Dispelling Myths on Pregnancy Exercise

At regular intervals, it becomes necessary to dispel two persistent myths that are often perpetuated by well-meaning care providers. Both of them were debunked long ago, in research literature that is readily available and about which I have written a great deal, including in my chapters on Women and Exercise (editions 3 & 4) and Health Promotion in Varney’s Midwifery (edition 5), in posts on the DTP website, on my Twitter feed (@anncowlin), on DTP’s Facebook page and in a textbook.

DTP_mover1_pregnantThe more common myth is that pregnant women should never let their pulse get over 140 beats per minute. But, more on that one at another time. That was an ACOG guess in 1985 that long ago (1994) was rescinded.

The other is that pregnant women should never begin a new exercise regimen, but only modify (i.e., reduce) what they are already doing. What brings me to write this blog after a blog break (to respond to our expanding pre/postnatal fitness teacher training program) is that this evening I was told the latter myth was promoted by a CNM at a recent nearby conference. A childbirth education colleague alerted me to this occurrence and also to the happy response by an unknown person in the audience, who chose to differ with the midwife, citing Dancing Thru Pregnancy® as her example!! Thank you to this responder.

Let me address – yet again – the issue of whether it is safe for pregnant women to begin an exercise regimen after they become pregnant. The caveat I offer at the outset is that doing so should be under the supervision of a knowledgeable certified pre/postnatal fitness specialist. Within the profession, the resolution of this question is generally agreed to be the Cochrane Review conducted in 2002, which found that aerobic fitness can be improved or maintained in pregnancy. Improvement requires increasing the level of aerobic challenge. More recently, researchers concluded “….pregnant women benefit from regular physical activity the same way as non pregnant subjects…” and that “…[t]he adoption or continuation of a sedentary lifestyle during pregnancy may contribute to the development of certain disorders such as hypertension, maternal and childhood obesity, gestational diabetes, dyspnoea, and pre-eclampsia.” (Melzer et al. Physical activity and pregnancy: cardiovascular adaptations, recommendations and pregnancy outcomes. Sports Med. 2010 Jun 1;40(6):493-507. 

Put another way, the female is not put together to be sedentary in pregnancy. It is only in recent decades that this is an option. Until the mid 20th Century, activities of daily living required physical fitness, and obesity was rare, along with sedentary behavior. In the last few decades, those who are knowledgeable about the interactions of pregnancy and exercise, and who have the experience of teaching movement to this population, have come to understand how to present activities that improve the factors that improve maternal and fetal outcomes.

Those who are extremely well-versed in the field all agree that cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness during the 6 – 12 month pre-pregnancy period may be the greatest pregnancy enhancement a woman can have. Why? Because endothelial function is greatly enhanced, oxidative stress is reduced, and vascularity is increased by aerobic fitness, and these capacities underly healthy implantation and placental development (see Research Updates 2001-2005, Winter 2005 and Winter 2004 and Update on Immune Function). Barring that, beginning early in pregnancy is helpful because placental development is still underway. Barring that, mild to moderate aerobic activity introduced by 25-30 weeks will produce cardiovascular enhancement by the time of labor. My caveat goes here, too.

All conditions mediated by inflammation are a problem in pregnancy. Physical fitness is a major preventive strategy for inflammation, and pregnancy does not stand in the way.

 

 

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Blood Pressure in Pregnancy

I was recently asked some questions regarding blood pressure during pregnancy by my colleagues at Physiquality. In preparing material, I wrote this blog, which includes very basic clinical information and explanations about this topic.

What is the normal range for blood pressure for pregnant women? What readings would fall under high blood pressure?

Blood Pressure (BP) in pregnancy is a complex topic.

First, we need to know: What are the classifications of BP?

The chart below is from the evidence-based 2014 Guidelines of the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute of the NIH. The first number is Systolic BP or during the heart beat. The second number is Diastolic BP or between beats. These numbers are relevant for women of childbearing age.

  • Normal                        <120 mm Hg and <80 mm Hg
  • Pre-hypertensive          120-139 or 80-89
  • High BP Stage 1            140-159 or 90-95
  • High BP Stage 2            ≥ 160 or ≥ 10

Why does low BP (hypotension) occur in a healthy pregnancy?

