Women with an uncomplicated pregnancy who exercise are no more likely to have a preterm birth than those who don’t exercise.
This systematic review pooled the findings of nine trials including 2059 healthy pregnant women who were assigned to exercise for 35 to 90 minutes, three to four times a week, or to no exercise. Despite previous concerns that exercise may increase risk of preterm birth, the review found no evidence for this. It also found that exercise might increase a woman’s chance of a vaginal delivery and reduce risk of pregnancy complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
The findings support current guideline recommendations on exercise during pregnancy. Women who have an uncomplicated pregnancy may be advised to take part in moderate aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises during their pregnancy as this can improve their overall health and will not put the baby at risk.
Why was this study needed?
Preterm birth, where a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, is the leading cause of new born deaths globally. In the UK 60,000 babies are born prematurely and in 40% of these cases the cause is not known.
Women who have no medical complications in their pregnancy are currently advised that moderate, aerobic, non-contact exercise benefits their health and is unlikely to harm their unborn baby. However, some studies have suggested that exercise could cause preterm delivery, possibly by stimulating the womb muscle or altering blood flow in the placenta. Therefore the topic remains controversial.
This systematic review and meta-analysis aimed to shed more light on the safety of exercise in pregnancy, and see whether women with an uncomplicated pregnancy who exercise regularly are more likely to give birth prematurely.
What did this study do?
Nine randomised clinical trials were identified, including 2059 women pregnant with one baby, who had no complications and were of normal body mass index.
The trials compared the rate of preterm births in women who were assigned to regular aerobic activity before 23 weeks of pregnancy with those that weren’t. The type of exercise differed between trials, but all sessions lasted between 35 to 90 minutes and were given three to four times per week for ten weeks or until delivery.
Other outcomes of interest included type of delivery (vaginal or caesarean) and pregnancy diabetes or high blood pressure.
The trials had low risk of bias in terms of randomisation method and data collection, although it is unclear whether assessors were aware of group allocation. The studies had similar methods and could be reliably pooled in meta-analysis. None were UK based.
What did it find?
- The preterm birth rate was no different in women who exercised during pregnancy compared with women who didn’t exercise (4.5% vs 4.4%; relative risk [RR] 1.01, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.68 to 1.50).
- Vaginal delivery was significantly more common among women who exercised (73.6% vs. 67.5%; RR 1.09, 95% CI 1.04 to 1.15), fewer of whom needed a caesarean section (17.9% vs. 22%; RR 0.82, 95% CI, 0.69 to 0.97).
- Compared to women who didn’t exercise, fewer women who exercised developed pregnancy diabetes (2.9% vs. 5.6%; RR 0.51, 95% CI 0.31 to 0.82) or high blood pressure disorders (1.0% vs. 5.6%; RR 0.21, 95% CI, 0.09 to 0.45). However, the rates of each complication were still low in both groups.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
NICE antenatal care guidelines for uncomplicated pregnancies state that moderate exercise during pregnancy is not associated with adverse outcomes. It highlights the potential dangers of contact sports and high-impact sports which could cause joint injuries or could damage the abdomen, and therefore an unborn child. It advises against diving, which could cause foetal birth defects.
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ guidance similarly supports aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises as part of a healthy pregnancy, but to avoid anything that may risk falls or foetal trauma. They also advise avoiding exercising on the back after 16 weeks of pregnancy.
What are the implications?
This high quality review supports current guideline recommendations on exercise during pregnancy. Healthcare professionals may advise pregnant women with no medical complications to take part in safe, moderate exercise on a regular basis and it won’t increase their risk of a preterm birth.
Furthermore, exercise might benefit both mother and baby, making a vaginal delivery more likely and possibly reducing the chance of developing some pregnancy-related complications.
Further studies may help to clarify the best type of activity and its frequency and intensity, as well as assessing the effect of exercise in the different trimesters of pregnancy.
Citation and Funding
Di Mascio D, Magro-Malosso ER, Saccone G et al. Exercise during pregnancy in normal-weight women and risk of preterm birth: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016. [Epub ahead of print].
No funding information was provided for this study.
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WHO. Fact Sheet Number 363. Preterm birth. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015.
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