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  • Systematic Review
  • Open Access

Exercise in Pregnancy and Children’s Cardiometabolic Risk Factors: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Sports Medicine - Open20184:35

https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-018-0148-x

  • Received: 18 January 2018
  • Accepted: 3 July 2018
  • Published:

Abstract

Background

Maternal metabolic health during the prenatal period is an established determinant of cardiometabolic disease risk. Many studies have focused on poor offspring outcomes after exposure to poor maternal health, while few have systematically appraised the evidence surrounding the role of maternal exercise in decreasing this risk.

The aim of this study is to characterize and quantify the specific impact of prenatal exercise on children’s cardiometabolic health markers, at birth and in childhood.

Methods

A systematic review of Scopus, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CENTRAL, CINAHL, and SPORTDiscus up to December 2017 was conducted.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and prospective cohort studies of prenatal aerobic exercise and/or resistance training reporting eligible offspring outcomes were included.

Four reviewers independently identified eligible citations and extracted study-level data. The primary outcome was birth weight; secondary outcomes, specified a priori, included large-for-gestational age status, fat and lean mass, dyslipidemia, dysglycemia, and blood pressure. We included 73 of the 9804 citations initially identified. Data from RCTs was pooled using random effects models. Statistical heterogeneity was quantified using the I2 test. Analyses were done between June and December 2017 and the search was updated in December 2017.

Results

Fifteen observational studies (n = 290,951 children) and 39 RCTs (n = 6875 children) were included. Observational studies were highly heterogeneous and had discrepant conclusions, but globally showed no clinically relevant effect of exercise on offspring outcomes. Meta-analyzed RCTs indicated that prenatal exercise did not significantly impact birth weight (mean difference [MD] − 22.1 g, 95% confidence interval [CI] − 51.5 to 7.3 g, n = 6766) or large-for-gestational age status (risk ratio 0.85, 95% CI 0.51 to 1.44, n = 937) compared to no exercise. Sub-group analyses showed that prenatal exercise reduced birth weight according to timing (starting after 20 weeks of gestation, MD − 84.3 g, 95% CI − 142.2, − 26.4 g, n = 1124), type of exercise (aerobic only, MD − 58.7 g, 95% CI − 109.7, − 7.8 g; n = 2058), pre-pregnancy activity status (previously inactive, MD − 34.8 g, 95% CI − 69.0, − 0.5 g; n = 2829), and exercise intensity (light to moderate intensity only, MD − 45.5 g, 95% CI − 82.4, − 8.6 g; n = 2651). Fat mass percentage at birth was not altered by prenatal exercise (0.19%, 95% CI − 0.27, 0.65%; n = 130); however, only two studies reported this outcome. Other outcomes were too scarcely reported to be meta-analyzed.

Conclusions

Prenatal exercise does not causally impact birth weight, fat mass, or large-for-gestational-age status in a clinically relevant way. Longer follow up of offspring exposed to prenatal exercise is needed along with measures of relevant metabolic variables (e.g., fat and lean mass).

Protocol Registration

Protocol registration number: CRD42015029163.

Keywords

  • Developmental origins of health and disease
  • Birth weight
  • Prenatal exercise
  • Cardiometabolic health
  • Fat mass
  • Offspring

Key Points

  • In general, birth weight is not impacted in a clinically significant manner by prenatal exercise programs.

  • Our understanding of the impact of prenatal exercise on the child’s metabolic health and future risk of cardiometabolic disease is limited as very few trials and cohort studies examined other health indicators aside from birth weight—an imperfect marker of health and future outcomes.

  • Few trials and cohort studies followed up the children to see potential lasting effects of maternal prenatal exercise on their metabolic health.

  • Clinicians looking to counsel their clients might highlight that while prenatal exercise is perfectly safe for the baby, the best evidence currently available indicate exercise is not sufficient by itself to protect the child against cardiometabolic diseases.

Background

Obesity and metabolic syndrome are two of the most common chronic diseases among children [13]. Recent evidence suggests these conditions have their roots in utero as maternal obesity, dyslipidemia, and hyperglycemia are associated with child cardiometabolic health [49]. Animal- and population-based studies suggest that prenatal exposures may influence offspring development and cardiometabolic risk in childhood [10, 11]. Moderate-intensity exercise at least three times per week can maintain or improve maternal physical fitness [12] and cardiovascular health during pregnancy through a decrease in blood pressure [13], plasma triglycerides [13, 14], and insulin resistance [1517]. Therefore, prenatal exercise could create a beneficial fetal milieu and reduce the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome for the offspring by regulating weight and cardiometabolic factors at birth and later in childhood. However, comprehensive syntheses of high-quality evidence on this topic are scarce.

Previous systematic reviews examining the role of prenatal exercise on offspring outcomes have been conducted with heterogeneous results and the interpretation of their findings are limited for several reasons: (1) the primary outcome of interest for previous systematic reviews varied (birth weight or large-for-gestational age (LGA) status); (2) inclusion criteria were variable (types of exercise targeted; inclusion of diet as an intervention; type and number of databases queried; low quality study designs); (3) there were flaws in methodological rigor (type of analysis, pooling heterogeneous studies together); and (4) few evaluated health outcomes in offspring beyond birth weight. The reviews that found a reduction in birth weight (from − 440 g, 95% confidence interval [CI] − 610 to − 270 g [18], to − 31 g, 95%CI − 57 to − 24 g [19], compared to sedentary controls) or LGA status after exposure to prenatal exercise pooled randomized trials and observational studies [18], included interventions that combined exercise and dietary changes [20], or used fixed effect models to analyze the data [19]. Fixed effect models assume that one true effect size is shared by all the included studies regardless of the population or type of exercise studied. Thus, utilizing a fixed effects model considers less variability in the primary studies, and is more likely to reach statistical significance with a large enough sample size [21]. Random effect models should, thus, be preferred when dealing with complex physiological conditions like the effect of different prenatal exercises undergone by different populations on offspring parameters. Other reviews [12, 22, 23] did not find any significant impact of prenatal exercise on birth weight, but were also limited by their specific scope [12, 23] or restricted search strategy [22].

To overcome these limitations and update past reviews [12, 1820, 22, 23], we synthesized evidence from randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies separately to assess the impact of prenatal exercise on offspring cardiometabolic risk factors including weight, adiposity, and blood pressure at birth and in childhood while investigating the effects of maternal body mass index (BMI) and training variables. The clinical question guiding this review was: “Does maternal exercise training elicit short- and/or long-term cardiometabolic health benefits in offspring, compared to no exercise training?”

Methods

Study Design

Using a protocol designed a priori (PROSPERO #CRD42015029163), we conducted our systematic review using methodological approaches outlined in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews [24] and reported according to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) criteria [25]. The search was targeted to identify studies to address the specific research question: Do regular aerobic and/or resistance exercises during pregnancy, compared to no exercise, reduce the risk of cardiometabolic disease in offspring? We defined regular exercise as voluntary movements done to improve or maintain fitness on a weekly basis for at least a month. The review team, composed of researchers in the fields of physiology, exercise, and developmental origins of health and disease, formulated the review question, reviewed the search strategies and review methods, and provided input throughout the review process.

Literature Search Strategy

We searched Medline (Ovid), EMBASE (Ovid), CENTRAL (the Cochrane Library—Wiley), from inception to May 2016 for studies on prenatal pregnancy and cardiometabolic outcomes in the offspring. We added Scopus (Elsevier), CINAHL (EBSCO), and SPORTDiscus (EBSCO) to our target databases following comments from reviewers and reran the search through all six databases in May 2017. The Cochrane Highly Sensitive Search Strategy [26] was used as a model for searching; we designed search strategies specific to each database (see example on PROSPERO registration page). In order to identify ongoing or planned trials, we searched the World Health Organization’s International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ClinicalTrials.gov). In addition to electronic searching, we hand-searched the bibliographies of relevant narrative and systematic reviews as well as those of included studies for additional citations. The search was rerun in December 2017 to include additional citations. Reference management was performed in EndNote™ (ver. 16, Thompson Reuters).

Study Selection

We used a two-step process for study selection. First, all titles and abstracts of search results were screened independently in duplicate (by LG, NH, JLH, and CO) to determine if a study met the general inclusion criteria. The same reviewers independently examined the full texts of relevant citations. Disagreements were resolved by discussion between the reviewers or by third-party adjudication (LG or DSK), as needed. We included only randomized controlled trials or prospective cohort studies examining the impact of exercise undergone during pregnancy (from conception to delivery) on offspring cardiometabolic outcomes (see Table 1 for detailed inclusion and exclusion criteria). We hoped to reduce bias by selecting studies with the best experimental and observational designs; observational cohorts were included with the expectation that follow up data may be provided to inform long term offspring outcomes. No other restrictions, including language or publication status, were considered. The primary outcome measure was birth weight. Secondary outcomes included offspring fat and lean mass at birth, LGA status and weight, fat and lean mass, blood pressure, dyslipidemia, and dysglycemia at any time in childhood.
Table 1

Inclusion/exclusion criteria

 

Inclusion

Exclusion

Study design

Randomized controlled trial OR prospective cohort study (including historical registry-based cohorts where measures were done prospectively)

Any other studies design, e.g., case-control, quasi-experimental, cross-sectional, cluster randomized, retrospective studies (including prospective studies where prenatal exercise was measured retrospectively)

Population

Pregnant women

Non-human populations

Intervention (for RCTs)

Aerobic and/or resistance (strength-) training exercises ≥ 4 weeks in duration

Intervention > 60% non-aerobic/resistance training (e.g., yoga, pilates, pelvic exercises);

Studies of acute exercise, or training < 4 weeks in duration

Exposure (for cohorts)

Aerobic and/or resistance (strength-) training exercises ≥ 4 weeks in duration

Exposures not distinguishing physical activity from aerobic/resistance training; studies not documenting and/or linking prenatal exercise to our offspring outcomes, eg studies only reporting aggregate data for exercisers and non-exercisers

Comparator

No prenatal exercise

Unequal controls, e.g., controls do not receive the same diet information as exercisers, controls also undergo exercise training but to a different degree, etc.

Outcomes (offspring only)

At birth:

• Weight (primary outcome)

• Body composition (fat and/or lean mass)

• Large-for-gestational age status

At follow up (any time after birth):

• Weight

• Body composition (fat and/or lean mass)

• Blood pressure

• Blood glucose

• Blood lipids

Studies not reporting any of these offspring outcomes

Studies reporting these outcomes in a non-extractable format and authors do not agree to share the original data

Timing

Studies done at any point in time

 

Data Extraction and Quality Assessment

Three reviewers (LG, NH, and JLH) extracted data from included full texts using a standardized and piloted data extraction form. Extracted data included funding sources, demographics of the enrolled mothers and children (country, gestational age at randomization, maternal age at randomization, pre-pregnancy BMI, maternal smoking status at randomization; child age at latest follow-up), details of the prenatal exercise (type of exercise: aerobic or resistance training, frequency, intensity, timing during pregnancy; exercise measure: self-report or supervised), and predetermined offspring outcomes as described above and in Tables 1 and 2. When a trial reported results for more than one time period, results at birth and at the longest follow up were extracted separately. Intent-to-treat analysis was preferred when the data was presented accordingly. Data management was performed using Microsoft Word 2007 (Microsoft Corp).
Table 2