A healthy pregnant woman with normal BP and no cardiovascular or immune system complications, will have pregnancy BP lower than her non-pregnant BP due to increased progesterone relaxing her vasculature. To create the placental and uterine blood flow, blood volume (V) expands rapidly increasing by around 40%, but stroke volume increases less, so beats per minute (pulse) may increase, systolic BP may drop 5 mm Hg and diastolic may drop 10-15 mm Hg. If V is not adequate with this relaxed vasculature, BP may drop even lower. To help maintain normal BP, women are encouraged to drink sufficient water (about 8 glasses/day) and eat enough protein (about 20-25% of daily intake) to produce a blood volume that will sustain an adequate BP. Other more severe conditions – often genetic – may also be relevant, such as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome.

Other causes of hypotension include lying still on the back with legs extended for long periods of time after the first trimester. The weight of the uterus impinges on the vena cava returning blood to the heart, thus reducing BP and blood flow to the uterus and placenta. Also, standing for long periods of time with a minimum of motion, as happens with teachers, cashiers, line workers and nurses in the second half of pregnancy when increasing relaxin and elastin cause further softening of vasculature. This results in difficulty returning blood from the lower limbs and reducing blood flow to the uterus and placenta.

What are hypertensive disorders of pregnancy?

According to the National High Blood Pressure Education Working Group on High Blood Pressure in Pregnancy, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are presently classified into four categories:

  • Chronic hypertension (pre-existing)
  • Preeclampsia-eclampsia
  • Preeclampsia superimposed on chronic hypertension
  • Gestational hypertension

[The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada categorize these disorders as pre-existing or gestational, with the addition of preeclampsia to either category.]

Chronic hypertension is BP >140/90 prior to pregnancy or before 20 weeks. New onset of high BP after 20 weeks may indicate preeclampsia (PE), which requires further consideration. PE involves other symptoms and organs. It occurs in about 5% of all pregnancies, 10% of first pregnancies and 20-25% of women with a history of chronic hypertension. It is a serious disorder and major cause of adverse maternal and fetal outcomes, including strokes, seizures and restricted fetal growth and development.

The underlying pathogenesis of preeclampsia-ecclampsia is not yet fully understood, but is a fundamental dysfunction of the placenta leading to endothelial dysfunction and vasospasm. Possible causes include pre-existing endothelial dysfunction, metabolic dysfunction, auto-immune responses and infection. It is likely that the placenta is affected very early on, during implantation, trophoblast invasion of the uterus and opening of the spiral arteries to form the blood pool on the maternal side of the placental circulation.

Gestational hypertension is the onset of BP >140/90 after 20 weeks without other features of preeclampsia. About 1/3 of these women develop preeclampsia. Gestational hypertension is highly associated with hypertensive disorders later in life. Diabetes can also be a factor associated with hypertension.

Whenever a woman has elevated BP in pregnancy, she needs to be evaluated and have a follow up course of observation and treatment. At its most severe, a hypertensive disorder can affect all the body’s organs and systems, and can be fatal.

What can pregnant women do (diet, exercise, healthy habits) to keep their blood pressure within a normal range?

Some risk factors for hypotension or hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are inherited, others are a consequence of behavior, and many are a combination.

What can a woman do before pregnancy?

Because the events that pre-dispose a woman to hypertensive disorders may occur before she knows she is pregnant, some efforts at prevention may be helpful in the six months to a year prior to pregnancy. Preparing for the implantation period by maintaining optimal health and fitness is likely the most helpful behavior. Cardiovascular or aerobic fitness, which prevents or reduces the severity of endothelial dysfunction is highly valuable. An adequate daily nutrient intake along with sufficient water, and maintaining a BMI <25 are important factors. Women with elevated blood pressure should discuss with their care provider the balance of sodium and potassium intake, along with the total allowable amounts.

Avoiding infections or illness around the time of conception may be a factor. Hypertensive disorders are mediated by inflammation. Unfortunately, another factor may be the maternal immune response to the fetal DNA. This may also be dependent on combined maternal/paternal immune system responses.

What can a woman do once she is pregnant?

Once a woman is pregnant, maintaining optimal health and fitness continue to be important. Even if there are pre-disposing factors for disorders, she may be able to reduce the severity by staying fit, well nourished and well rested. A balanced and colorful diet, along with avoidance of alcohol, drugs and unsafe behaviors are critical.

