Research on prenatal exercise continues to expand, produce healthy results

Babies with less fat, strong hearts, better metabolism and healthy cells are the benefits of exercise by pregnant women, according to research at East Carolina University.

Linda May, an associate professor in the ECU Department of Kinesiology and director of the College of Health and Human Performance’s Human Performance Lab, has long studied prenatal exercise and its effects on mothers and babies. Recent outcomes further explain increased heart function for babies post-birth directly related to pre-birth exercise by their mother, as detailed by Runner’s World.

“The heart is what I started with, back in 2007 in Kansas City, so that part has always been in there and it hit the public eye that when moms exercise, the baby’s heart health improves,” May said. “We continue to look at babies’ heart health, but we also are looking at body composition for how much fat you have versus other tissue such as muscle and bone. We also look at babies’ cells to see how their metabolism works. Some people might understand resting metabolism or how your cells process fuels, so that we don’t have too much fat and we are leaner and healthier. Think more muscle and less fat.”

ECU postdoctoral fellow Alex Claiborne works with lab equipment as part of research on exercise by pregnant women.

ECU postdoctoral fellow Alex Claiborne works with lab equipment as part of research on exercise by pregnant women.

Funding through the American Heart Association’s Grant-in-Aid and AHA’s Innovative Project Award helped continue May’s pioneering research on baby benefits to mother exercise. Different scenarios and types of aerobic and strength exercises are used to facilitate outcomes. Research coordinators at the Fitness, Instruction, Testing and Training Building on campus help with pre-birth scheduling and analysis and years of post-birth monitoring of children.

Before birth, exercise sessions by pregnant women are conducted with Master of Science in kinesiology students in the exercise physiology concentration.

“I was a little nervous about weightlifting being pregnant and I enjoy doing it, but it’s really nice to have all these people here monitoring my heart rate and my health and checking in,” pregnant research participant Melissa Nolan said during an interview in October, which was national children’s health month. “They are choosing exercises that are appropriate for me, because I was afraid of doing something and causing an issue. It’s really nice being monitored that way and obviously the resistance training is designed for moms, so I’ve learned to do a little bit every day and listen to your body. They do a great job.”

ECU postdoctoral fellow Alex Claiborne’s role is focused on studying baby muscle and fat cells.

The research team works with ECU Health Medical Center, transporting placentas after delivery by research participants to the East Carolina Diabetes and Obesity Institute. Major positive effects of prenatal exercise are baby cells are less likely to be fatty and more likely to process foods better.

“With the cells we obtain from the umbilical cord tissue, we are able to get a snapshot of how offspring development is directly altered by maternal exercise during pregnancy,” said Claiborne, who earned his doctoral degree from Ball State University in human bioenergetics. “It is surprising to me how clear the effects of moms’ exercise are on the metabolism and fate of babies’ muscle and fat cells.”

Nolan is eager to see those benefits in her child. For now, she said she appreciates the accountability in the exercise program and benefits for her.

“I’ve gotten stronger, for sure,” she said. “I used to have some trouble with my knee, but I can tell now when going up and down stairs that I’ve gotten a lot stronger. The muscles around that knee are developing and being supported. I’ve noticed a huge difference.”

Childhood obesity affects one in five children, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC data also explains that not only behavior, genetics and certain medications can affect obesity rates among children, but also societal and community factors.

May stresses that every exercise minute counts during pregnancy. Overall, May is confident in the positive results for babies.

“Not only is this my passion and my love, but I think people see that it’s beneficial,” she said. “We are a resource to the community. We can show you what to do and we will be there to help you do what is safe for your pregnancy. Not only is it safe, but we know it is going to improve your outcomes and babies’ outcomes. I think that is very helpful to people. So far, our group at ECU is the only one in the world comparing the different types of exercises during pregnancy on mom and baby health, so this is very unique.”

Kinesiology student Kelly Clark observes as Melissa Nolan participates in a strength exercise routine.

Kinesiology student Kelly Clark observes as Melissa Nolan participates in a strength exercise routine.

The research team also is interested in the dose-response effect of exercise during pregnancy. For example, the time put into exercise relates directly to the benefits seen with moms, pregnancy outcomes and baby health. If there is hesitancy or concern by a person interested in participating, then May relies on her expertise with the dose-response relationship. She also can draw on her experiences as a mother and her passion for exercise.

May said research shows exercise during pregnancy is protective of the pregnancy and, importantly, the earlier a woman starts, the better the outcomes.

“If you give us a little bit, then you and baby are going to benefit a little bit,” she said. “But if you give us more, aiming for at least the recommended levels of exercise, you and baby are going to benefit more. We definitely can improve outcomes for mom and baby. … We have a lot of research to support it, from others as well as what we have done, so we know it’s safe. Everything we do for pregnant women is safe, so I think that helps them feel more comfortable.”

Nolan is one of the many women who has gained comfort and pride in contributing to larger research goals and outcomes.

“I want to do this until they are a toddler, because I’m interested too in seeing how this affects in post-birth,” Nolan said. “It’s been really beneficial for my physical health and my mental health, and with the different studies of the benefits for the (baby’s) heart, that is kind of cool. … The biggest thing for me with strength training has been that a lot of women are scared to do so, but this study will help contribute to safe maternal fitness and of course child health.”