Included observational studies

Study

Country

Method

N (mother-child pairs)

Type of exercise

Intensity

Moment of exposure

Effect of prenatal exercise on offspring, compared to sedentary mothersa

Hatch 1993 [31]

USA

Two-centers cohort

200

Aerobic, Resistance

Vigorous

Throughout pregnancy

Adjusted birth weight difference: β = + 276 g (95% CI 54, 497)

Johnson 1994 [33]

USA

Multi-center cohort

234

Aerobic

Not specified

Not specified

Birth weight mean difference: + 109.2 g (p < 0.05)

Sternfeld 1995 [42]

USA

Institute-based, no GDM

139

Aerobic

Moderate to vigorous

Throughout pregnancy

Birth weight mean difference: + 68 g (p > 0.05)

Magann 2002 [37]

USA

Convenience sample

750

Aerobic

Moderate

Conception to 28 GW

Birth weight mean difference: -42 g (p = 0.87)

Nieuwen-huijsen 2002 [39]

England

Population-based

11,462

Aerobic

Not specified

18–20 weeks of pregnancy

Birth weight mean difference: + 16.7 g (95% CI − 11.4, 44.9)

Duncombe 2006 [29]

Australia

Convenience sample

148

Aerobic, Resistance

Vigorous (HR > 140 bpm)

GW 16 to 38

Birth weight mean difference: − 47 g (p = 0.49)

Snapp 2008 [41]

USA

Institute-based GDM cohort

75,160

Aerobic

Moderate

Throughout pregnancy

Birth weight: no difference

LGA prevalence in exercisers: 0.73% (95% CI 0.10, 5.18%)

Juhl, AJOG, 2010 [35]

Denmark

Population-based (non-smokers only) registry study

58,435

Aerobic, resistance

NA

Throughout pregnancy

Adjusted birth weight mean difference: − 23 g (95% CI − 44 to − 1)

Juhl, Epidemiology 2010 [34]

Denmark

Population-based registry study

48,781

Aerobic

Light to vigorous

Not reported

Adjusted birth weight mean difference: − 7 (95% CI − 3 to 16)

Jukic 2010 [36]

USA

Convenience sample

1118

Aerobic, resistance

Vigorous

First trimester (conception to 12 GW)

Adjusted birth weight difference: β = +  40 g (95% CI − 154, 234)

Hegaard 2010 [32]

Denmark

One-center cohort

3961

Aerobic, resistance

Moderate to vigorous

At 16 and 30 GW

Adjusted birth weight mean difference: − 2 g (95% CI − 47, 42; 16 GW), and − 9 (95% CI − 62, 43; 30 GW)

Fleten 2010 [30]

Denmark

Population-based registry study

43,705

Aerobic, resistance

Light to moderate (self-report)

From conception to 17 GW; from 17 to 30 GW

Adjusted birth weight difference:

β = − 0.72 g (95%CI − 1.3, − 0.1; 17 GW), and β = − 1.4 g (95% CI − 2.0, − 0.8; 17 to 30 GW)

Schou Andersen 2012 [40]

Denmark

Population-based registry study

40,280

Aerobic, resistance

Not specified

GW 16 and 36

Birth weight mean difference: − 15 g (p < 0.005)

Unadjusted BMI difference at 7.1 years: − 0.1 kg/m2, p < 0.001

Millard 2013 [38]

England

Population-based

4665

Aerobic, resistance

Not specified

GW 18

Adjusted variables at 15.5 years:

SBP: β = 0.02 (95% CI − 0.3, 0.3)

LDLc: β = − 0.003 (95% CI − 0.022, 0.017)

HDLc: β = − 0.001 (95% CI − 0.011, 0.009)

FG: β = − 0.01 (95% CI − 0.03, 0.001)

BMI: β = 0.02 (− 0.07, 0.12)

Bisson 2017 [28]

Canada

Population-based

1913

Aerobic, resistance

Not specified

First, second and third trimester

Adjusted birth weight difference:

β = − 2.20 g (95% CI − 4.4, 0.01, 1st trimester)

β = − 0.3 g (95% CI − 2.5, 2.0, 2nd trimester)

β = 0.34 g (95% CI − 2.4, 3.1, 3rd trimester)

LGA risk:

RR 0.83 (95% CI 0.67, 1.02; 1st trimester)

BMI body mass index, FG fasting glucose, GDM gestational diabetes mellitus, GW gestational weeks, HDLc high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, LGA large-for-gestational-age, LDLc low-density lipoproteins cholesterol, SBP systolic blood pressure

aA positive difference means that the mean birth weight was higher in the exercise group than in the sedentary group

We evaluated the internal validity of included studies with the Cochrane Collaboration’s Risk of Bias tools [24, 27], in duplicate (LG and CO). Study authors were contacted if data as published was incomplete for the needs of the review.

Data Synthesis and Analysis

We quantitatively analyzed data from the included studies using Review Manager (RevMan version 5.3.5, the Cochrane Collaboration). Pooled dichotomous data, calculated based on the generic inverse variance method, are presented as a risk ratio (RR) and pooled continuous data are expressed as a mean difference (MD), with 95% confidence intervals (CI). Only random effects models were used as populations and interventions varied. Statistical heterogeneity was explored and quantified using the I2 test. After validation against the associated protocols and/or trial registration information available, evidence of selective reporting found for any of the included trials was marked in the risk of bias assessment. A sensitivity analysis grouping only studies with low or unclear risk of bias was done for the primary outcome. Our pre-defined sub-group analyses, which were planned only for our primary outcome (birth weight) and only with data from randomized controlled trials (RCTs), were maternal pre-pregnancy activity level (inactive vs. active), maternal pre-pregnancy BMI, type of intervention (resistance training only vs. aerobic training only vs. combined), timing of exercise (starting in the first half of pregnancy, i.e., < 20 gestational weeks, vs. starting after the first half, i.e., ≥ 20 gestational weeks), country of origin, and internal validity (high vs. moderate/low quality). These sub-groups were intended to help pinpoint which components, if any, were responsible for the effect observed. Relevant components could then be highlighted in research and clinical interactions to promote better effectiveness. All tests of statistical inference reflect a two-sided α of 0.05.

