Exercise and Diet 'Key to a Healthy Pregnancy'

Peter Russell

July 21, 2017

Half of all women of childbearing age worldwide are overweight or obese, and a new study underlines the importance of a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy to avoid complications for mothers and their babies.

The research, published in The BMJ, says that healthy eating and exercise can limit excess weight gain and lower the chances of having a caesarean section.

Moreover, the benefits are consistent, regardless of a woman's age, ethnicity, body mass index ( BMI) and any existing medical conditions, say researchers.

Health Risks of Maternal Obesity

Obesity and weight gain during pregnancy are risky for both mums-to-be and their offspring. Children born to obese mothers are more likely to be obese themselves with the extra risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and other conditions later in life.

Researchers from the International Weight Management in Pregnancy (i-WIP) Collaborative Group investigated the effects of improved diet and boosting physical activity during pregnancy on weight gain and outcomes such as caesareans, stillbirths and newborn admissions to intensive care units.

They analysed results from 36 high quality trials involving 12,526 women.

Some of the women got help improving their diet and exercise levels. These included having access to a dietitian, attending antenatal classes for advice on diet and lifestyle, or going to exercise classes.

Less Weight Gain

Compared to those women who did not receive this help, those who ate better and exercised more gained 0.7 kg (1.5 lbs) less weight.

They were also 9% less likely to have a caesarean, report the researchers from the International Weight Management in Pregnancy Collaborative Group, which is examining weight management interventions for pregnant women.

No effect was seen on other birth outcomes, including stillbirths or admission to special baby care units.

The authors say one drawback to their investigation is that most of the women were white, with a tendency to be well-educated.

Health Initiatives

In a linked editorial, Marian Knight, professor of maternal and child population health at the University of Oxford, and Charlie Foster, senior lecturer for physical activity at Bristol University, write: "The researchers note that at trial entry, 46% of women took no exercise or were sedentary, and perhaps this is where public health initiatives need to focus in the future."

They recommend that "future studies could explore a possible role for strength and balance training in improving pregnancy outcomes, and consider whether pregnancy could be a window of opportunity to change physical activity patterns among women and their families in the longer term".

Dr Virginia Beckett from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) tells us in an emailed statement: "We know that maternal obesity and excessive weight gain during pregnancy leads to an increased risk of women requiring caesarean sections. Overweight women are also more likely to develop health conditions such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and pre- eclampsia, and blood clots. In addition, obesity during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death, premature babies and severe bleeding after birth.

"While most women should put on weight during pregnancy, consuming too many calories can be detrimental to the mother and baby.

"This study demonstrates the importance of maintaining a healthy weight before and during pregnancy through eating a well-balanced diet and taking part in regular exercise. Maintaining a healthy body weight will reduce the risk of complications for both mother and baby, and give children the best start in life."


Effect of diet and physical activity based interventions in pregnancy on gestational weight gain and pregnancy outcomes: meta-analysis of individual participant data from randomised trials, The International Weight Management in Pregnancy (i-WIP) Collaborative Group, The BMJ

Diet and exercise in pregnancy: Lifestyle interventions are safe in pregnancy, and help control weight gain, Knight M, Foster C, The BMJ

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG)