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Does exercise during pregnancy affect the fetus’ heart?

In a recent study published in PLOS ONE, researchers examined the effect of exercise during pregnancy on the fetus’ heart health.

Obesity rates are rising worldwide. One especially worrying demographic is obesity during pregnancy. A woman’s obesity not only harms health, but has implications for the unborn child. Children born to obese mothers are at higher risk for heart defects and adverse cardiovascular events in later stages of life. Expecting mothers are often encouraged to exercise to benefit themselves, but there is a lack of research on how exercise during pregnancy can affect their child, and specifically the child’s cardiovascular health.

Researchers in Norway conducted a study where pregnant women participated in exercise sessions to determine the effects on their child’s heart health. They recently published their results in the journal PLOS ONE.

For the study, they recruited women who were obese or had a normal weight, who were over the age of 18, and who was at least at 11-14 weeks gestation. To be considered obese, a participant had to have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 28 kg/m2 before pregnancy, and women of normal weight had to have a BMI of 18.5 kg/m2 – 25 kg/m2 . If women had serious health conditions or already exercised prior to recruitment, they were excluded from participation.

The obese women were randomly allotted to an exercise group or control group. In the exercise group, participants completed a mix of strength training, moderate endurance exercises for 60 minutes while supervised, as well as for 50 minutes at home weekly until they gave birth. Control group participants continued with normal pregnancy care. Pediatric cardiologists then used echocardiography to examine the hearts of the newborns a few days after birth then again six to eight weeks after birth.

In all, seven babies born to obese women had heart defects including a thickened wall of the heart, but they repaired on their own before the children turned three years old. Babies born to obese mothers who exercised had a marginally higher cardiac function, but it was not significant. These babies did, however, have reduced heart function compared to other newborns.

Although the study showed exercise during pregnancy does not have much of an effect on newborn heart health, maternal obesity is still an issue. Future research on the subject should perhaps examine how exercise before pregnancy affects the heart health of newborns, and researchers should follow up with the children later in life to see any long term effects on their cardiovascular health.

Written by Monica Naatey-Ahumah, BSc

Reference: Nyrnes, S.A., Garnæs, K.K., Salvesen, Ø., Timilsina, A.S., Moholdt, T., &  Ingul, C.B. (2018). Cardiac function in newborns of obese women and the effect of exercise during pregnancy. A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE, 13(6).



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