Results

Search Results

Of 9804 citations identified through the literature search, 54 unique studies conducted between 1993 and 2017 were included, of which 15 were cohort studies [2842] and 39 RCTs [4381] with 19 companion publications [82100] (see Fig. 1 for the flow chart and Tables 2 and 3 for studies characteristics). Nine additional studies not included in the previous meta-analyses were included [28, 51, 52, 55, 65, 70, 76, 77, 80]. Most studies (12) were conducted in the USA [31, 33, 36, 37, 41, 42, 47, 49, 61, 66, 73, 92]; others were from Australia and New Zealand [29, 62, 101], Brazil [43, 52, 53, 63, 68, 74, 81], Canada [28, 65], Colombia [72], Croatia [80], Denmark [30, 32, 34, 35, 40], Finland [54], Iran [56, 57], Kosovo [67], The Netherlands [69], Norway [55, 60, 102], Spain [4446, 48, 50, 70, 79], Sweden [71], and the UK [38, 39, 76]. No study recruited previously active women, 16 recruited inactive women [43, 44, 46, 49, 52, 53, 5558, 6668, 70, 73, 92, 102], and the rest did not use previous exercise levels as a criterion. Most studies did not consider maternal BMI in their inclusion criteria, although eight specifically recruited women with overweight and/or obesity [51, 55, 64, 68, 69, 75, 77, 81], and three [49, 57, 65] women without overweight. The majority of experimental trials included healthy pregnant women, except five who targeted women with type 1 [61] or gestational diabetes [47, 52, 69, 74, 80], whereas observational cohorts were locally representative [31, 32, 41, 42], nationally representative [28, 30, 34, 35, 3840], or convenience samples [29, 36, 37]. The funnel plot indicates that studies where exposure to prenatal exercise reduced birth weight were probably more likely to be published, at least for the smaller studies (Additional file 1: Fig. S1; especially seen for smaller studies). Concerning internal validity, most trials were adjudicated as of low or unclear risk of bias [4346, 49, 52, 53, 5759, 63, 67, 68, 74, 75, 83] (see Additional file 2: Fig. S2). The remaining trials were considered as high risk of bias due to their high dropout rates and unclear/inefficient blinding methods. All cohorts but one [29] were adjudicated at serious risk of bias, usually due to selection bias or missing data (Additional file 3: Fig. S3).
Fig. 1
Fig. 1

Flow diagram of literature search and study selection according to the 2009 Preferred Reporting Items of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) with modifications [25]. *Companion articles represent reports involving the same study population for the same intervention trial, including conference abstracts reporting findings from previous or subsequent full-length publications

Table 3

Included randomized controlled trials

First author and year

Country

Population characteristics

Timing of intervention

Intervention type

Frequency

Intensity

Supervised

Sample size neonates (E/C)

Neonate outcome

Weight

FM

LGA

Erkkola 1975 [54]

Finland

Healthy

10–14 GW To 38 GW

Aerobic

3×/wk 60 min

Moderate to Vigorous ~140 bpm HR and fatigue

NR

44 (23/21)

  

Hollings- worth 1987 [61]

USA

Type 1 diabetes

13 GW to 37–40 GW

Aerobic

Daily 20 min after each meal

NR

No

33 (13/21)

  

Avery 1997 [47]

USA

GDM sedentary (exercise <2×/wk)

28 GW to delivery

Aerobic walking and cycling

3-4×/wk 30 min

Moderate < 70% HR max

Partial

29 (15/14)

  

Kihlstrand 1999 [78]

Sweden

Healthy

20 GW to delivery

Aerobic

1×/wk, 30 min

NR

Yes

241 (122/119)

  

Clapp 2000 [49]

USA

Healthy

Did not regularly exercise (not defined)

8 GW to delivery

Aerobic

3-5×/wk 20 min

Moderate 55–60% VO2 max

Yes

46 (22/24)

 

Marquez-Sterling 2000 [66]

USA

No regular exercise in the last year

18–20 GW to delivery

Aerobic

3×/wk 60 min

Moderate to vigorous 120–156 bpm

Yes

15 (9/6)

  

Garshabi 2005 [56]

Iran

Healthy

No history of exercise

17–22 GW to 29–34 GW

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk 60 min

Moderate < 140 bpm

Yes

212 (107/105)

  

Santos 2005 [81]

Brazil

Healthy

25 kg/m2 < BMI <  30 kg/m2

18 GW to NR

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk 40–45 min

Moderate 50–60% HR max < 140 bpm

Yes

72 (37/35)

  

Baciuk 2008 [43]

Brazil

No regular exercise

18–20 GW to delivery

Aerobic

3×/wk 50 min

Moderate < 70% HR max

Yes

70 (33/37)

  

Barakat 2009 [44]

Spain

Healthy

Sedentary (exercise < 20 min, 3×/wk)

12–13 GW to 38–39 GW

Resistance

3×/wk. 35–40 min

Light to vigorous < 60–< 80% HR max 10–12 Rep range

Yes

142 (72/70)

  

De Barros 2010 [52]

Brazil

GDM

Sedentary (IPAQ)