The ability to achieve the Relaxation Response, meditation, deep breathing and hypnosis are valuable for acute BP reduction. Each of these skills is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system response (or alpha brain rhythm) and mitigates the effects of stress on a temporary basis. Cardiovascular or aerobic fitness is effective for long-term BP reduction, as well as cardiovascular health.

Resting on the left side maximizes circulation and – if possible – finding 15 or 20 minutes to rest this way during the day is beneficial, especially if a woman’s work involves standing for long periods of time. Avoiding lying on the back or standing for long periods of time is advisable. Finding a community of support for having a healthy pregnancy can be a great asset, as well.

The 51% Factor: Pregnancy, Power & Health

Recently I came across this posting and thought it worth posting again. On one hand I see signs of continuing progress, and on another hand it seems to me there are fundamentalist influences popping up everywhere (including among U.S. evangelists) that threaten women’s right to reproductive freedom and health. There is no end to the need to be vigilant.

In the U.S. and most of the developed world, approximately 51% of the population is female. Most females give birth at some point in their lives, although, in any year, only about 2% of the population gives birth.

No one living on earth got here any other way than gestation, so there ought to be some power attached to being part of that 51%. Historically, it might be said that the power has been merely for survival…the good breeders survived long enough to produce heirs and those who lived on knew where the roots and fruit grew.

Only women can make more people with their bodies.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Women make people
  • Women’s health and fitness before pregnancy affects whether the pregnancy is healthy
  • Women’s health and fitness during pregnancy affects her lifetime health and that of her offspring
  • Maternal survival is important to offspring well-being
  • Maternal health and fitness affects maternal adaptation and thereby offspring well-being

Thus, is it not a sanguine notion that the health and survival of women is critical to the health of everyone? After all, the health of nations is associated with this slight majority of females, and the wealth of nations is associated with its health.

The good news is that people working from this understanding are making some headway around the globe. Recently, the World Health Organization noted that maternal death among pregnant and birthing women world-wide has been dramatically reduced from the 1980’s to recently. This is very good news!

Here is the interesting footnote:  Maternal death in the U.S. has risen 42% in the same period. While the absolute numbers remain small, this is a disturbing picture. What could be causing this?

Time will tell if we can figure it out and fix it. I venture to suggest some directions for consideration:

  • The elevated cesarean birth rate with its sequellae of cardiovascular and immune system disorders
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndromes
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease

Why am I hopeful, then? I see among our current educated generation of new moms and moms-to-be a willingness to exert their influence – as breeders – over the health care scene. They want less technological birth. They want support. They want more information. They want to be healthy. These are wonderful things. I salute these young women…they also make my job easier in the process.

In addition, I see among young health care practitioners an understanding of the value of these things. Among practitioners working in public health clinics there is a sense of desperation on the one hand that the poor and indigent have no capacity or will to take care of themselves. On the other hand, the first step is always education and there are a lot of people working on this issue.

Which brings me to the closing point:  How do we bring more resources and intelligence to helping women be healthy, prepare for pregnancy, have healthy babies, reduce pregnancy complications, and improve infant and maternal death rates? I, for one, will keep blogging on this issue. You, I hope, will vote for people who understand this issue. The political power and will is in our hands.

51% of us are women…some day 51% of us can set priorities

How to Get Pregnant – Coaching Topic #1

Hurrah! We have power at last…a week after hurricane Irene romped through, we have juice! Thanks for bearing with us while we camped out.

So let’s get on with the topic of How to Get Pregnant, starting with why do we need to know this?

In the past few decades, the average age for a first pregnancy in the U.S. has moved from the mid twenties into the mid thirties. In the same time period, the facts of conception – sperm enters egg released in mid cycle, then zygote implants in the uterus, along with how sex allows this to happen and how to prevent it – seems to have disappeared from middle and high school health classes. If that weren’t enough, as women have become more and more essential in the work force, the cost of having children as well as starting later, have driven down the birth rate. Similar conditions exist in most developed nations, although teen pregnancy rates are lower everywhere else.

The birthing population has bifurcated – we see older women (over 35) and teens as the major groups having children. On the one hand we have been working to reduce teen pregnancy while helping older and older women become first time moms. To a certain extent, they need the same information; its just that with teens we use this information to prevent pregnancy and with older women we use information to help them increase their odds of getting pregnant.

