Got Gestational? Exercise!

The benefits of physical activity for pregnant women

Sheri Colberg-OchsBy Sheri Colberg-Ochs, PhD

Gestational diabetes is diagnosed when a woman's blood glucose levels rise too high during pregnancy (usually during the third trimester). This is usually discovered when women have an oral glucose test 24 to 28 into their pregnancy. Women who have risk factors for gestational diabetes, however, may have this test earlier in the pregnancy. Using new diagnostic criteria, it is estimated that gestational diabetes affects almost one in five pregnancies.

It's beneficial to a woman's health to be physical active during pregnancy. For starters, instead of detraining for nine months, pregnant women who do regular, moderate-intensity physical activity can maintain or increase their fitness levels. Furthermore, being active does not increase the risk of having a low birth weight baby, preterm delivery, or early pregnancy loss. On the contrary, regular exercise likely reduces the risk of pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, and shortens the duration of active labor.

A Look at the Research

Physical activity during pregnancy may prevent both gestational and possibly type 2 diabetes later in life, and engaging in regular physical activity before pregnancy frequently has been associated with a reduced risk of developing hyperglycemia during pregnancy. In a recent clinical trial, a moderate physical activity program performed three times a week during pregnancy was found to improve levels of the mother's glucose tolerance in healthy, pregnant women. Also, higher levels of physical activity participation before pregnancy or in early pregnancy significantly lower the risk of developing gestational diabetes.

Similarly, pregnant women already diagnosed with gestational diabetes who exercise on a cycle or arm ergometer or perform resistance training three times a week for 20–45 min experience better blood glucose control, lower fasting and post-meal glucose levels, and improved fitness.

Compared with less vigorous activities, exercise intensity that reaches at least 60% of heart rate reserve (HRR) during pregnancy, while gradually increasing physical activity energy expenditure, reduces the risk of developing gestational diabetes. The more vigorous the exercise, the less total exercise time is required. Thus, the general consensus is that higher levels of moderate physical activity (aerobic or resistance training) may reduce the risk of developing pregnancy-related diabetes and lower blood glucose levels in women who do develop it. Women who are active before becoming pregnant and are doing leisure time physical activity are even less likely to develop problems during pregnancy.

In summary, women at high risk for gestational diabetes may be able to prevent it with lifestyle management during pregnancy. In those who develop gestational diabetes, dietary improvements and regular physical activity frequently suffice to manage hyperglycemia, although insulin and oral medications may be used when these changes are not enough. Management of blood glucose levels ensures fewer problems with the pregnancy, giving birth, and the baby. In fact, engaging in 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week has been adopted as a recommendation for all pregnant women.

Recommended Activities for Pregnant Women:

Aerobic: Walk, stationary cycle, swim, aquatic activities, conditioning machines, prenatal exercise classes, prenatal yoga, seated exercises, and possibly jogging or running (if highly active before pregnancy).

Resistance: Light or moderate resistance exercises.

If just starting out with any type of physical activity, increase the duration of moderate exercise slowly; if already more active, maintain or lower intensity during pregnancy rather than attempting to progress to higher levels.

Exercises to Avoid: Activities lying flat on the back and any that increase the risk of falling or abdominal trauma (e.g., contact or collision sports, horseback riding, downhill skiing, water skiing, soccer, outdoor cycling, basketball, most racquet sports, and scuba diving).

Read Sheri's bio here.

Read more of Sheri Colberg-Och's columns.

NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.

Last Modified Date: December 02, 2013

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by Brenda Bell
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