31 GW to delivery

Resistance

3×/wk 30–40 min

Moderate to vigorous 5–6 RPE/10

Partial

64 (32/32)

  

Hopkins 2010 [62]

New Zealand

Healthy

2 GW to 36 GW or delivery

Aerobic

≤ 5 days 40 min

Moderate to vigorous 65% VO2 max

Partial

84 (47/37)

Haakstad 2011 [59]

Norway

Healthy

No structured exercise (> 60 min 1×/wk)

17–18 GW 36–38 GW

Aerobic and resistance

2-7×/wk 60 min

Moderate to vigorous 12–14 RPE

Partial

105 (52/53)

  

Nascimento 2011 [68]

Brazil

BMI ≥ 26 kg/m2

17 GW to delivery

Aerobic and resistance

6×/wk 40 min

Moderate < 140 bpm

Partial

82

(40/42)

 

De Oliveria Melo 2012 [53]

Brazil

Inactive

Healthy

13 or 20 GW to delivery

Aerobic

3×/wk > 15 min

Moderate to vigorous 60–80% HR max Borg RPE 12–16

Yes

171 (54/60/57)

 

Oostdam 2012 [69]

Netherlands

BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2 with additional risk factor for GDM

15 GW to delivery

Aerobic and resistance

2×/wk 60 min

Moderate to vigorous 12–14 RPE

Yes

105 (52/53)

 

Pinzon 2012 [72]

Colombia

Healthy

16–20 GW to 32–36 GW

Resistance

3×/wk 60 min

Light to moderate 55–75% HR max

Yes

35 (18/17)

  

Price 2012 [73]

USA

BMI < 39 kg/m2 No exercise (≥  1x/wk for 6 months)

12–14 GW to 36 GW

Aerobic and resistance

4×/wk 45–60 min

Moderate to vigorous 12–14 RPE

Partial

62 (31/31)

  

Barakat 2013 [46]

Spain

Healthy (exercise < 4×/wk)

6–9 GW to 38–39 GW

Aerobic, resistance

3×/wk 40–45 min

Light to moderate 60–75% HR max 10–12 Rep range

Yes

290 (138/152)

  

Kasawara 2013 [63]

Brazil

Chronic HTN or history of preeclampsia

12–20 GW to delivery

Aerobic

1×/wk 30 min

Light to moderate 20% above resting HR to < 140 bpm

Yes

103 (53/50)

  

Ruiz 2013 [79]

Spain

Exercise < 20 min < 3×/wk

9 GW to 38–39 GW

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk, 25–30 min

Light to moderate < 60% HRmax Borg RPE 10–12

Yes

962 (481/481)

  

Barakat 2014 [48]

Spain

Healthy

9–13 GW to 39–40 GW

Aerobic, resistance

3×/wk 55–60 min

Moderate 55–60% HR max Borg RPE 12–13

Yes

200 (107/93)

  

Cordero 2014 [50]

Spain

Healthy

10–14 GW to delivery

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk, 32 min

Moderate to vigorous < 60% HR max Borg RPE 12–14

Yes

257 (101/156)

  

Ghodsi 2014 [57]

Iran

BMI 19.8–26 kg/m2

No regular exercise

20–26 GW to 38 GW

Aerobic

3×/wk 15 min

Light to moderate 50–60% HR max

No

80 (40/40)

  

Kong 2014 [64]

USA

BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2 (<  30 min, 3×/wk)

12–15 GW To 35 GW

Aerobic

5×/wk. 30 min

Moderate (step counts)

No

37 (18/19)

  

Murtezani 2014 [67]

Kosovo

Healthy (exercise < 20 min, 3×/wk)

14–20 GW to delivery

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk 40–45 min

Moderate to vigorous 12–14 RPE

Yes

63 (30/33)

  

Petrov Fieril 2014 [71]

Sweden

Healthy

14 GW to 25 GW

Resistance

2×/wk 60 min

Moderate to vigorous (self-selected)

No

72 (38/34)

  

Hellenes 2015 [60]

Norway

Healthy

18–22 GW to 32–36 GW

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk 45–60 min

Moderate to vigorous 13–14 RPE

Partial

855 (429/426)

  

Ramos 2015 [74]

Brazil

GDM

24–28 GW to 38 GW

Aerobic

3×/wk 50 min

NR

NR

6 (2/4)

  

Ussher 2015 [76]

United Kingdom

Smokers (> 4 cigarettes/day prior to pregnancy)

10–24 GW for 8 GW

Aerobic

1-2×/wk 30 min

Moderate (self-report)

Yes

713 (354/359)

  

Barakat 2016 [45]

Spain

Healthy

9–11 GW to 38–39 GW

Aerobic, resistance

3×/wk 50–55 min

Moderate to vigorous < 70% HR max Borg RPE 12–14

Yes

765 (382/383)

  

Guelfi 2016 [58]

Australia

History of GDM in previous pregnancies with no structured exercise

14 to 28 GW

Aerobic

3×/wk 30-60 min

Moderate to vigorous intervals 65–85% HR max

Yes

172 (87/85)

 

Perales 2016 [70]

Spain

Pre gestational exercise < 4×/ wk. or current exercise ≤ 2×/wk 20 mins

9–11 GW To delivery

Aerobic, Resistance

3×/wk 55-60 min

Light to moderate 55–60% HR max

Yes

166 (83/83)

  

Seneviratne 2016 [75]

New Zealand

BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2

20 GW to 35 GW

Aerobic

3 5×/wk 15–30 min

Moderate 40–59% VO2R

No

74 (37/37)

 

Daly 2017 [51]