Understanding the menstrual cycle, ovulation, charting temperature – all the basic techniques of using the “natural” method of birth control – have become the first steps of the how-to-get-pregnant coaches. Beyond this, a number of sites have their own essential lists to help women be healthy and ready. Sites such as gettingpregnant.com, pregnancy.org/getting-pregnant, and storknet.com/cubbies/preconception/ provide additional information. Many suggestions – things to avoid eating, what proteins are needed for ovulation, how to reduce stress, what to do if there are sperm problems, how to find IVF clinics, donors and surrogates – are addressed.

How effective are these suggestions? Well, research tells us they are somewhat effective. None of the sites I contacted answered my query about how they measure or assess consumer outcomes when following their suggestions.

An interesting article in the NY Times 9/1/2011, entitled Are You as Fertile as You Look? openened with this sentence: “FORTY may be the new 30, but try telling that to your ovaries.” The reality is that being under 35 is still the best predictor of how difficult it may be for you to become pregnant. As the article makes clear, looking 30 and being 30 are not the same thing. Even healthy living does not prevent the loss of good eggs.

So, what conclusions can we draw? First, even if you come from a “fertile family,” it may behoove you to have your children in your late 20s or early 30s. Second, if you are putting off having children beyond that time, ask yourself what extremes you are willing to go to to have your own biological offspring. And, third, consider adoption. Frankly, it would be wonderful if adoption were easier, but in the drive to conceive at later and later ages we see the hand of biology and understand why adoption is not easy:  Our own offspring – our own DNA out there in the world – is a heady motivation.

If you are on the pathway of becoming pregnant, being under 35 is the best ally you have. If not, maybe some of the suggestions on the web will work for you. Whatever you decide, all the best.

One parting comment:  Regular moderate exercise – while it helps you stay young and healthy – will not prevent your eggs from being popped out every month. It will help you have a healthy pregnancy if you conceive, so stay with it!

Active Pregnancy – the rationale

Moving into Motherhood

It’s time to hit the main theme again:  Aerobically fit women are at reduced risk for things that go wrong in pregnancy, improve their tolerance for labor and birth, and recover more rapidly in the postpartum period.

The arrival of the holidays provides a good reason to bring this up, yet again! Pregnancy is a gateway time in women’s lives…we become more aware of our bodies, our sensations, our feelings, our needs, and how versatile and amazing our bodies are. We can make people with our bodies! During pregnancy, we often take precautions…we eat more carefully, avoid toxins, try to avoid stress. When the holidays arrive, we see indulgent behavior in a different light.

Yet, even with all this focus on behavior, we sometimes miss the biggest aid to a healthy pregnancy:  physical fitness. Research clearly demonstrates that fit women do better, are healthier and happier. More and more in the U.S. we see disorders of normal organ function that accompany sedentary pregnancy.

Let’s look at this a little closer (yes, I am going to repeat myself some more, but it is an important concept to spread). We live in a body model that rewards an active lifestyle.

Being sedentary causes things to go wrong

Not moving creates biochemical imbalances because the cardiovascular system atrophies and molecules created in the brain or brought in through the digestion may not get where they need to go for a healthy metabolism.

Your cardiovasculature is the highway that brings usable substances to the place they are used. You have to help it grow and develop, use it to pump things around and give it a chance to be healthy. Aerobic fitness does all these things.

Advice for young women of childbearing age

If you are thinking of pregnancy, have recently become pregnant, or work with women of childbearing age, we encourage you to open avenues of activity for yourself or others in this population. You can learn more from our website dancingthrupregnancy.com. You can also read backwards in this blog to get specific ideas. Or, you can seek out local pre/postnatal fitness experts (you can also do this on our site). Yoga is nice…we use some of it in our work, along other specific exercises for which there is a direct health benefit. But, we also see yoga converts who come into our program in mid pregnancy unable to breathe after walking up a flight of stairs. How will they do in labor? Not as well as those who have been doing aerobic dance or an elliptical machine 2 or 3 times a week.

The AHA/ACSM guidelines for the amount of aerobic exercise needed to improve cardiovascular status hold true for pregnant women just as they do for the rest of the population – a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, or a combination of these levels of intensity, per week. If you are not getting this level of activity, you are putting your health – and that of your offspring – at risk.

