stay motivated to exercise with all the undesirable feelings that can present during pregnancy? Continue reading to learn seven tips on how to manage regularly exercising during pregnancy.

The physical activity level of mothers prenatally and the relationship it may have on their infant’s development was investigated in a research study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Pediatric Physical Therapist, Amy McMillan, and others specifically explored the effect of aerobic exercise on an infant’s nervous system development of motor skills at one month of age.

In this study, 116 healthy, pregnant women were enrolled at 13-16 weeks gestation and split into two groups. For the control group, mothers were asked to continue with their “normal routine” (whether that included any form of exercise or not). For the intervention group, mothers were instructed to perform supervised aerobic exercise three days per week.  The type of aerobic exercise was self-selected based on individual preference and included options of the treadmill, stationary bicycle, elliptical, or aerobics. Heart rate was monitored so it did not exceed 40% of the heart rate reserve, keeping it at a “light intensity”. Exercise consisted of a 5 minute warm up, 45-50 minutes of exercise, and a 3-5 minute cool down.

After the baby was born, the mother was asked to come back so the baby could be tested using the Peabody Developmental Motor Scale, a standardized test for motor development for young children. The results demonstrated that the babies of mothers who performed regular aerobic exercise three days per week throughout their pregnancy had higher neuromotor development scores than those whose mothers were in the control group. Although all of the babies from both groups tested at a level of typical development, the babies of those mothers who exercised had significantly higher stationary and locomotion percentile scores.

At this point, you may be thinking: “That’s nice that I may be able to have an effect on how my baby can be the best they can, even at one month old in regards to motor development.” However, what are the bigger implications of these finding? The researchers propose that babies who have advanced neuromotor skills at a young age are going to be more likely to move more. By moving more, they will engage in a higher level of physical activity as they grow and continue to develop. Children who are more physically active tend to have a lower risk of obesity. There are various other studies that draw similar conclusions of the positive effects of maternal exercise on neurobehavior in children to support this.

Because obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States with nearly one third of children meeting the criteria to be considered overweight or obese, the findings of this study are important to note. Although it is true that numerous variables contribute to obesity such as genetics, adequate nutrition, and being raised in an environment that promotes or even allows for physical activity, one of the most popular factors that leads to obesity is poor exercise habits. If better physical activity habits can be established during youth, then ideally, these will be carried over into adulthood. This may increase the likelihood of living a healthy lifestyle well into adulthood.

Your next thought though may be, “Of course, in an ideal world, I would make the time to perform exercise routinely while pregnant, especially knowing it could directly benefit my baby’s neuromotor development and potentially improve their quality of life by decreasing their risk of childhood obesity.” However, during pregnancy, many women tend to experience extreme fatigue to the point of exhaustion, nausea and vomiting, and/or are prone to illness. The thought of exercising regularly seems overwhelming, if not impossible. Sharing this research study with you is not meant to make you feel guilty if you aren’t or weren’t able to accomplish what the research looked at here. Admittedly, even being a women’s health physical therapist and being knowledgeable of the many maternal and fetal benefits of exercise, like discussed in the blog, “Nine Myths About Exercise and Pregnancy”, I’m human too. I haven’t always been able to hold myself accountable to these recommendations either. And that’s okay. Therefore, instead of putting more pressure on yourself in a world where we already feel it from so many angles, I recommend taking the approach of “any physical activity is good”. Any frequency, any intensity, any amount of time, any type of activity. It is all good for you, and it is all good for your babe. Therefore, here is a list of ways to help you achieve this.

Seven tips to help you overcome the obstacles to accomplishing regular exercise during pregnancy:


1. The 15 minute Rule

Even on the days you feel the worst, try to gift yourself these 15 minutes. Start with 15 minutes of a low-intensity, non-intimidating mode of exercise. This could be a leisurely walk. If the weather allows, get outside. Fresh air has a magical way of improving one’s mood. If the thought of being upright seems impossible, consider laying down and performing gentle stretching for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, stop and assess how you feel. If you feel better than when you started, challenge yourself to continue exercising for an additional 15 minutes. If you feel the same, or worse, then stop, but don’t feel guilty about it. Your body just isn’t responding well today, and that’s alright. You made an extraordinary effort by choosing to dedicate 15 minutes to yourself and babe. Be proud of that. 