Ireland

No diabetes

BMI > 30 kg/m2

12 GW to 6 wk. post-partum

Aerobic and resistance

3×/wk 30–40 min

NR

Yes

87 (44/43)

  

Labonte 2017 [65]

Canada

Healthy

BMI 18.5–25 kg/m2

2nd to 3rd trimester

Aerobic

3×/wk 20 min

Moderate 55% VO2max

Partial

18 (19/8)

  

Garnaes 2017 [55]

Norway

BMI > 28 kg/m2 (exercise < 2×/week)

12–18 GW to delivery

Aerobic and resistance

3–5/wk 60 min

Moderate to vigorous 12–15 RPE

Partial

74 (38/36)

  

Sklempe 2017 [80]

Croatia

GDM

22–26 GW to delivery

Aerobic and resistance

2–7×/wk 40–45 min

Moderate 65–75% HR max Borg RPE 13–14

Partial

38 (18/20)

  

Wang 2017 [77]

China

BMI > 24 kg/m2

8–12 GW to delivery

Aerobic

3×/wk 30–60 min

Light to vigorous intervals 50–85% HR max

Yes

226 (112/114)

 

Outcomes columns with dot indicate the specific outcome was reported by the study. BMI body mass index, Bpm beat per minute, FM fat mass, GDM gestational diabetes mellitus, GW gestational weeks, HR heart rate, LGA large-for-gestational age, NR not reported, RPE rating of perceived exertion, VO2max maximal oxygen consumption, VO2R oxygen uptake reserve, wk week

Evidence from Observational Studies

Primary Outcome: Birth weight

Fifteen observational studies investigated the relationship between exercise in pregnancy and offspring cardiometabolic outcomes (see Table 2). They were too heterogenous in terms of exposure assessment and outcome reporting to be meta-analyzed. For the primary outcome, two cohorts found an increased average birth weight after exposure to exercise [31, 33] (from + 109 g, p < 0.05 to + 276 g, 95%CI 54, 497, n = 434), nine found no impact [28, 29, 32, 34, 36, 37, 39, 41, 42] (n = 143,432), and three lower average birth weight after prenatal exercise [30, 35, 40] (from − 23 g, 95% CI − 44 to − 1, to − 0.72 g, 95% CI − 1.3 to − 0.1 g, n = 142,420).

Secondary Outcomes

Two studies found investigated the risk of being born LGA after exposure to prenatal exercise. Although both found a similar reduction in risk, none were statistically significant (RR 0.83, 95% CI 0.67, 1.02, n = 1913 [28]; prevalence 0.73%, 95% CI 0.10, 5.18%; n = 20,458 [41]). Two studies reported long-term secondary outcomes after following up offspring at 7.1 [40] and 15.5 years old [38]. No significant relationships were found with exposure to prenatal exercise on BMI, blood pressure, blood lipids, or fasting glucose in these studies after adjustment for confounders.

Evidence from Randomized Controlled Trials

Primary Outcome

For the primary outcome, 38 trials involving 6766 pregnant women provided data for the meta-analysis of birth weight (see Table 3). Compared to control condition (no prenatal exercise), there was no difference in birth weight after exercise interventions delivered in pregnancy at any time period, frequency, or intensity of exercise (mean difference (MD): − 22.1 g, 95% confidence interval [CI] − 51.5 to 7.3 g; I2 22%; see Fig. 2). Restricting to the studies with healthy populations did not yield very different results (MD − 23.6 g, 95% CI − 54.7, 7.5; I2 23%, 31 trials, n = 5777). The moderate statistical heterogeneity led us to conduct our pre-defined sub-group analyses. Sub-grouping by maternal BMI indicated that prenatal exercise had no effect according to pre-pregnancy BMI categories (see Fig. 2), either < 25 kg/m2 (MD − 69.4, 95% CI − 210.3, 71.5; I2 54%; four trials, n = 831), > 25 kg/m2 (MD − 49.5, 95% CI − 112.1, 13.2; I2 0%; eight trials, n = 960), or > 30 kg/m2 (MD − 151.1, 95% CI − 528.9, 226.7; I2 60%; two trials; n = 106). Sub-grouping according to maternal pre-pregnancy activity level (inactive vs. active) indicated that prenatal exercise could reduce birth weight in previously inactive women (MD − 34.8 g, 95% CI − 69.0, − 0.5 g; I2 0%; 18 trials, n = 2829); however, as no study specifically included active women, we could not assess that sub-group (Fig. 3). Sub-grouping according to type of exercise showed that aerobic-only training similarly reduced birth weight (MD − 58.7 g, 95% CI − 109.7, − 7.8; I2 12%; 17 studies, n = 2058), but resistance training only (5 trials, n = 543), or combined regimens (16 trials, n = 4183) had non-significant effects (see Fig. 4). Prenatal exercise regimens starting after the 20th week of pregnancy marginally reduced birth weight (MD − 84.3 g, 95% CI − 142.2, − 26.4 g; I2 0%, n = 1124), whereas interventions starting before this time had no impact on birth weight (20 studies, n = 3853, see Fig. 5). Interventions that were light to moderate intensity reduced birth weight (MD − 45.5 g, 95% CI − 82.4, − 8.6 g; I2 3%; 9 trials, n = 2651) but not those that were moderate to vigorous intensity (25 trials, n = 2992; Fig. 6). Finally, frequency of exercise did not impact birth weight, whether interventions were less than three times a week (4 trials, n = 1131) or at least that frequent (31 trials, n = 5408; Fig. 7). Restricting to studies with low to moderate risk of bias did not yield different results (MD − 10.9, 95% CI − 42.1, 20.4; I2 0%; 17 trials, n = 3418; data not shown); however, studies from developing countries were more likely to find that prenatal exercise reduced birth weight (MD − 78.7 g, 95% CI − 135.4, − 22.0 g; I2 0%; 12 trials, n = 1120) compared to studies in developed countries (MD − 8.3 g, 95% CI − 43.8, 27.11 g; I2 32%; 26 trials, n = 5646; data not shown).
Fig. 2
Fig. 2