Preventing Prematurity

Today is a day for bloggers to raise awareness of the growing rate of prematurity in the U.S.  As a pre/postnatal fitness specialist who has been working in the field for more than 30 years, I have a number of thoughts on this topic.

I like to start thinking about this problem by thinking back 50,000 years. Back in the day when survival meant hard physical work. 

Which pregnant women survived?  The strongest, fittest and best fed.

Does it make sense, therefore, that becoming sedentary and eating junk food is going to produce healthy offspring at full term? Well, the evidence says no. This behavior is responsible for some of the growing prematurity. Women who are aerobically fit, eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight generally enjoy these benefits over those who do not:

  • a healthier endometrium into which the zygote will implant
  • a healthier placenta with more nutrient delivery surface
  • reduced risk that the necessary immune system modulations of pregnancy go awry
  • better control of metabolic and cardiovascular factors that can threaten pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia
  • a greater ability to physically cope with some environmental toxins

There are – of course – factors that affect prematurity in any case. But, to a certain degree, the growing rate of prematurity is another example of lifestyle-caused disorders. Some of the fix therefore requires a lifestyle that is active and health-conscious.

But, I am hopeful. I see – for the first time in a couple of decades – growing numbers of young women interested in living a healthy lifestyle…exercising, eating healthy and seeking to improve environmental conditions. I also see young women interested in preventing poor living conditions and infection rates in this country and in the developing world that have hindered progress in preventing disorders such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.

To these young women I say:  kudos. Keep working. We have much work to do.

To young women contemplating pregnancy in their future I say:  become aerobically fit, eat a balanced and colorful diet, spend 15 minutes in the sun most days (or, if you are at risk for skin cancer, take vitamin D), practice meditation or a simple progressive relaxation with deep breathing for 10 or 15 minutes most days.

To all the moms whose babies came too soon, my heart is with you. I know this pain.

The 51% Factor: Pregnancy, Power & Health

In the U.S. and most of the developed world, approximately 51% of the population is female. Most females give birth at some point in their lives, although, in any year, only about 2% of the population gives birth.

No one living on earth got here any other way than gestation, so there ought to be some power attached to being part of that 51%. Historically, it might be said that the power has been merely for survival…the good breeders survived long enough to produce heirs and those who lived on knew where the roots and fruit grew.

Only women can make more people with their bodies.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Women make people
  • Women’s health and fitness before pregnancy affects whether the pregnancy is healthy
  • Women’s health and fitness during pregnancy affects her lifetime health and that of her offspring
  • Maternal survival is important to offspring well-being
  • Maternal health and fitness affects maternal adaptation and thereby offspring well-being

Thus, is it not a sanguine notion that the health and survival of women is critical to the health of everyone? After all, the health of nations is associated with this slight majority of females, and the wealth of nations is associated with its health.

The good news is that people working from this understanding are making some headway around the globe. Recently, the World Health Organization noted that maternal death among pregnant and birthing women world-wide has been dramatically reduced from the 1980’s to recently. This is very good news!

Here is the interesting footnote:  Maternal death in the U.S. has risen 42% in the same period. While the absolute numbers remain small, this is a disturbing picture. What could be causing this?

Time will tell if we can figure it out and fix it. I venture to suggest some directions for consideration:

  • The elevated cesarean birth rate with its sequellae of cardiovascular and immune system disorders
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndromes
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease

Why am I hopeful, then? I see among our current educated generation of new moms and moms-to-be a willingness to exert their influence – as breeders – over the health care scene. They want less technological birth. They want support. They want more information. They want to be healthy. These are wonderful things. I salute these young women…they also make my job easier in the process.

In addition, I see among young health care practitioners an understanding of the value of these things. Among practitioners working in public health clinics there is a sense of desperation on the one hand that the poor and indigent have no capacity or will to take care of themselves. On the other hand, the first step is always education and there are a lot of people working on this issue.

Which brings me to the closing point:  How do we bring more resources and intelligence to helping women be healthy, prepare for pregnancy, have healthy babies, reduce pregnancy complications, and improve infant and maternal death rates? I, for one, will keep blogging on this issue. You, I hope, will vote for people who understand this issue. The political power and will is in our hands.

51% of us are women…some day 51% of us can set priorities