2. Time of Day

Chose a time of day that you will most likely be successful. If you are typically not a morning person, don’t put the pressure on yourself to set an alarm to wake up before the sun and exercise each morning. Strive to set yourself up for success. Find the time of day when you feel your best, and choose to dedicate this as your exercise time. 

3. Type of Physical Activity

Pick an activity that you enjoy. If you are not a runner, don’t force yourself to be. If you enjoy dancing, find a class like Zoomba at your local gym or more conveniently, on YouTube. You may be surprised at how high your heart rate can get doing an activity you love. 

4. Accountability

Find an accountability partner. Whether that is a friend who is in the same season of life, or a family member who wants to support you, the physical presence of someone showing up and wanting to be active with you is powerful. A solid support system, especially during pregnancy and early post-partum is invaluable. 

5. Work Smarter, not Harder

Exercise during pregnancy doesn’t have to be exhaustive to be effective. In fact, even mild forms of exercise can be invigorating. Consider swimming or water walking at a pool, if you have access. The buoyancy effect of water will make you feel weightless.

6. Get Creative

If there truly are no minutes left in the day that you can dedicate to exercise because of #momlife, be sneaky about how you may increase the amount of physical activity in your daily routine. For example, park at the back of the parking lot or take the stairs instead of the elevator. These are simple steps that anyone can do to live a healthier lifestyle. 

7. Have Hope

Remember, “this too shall pass”. If first trimester woes are limiting your ability to make exercise a reality, have hope that for many this improves as you enter into the second trimester. However, this isn’t the case for everyone. If you fall into this unfortunate group, I encourage you to talk to your doctor to determine if there are any alternatives to helping you feel better so you can move better in order to ultimately mom better. Medications to manage nausea, supplements for fatigue are examples of recommendations your medical provider may be able to provide for you, but this need to be on an individual basis.

Of course, it must be mentioned that there are numerous other factors, besides only exercise, such as maternal diet, sleep, sedentary behavior, or maternal occupation that could contribute to a baby’s neuromotor development. Whether the baby is breastfed or provided a stimulating postnatal infant environment may also have an influence. This research study simply evaluates one of these modifiable risk factor–maternal exercise prenatally.  It is still valuable to strive for a comprehensive approach to good maternal health.

My mind only wonders what if the exercise mode, time or type was varied in this study? For example, could performing aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, five days/week instead of one hour, three days/week have the same results? Alternatively, could combing resistance strengthening (I.e. weight lifting) with mobility (I.e. yoga) throughout the week produce similar or even better results? 

Additional research needs to be done to determine what may be best, but regardless, I hypothesize that whatever form of physical activity you can make time for during your pregnancy will lead to a better quality of life for you and your child. Please note: It is always recommended that you speak with your physician regarding if it’s safe for you to exercise during pregnancy. This blog post is not meant to be medical advice. Any risk factors such as bleeding while pregnant, unrelenting pain, dizziness, extreme nausea, etc. should be closely monitored by your medical provider before beginning any exercise routine. 

Comment below about what your favorite form of exercise is during pregnancy. Share a tip with other mamas-to-be that made exercise possible (or even just more tolerable) during your pregnancy.

1 thought on “Aerobic Exercise During Pregnancy: Its Relationship with Childhood Obesity”

  1. Beautiful and encouraging, Kristen! Loved the suggestion to give it 15 minutes of stretching and re-assessing how you feel to determine if you can give another 15 or need to stop. So often our mind gets in the way of our physical ability – and once that roadblock is removed a whole new world of opportunity opens up!

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