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for birth weight after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. no exercise

Fig. 3
Fig. 3

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for birth weight after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. no exercise; sub-grouping by activity level before pregnancy: active vs. inactive

Fig. 4
Fig. 4

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for birth weight after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. no exercise; sub-grouping by type of intervention: resistance training only, aerobic training only, or combined resistance and aerobic training

Fig. 5
Fig. 5

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for birth weight after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. no exercise; sub-grouping by timing of intervention: first half of pregnancy (< 20 gestational weeks) vs. second half of pregnancy (≥ 20 gestational weeks)

Fig. 6
Fig. 6

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for birthweight after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. no exercise; sub-grouping by intensity level : Moderate to vigorous and Light to moderate

Fig. 7
Fig. 7

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for birthweight after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. no exercise; sub-grouping by frequency of the exercise: Less than 3 times per week, and At least 3 times per week

Secondary Outcomes

Only LGA status and fat mass at birth could be meta-analyzed. Data concerning the other outcomes were either not reported by more than one study or were not clinically homogenous enough to be pooled (e.g., collected at different ages). Prenatal exercise did not reduce the risk of LGA (RR 0.85, 95% CI 0.51, 1.44; I2 58%; seven studies; n = 937; Fig. 8) nor impact fat mass percentage (MD 0.19, 95% CI − 0.27, 0.65%; I2 10%; two studies; n = 130; Fig. 9). Qualitatively, the two studies that followed up offspring after birth did not indicate any significant impact of prenatal exercise on weight [62, 92] or fat mass [62, 92] at 17 days or 6 months old. No RCT reported on offspring blood pressure, blood glucose, or blood lipids.
Fig. 8
Fig. 8

Forest plot of pooled risk ratios for large-for-gestational-age (LGA) status

Fig. 9
Fig. 9

Forest plot of pooled mean differences for fat mass percentage after exposure to prenatal exercise vs. vno exercise

Discussion

Exercise is an established cornerstone for optimizing women’s metabolic health, and prenatal exercise is safe for mothers and fetus [103]. As evidence is accumulating that in utero exposures have a major influence on the fetus’ future cardiometabolic health [10], the positive maternal impacts of exercise on women’s cardiometabolic health have recently been posited to extend to exposed fetuses [23]. Although recent meta-analyses stated prenatal exercise might prevent giving birth to larger babies [18, 19, 22], we found contrasting results from both high quality observational cohorts and RCTs which indicated that prenatal exercise does not impact average birth weight in a significant manner. None of the included cohort studies found a clinically relevant birth weight difference (i.e., ≥ 300 g [104]) after exposure to various kinds of prenatal exercise. Thus, even though the methodological differences made it difficult to compare the studies and explain their opposing results (prenatal exercise increasing vs. decreasing birth weight), none of the reviewed cohorts reported clinically relevant impacts of prenatal exercise on birth weight. As few cohorts followed children into childhood or measured other variables than weight, the long-term impact of maternal exercise on offspring cardiometabolic health remains unclear. Long-term follow-up of pregnancy cohorts is needed to discern the influence of exercise in pregnancy and child health.

Similar to results observed by prospective cohorts, we did not find a clinically relevant effect of prenatal aerobic and/or strength training interventions on child birth weight, LGA status, or birth fat mass. Although prenatal exercise led to statistically significant birth weight reduction in some sub-group analyses, the mean effect varied from − 0.5 to − 84 g, which are clinically negligible impacts [104]. We were limited in our ability to examine the impact of prenatal exercise on other important health outcomes (childhood blood pressure, glucose, lipids, and fat mass) because they were not measured or reported by the trials, therefore the long-term impact of exposure to prenatal exercise on cardiometabolic health of offspring could not be assessed.

Birth weight is a very common marker of infant health due to its ease of measurement and its historically frequent association with future health outcomes [105]. Nonetheless, recent work in the field of developmental origins of health and disease indicate that weight is only a crude marker of health. For example, some studies indicate that offspring born small for gestational age are leaner later in life [106, 107] while others found that these offspring were at increased risk of obesity [108110]. Likewise, some studies found increased markers of cardiometabolic risk in LGA offspring [111, 112] while others did not find evidence of increased risk [113115]. Thus, in order to adequately assess the potentially protective effects of prenatal exercise on offspring cardiometabolic health, it is imperative to measure other relevant markers (e.g., body composition, blood glucose, and lipids) at birth and later in childhood. Our unexpected null results provide cautionary evidence that exercise by itself is not sufficient to impact birth weight, as some have argued [28, 116]. On the other hand, they suggest that women can safely participate in the type of activity they prefer (aerobic or resistance) at the intensity and frequency that suits them, which might increase adherence.

Strengths and Limitations

Strengths of this systematic review include isolating the causal impact of prenatal exercise (vs. other interventions like dietary modifications); restricting to high-quality designs to reduce bias (prospective cohorts and RCTs); considering outcomes other than weight to assess the impact of prenatal exercise on offspring health; considering maternal and training variables not assessed by previous reviews (timing, intensity and frequency of intervention, maternal BMI, country of origin); using random effect models for all analyses; and using a protocol established a priori. Despite these strengths, the review has some limitations. First, only studies assessing aerobic and/or strength training were included, discarding studies where other forms of prenatal exercise (e.g., yoga [117]) were measured. This choice was made because current recommendations [118, 119] are focused on those two types of exercise. However, as > 80% of active pregnant women report engaging in some kind of aerobic training [120], we are confident our results are representative of real-life prenatal exercise habits and are therefore relevant for clinicians and researchers. Second, our predefined sub-groups addressed only one variable at a time (e.g., maternal BMI, timing of exercise). It is possible that evaluating the interaction by grouping according to many parameters (e.g., among women with a BMI > 25, those who starting exercising < 20 gestational weeks) through a meta-regression might be more informative. However, such analyses were not planned a priori so another study would be needed to answer this limitation. Third, there was marked heterogeneity in research designs, assessments of exercise dose (frequency, intensity, duration, adherence), and reports of offspring outcomes, making direct comparisons between studies difficult. Accordingly, we refrained from pooling results that we considered too heterogeneous and were careful in not over-interpreting the results.

Evidence Gaps

It is imperative that future trials report determinants of offspring cardiometabolic health other than birth weight, such as adiposity, plasma glucose and lipids, and blood pressure early in life and ideally at multiple times throughout childhood to define the long term impact of exposure to prenatal exercise on offspring cardiometabolic health. Indeed, there are indications that higher blood pressure [121], glycemia [5], and dyslipidemia [122] early in life are related to future metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases, whereas birth weight is a crude marker [113, 123]. Follow up of data for these parameters in childhood would provide important tools to public health authorities to help determine if and how prenatal exercise improves offspring cardiovascular risk factors in both the short and long term. Indeed, assessing offspring fat and lean mass might be more informative than only weight. Additionally, offspring should be periodically reassessed as there is a dearth of longitudinal data concerning offspring exposed to exercise interventions in the literature. A sample size calculation based on the RCTs included indicate that matched groups of at least 268 participants (536 participants total) are needed to detect a birth weight difference between groups at 90% power and with a 0.05 double-sided α. However based on our analyses, future interventions should include components other than exercise (such as a dietary intervention) if the intent is to have an impact on birth weight. Finally, more diverse participants in terms of pre-pregnancy activity level and body composition are needed in future studies to understand how exercise interventions in pregnancy modulate the relationship between maternal physiology, offspring body composition, and cardiometabolic health. Clinicians looking to counsel their clients might want to highlight that while prenatal exercise is perfectly safe for the baby, the best evidence currently available indicates it is not sufficient by itself to protect the child against cardiometabolic diseases.

Conclusion

In summary, high-quality studies analyzed with conservative statistics show that the impact of prenatal exercise on birth weight is not clinically relevant. This impact might be more important in previously less active women and when the exercise program has light to moderate intensity and starts in the second half of pregnancy. Due to the scarcity of studies collecting parameters other than birth weight and/or following up offspring in childhood, there is limited evidence about the relationship of prenatal exercise and long-term offspring cardiometabolic health. Thus, there is a great need for the collection of data other than weight and for the long-term follow up of offspring exposed to exercise to better define the impact of prenatal exercise on offspring cardiometabolic risk throughout life. Researchers and clinicians intending to impact the health of the future generations should consider adding other components (such as dietary components) to their exercise interventions.

Abbreviations

BMI: 

Body mass index

CI: 

Confidence interval

LGA: 

Large for gestational age

MD: 

Mean difference

RCT: 

Randomized controlled trials

RR: 

Risk ratio

Declarations

Funding

No funding was received specifically for this review. L.G. was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship—Doctoral (CGS-D) Award, a Fonds de recherche en santé—Québec doctoral training award, the University of Manitoba Graduate Enhancement of Tri-Council Stipends program, and by a Heart and Stroke Foundation (HSF) operating grant (to J.M.M.). D.S.K. was supported by a CIHR CGS-D Award, a Manitoba Heath Research Council Studentship, a CIHR Strategic Training Initiative in Health Research (STIHR) Knowledge Translation Canada Student Fellowship, a CIHR STIHR Population Intervention for Chronic Disease Prevention Fellowship, and a HSF Dr. Dexter Harvey Award. J.L.H. was supported by a Vanier Canada Scholarship. NCH was supported by a University of Manitoba Graduate Fellowship. JMM holds grants from the CIHR, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Manitoba Institute of Child Health, the HSF, the Cosmopolitan Foundation, and the Lawson Foundation. TAD holds grants from the HSF and the CIHR. LG, JMM, and TAD were also supported by a Research Manitoba grant to the DEVOTION research cluster. None of the supporting agencies were involved in the design, conduct, or approval of this manuscript.

Availability of Data and Materials

The data supporting our findings can be found in the published manuscripts cited and included.

Authors’ Contributions

LG, TAD, and JMM conceptualized the idea for the study. LG conducted the literature search, reviewed manuscripts according to the selection criteria, and drafted the manuscript. JLH and CO acted as second reviewers and screened citations and full texts for inclusion. JLH additionally contributed to elaborating the inclusion/exclusion criteria and made a table. DSK contributed to the structure of the manuscript. NCH contributed to wording of the manuscript. JLH, DSK, TAD, and JMM revised the manuscript for important intellectual content. All authors approved the final version.

Ethics approval

No ethics approval was required as only secondary (published) data was used.

Consent for Publication

Not applicable.

Competing Interests

Laetitia Guillemette, Jacqueline L. Hay, D. Scott Kehler, Naomi C. Hamm, Christopher Oldfield, Jonathan M. McGavock, and Todd A. Duhamel declare that they have no competing interests.

Publisher’s Note

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Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, John Buhler Research Center, University of Manitoba, 511-715 McDermot Avenue, Winnipeg, MB, R3E 3P4, Canada
(2)
Health, Leisure & Human Performance Research Institute, Faculty of Kinesiology & Recreation Management, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
(3)
Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences, St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

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