Women’s Health & Fitness Programs
Many important health issues for girls and women involve matters of reproductive
health, childbearing, fertility and aging. Research informs us that an active, healthy
lifestyle provides a number of benefits throughout a woman’s life span:
reduced discomforts from pregnancy, labor, birth, recovery & menopause
reduced risk of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and premature birth
potentially shorter active labor and reduced risk of cesarean delivery
more rapid return to joyful activities, less excess weight following birth
mother-infant interaction, leading to infant psychomotor enhancement
reduced rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes
reduction of some cancers, osteoporosis, falls and loss of muscle mass
improved social support, networking and stress management skills
greater belief in one’s ability to be strong and capable (self-efficacy)
What is fetal programming? Every person living on earth was first exposed to a uterine environment that helped determine their lifetime health and development. The term for this phenomenon is fetal programming. It is a hot topic and deserves attention.
Accepting the importance of fetal programming places responsibility on the mother-to-be to do all she can to insure her body provides nutrients and oxygen to her growing infant while avoiding possible risks and toxins. At the same time, genetic and environmental factors contribute greatly to the potential for some disorders and problems that arise. Thus, we must be careful in assigning guidelines for acceptable behavior or blame for poor outcomes to pregnant women.
On the one hand, we can all see the negative consequences of something like fetal alcohol syndrome…clearly the result of maternal behavior. Is a pregnant woman whose baby has been damaged in this way guilty of abuse?
But, what if a mother is obese, eats poorly and ends up with an infant with a disturbed metabolism. Is this abuse? What if the mother has an infection that results in cerebral palsy? Or what if she lives near a highway and involuntarily inhales fumes that negatively affect the placenta?
How do you get a healthy baby? Of course, there are no guarantees. There remain many unknown factors that can affect the course and outcome of a pregnancy. Some factors we are aware of, such as avoiding certain fumes or chemicals. There are some behaviors we know can maximize the potential for a good outcome, such as eating adequate protein, aerobic conditioning and strength training. [Note for new readers…lots of these factors have been covered in our previous posts.]
But, what about all the things we don’t know about?
If these goats eat the wrong grass, will they go into labor?
Here is a cautionary tale: There is a species of goat that, if they eat a certain type of skunk grass on day 14 (and only day 14) of pregnancy, will not go into labor. Why? Plant toxins in this grass interfere with the development of a small portion of fetal brain, the paraventricular nucleus. This nucleus is involved in the signaling cycle of labor. Without it, the mother will not go into labor!
What are the take-home messages here?
Probably no one is ever a perfect fetus…too many possible threats.
There are some threats we can avoid…being lazy, over-eating, smoking.
There are some threats we cannot avoid, so we do the best we can.
Do the best you can by your baby…aerobic fitness, good nourishment, sleep, good hygiene and de-stressing your life.
Pregnancy fitness is not only important for moms, but for the fetus as well. Evidence is clear that aerobic fitness improves brain, heart, immune and metabolic function…at all ages, including in utero. If continued early in life, healthy physical adaptations that occur in the uterus become reinforced behavior, preparing a good foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Babies are acute observers of movement and activity, and learn from each other. A key component of a good mom-baby program is the interaction of the babies themselves. A good teacher will facilitate healthy activity among our smallest class members!
There is growing evidence that at all ages, aerobic fitness produces the greatest number of benefits. Recently, researchers determined that aerobic fitness in 9 and 10 year olds produced benefits in the development of two important brain regions – the basal ganglia and the hippocampus – that are significant factors in problem-solving intelligence. This is just one of the latest reports that tells us the capacity to absorb and use oxygen (which improves with aerobic fitness) is a key to health, quality and length of life…beginning in the womb!
We have long known that vaginal birth and breastfeeding are key factors in the development of a healthy immune system in infants. Passing through the vagina exposes the baby to an array of bacteria that help stimulate its unchallenged immune system. Breast-fed babies receive anti-bodies, proteins and other molecules that protect it from infection and teach the immune system to defend the infant.
Breastfeeding is key for long-term health.
Recent research at UC Davis has shown that a strain of the bifido bacteria – acquired from the mother – thrives on complex sugars (largely lactose) that were previously thought to be indigestible. The bacterium coats the lining of the immature digestive tract and protects it from noxious bacteria.
This combination of interactions affects the composition of bacteria in the infant gut as it matures. Another example of how evolution has “invented” the perfect nutrition for infants, this research contributes to the notion that evolution has selected for many genes that serve normal birth and breastfeeding by protecting the newborn. Intervening with the normal progression of birth and breastfeeding – while occasionally necessary – interrupts these beneficial adaptations and contributes to allergies and autoimmune disorders.
Rachael Blum of Santa Monica, CA, has alerted us to an excellent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concerning the evidence for the role of exercise in pregnancy in helping prevent childhood obesity: http://healthcarereform.nejm.org/?p=3321&query=home. Rachael, our newest DTP family member, has also alerted us to an LA Times article on this subject: LA Times article.
With the recent emphasis on the importance of movement in the fight against childhood obesity, there is recognition that beneficial fetal programming through maternal exercise can make a big contribution to this effort. A combination of proper maternal nutrition and maternal fitness may well prove to be most efficient and potentially effective way to help children develop an appetite for motion!
A detour: We received a question about nutrition and exercise for multiples. So, here is some information for those with twins and triplets. Add a comment if you have a question or experience to share on this topic! Next comes birth, we promise!!
If one is a girl and one is a boy, they're fraternal!
Nutrition for Multiples:
The primary thing we tell people with twins or more is that the protein needs rise about 30 grams/baby/day above the 70 – 90 grams/day needed for a singleton. Water intake also needs to rise. Avoid thirst and as much as possible, drink until urine runs clear rather than yellow (as best as you can).
Multiples is considered a risk factor, and for each risk factor (multiples, underweight, teenage mom, inter-pregnancy period less than a year) an additional 200 calories is often recommended, with 400 extra calories the upper limit.
Exercise with Multiples:
A critical factor in successful implantation and growth of the placenta appears to be aerobic fitness in the six months prior to and the first half of pregnancy. Once biomechanics become difficult in mid-pregnancy, women with multiples can continue activity safely as long as monitoring show the babies are growing appropriately. A belly support can be extremely helpful when exercising.
Contraindications for exercise include the discovery that one fetus is growing at a significantly slower rate than the other(s), that both/all are too small, that the placenta(s) is/are malfunctioning, or some other condition occurs, such as an incompetent cervix or placenta previa, that would be a factor in any case.
Absolute size difference does not necessarily mean that one baby is growing more slowly, as some fetuses may be a couple weeks younger than their uterus-mate(s) if the mother ovulated twice in the fertility cycle. Or, s/he might be smaller if genetically destined to be a smaller infant at birth. Thus, growth rate is the measurable factor that helps determine if a fetus is at risk of not receiving adequate energy. This can happen when there are two placentas and one placenta is working more poorly than the other, or for some reason there is a flaw in the umbilical cord of an identical. The competition for energy places a slower growing baby at risk.
Protecting Mom and Baby:
The placenta is designed to nourish the baby and will do so at a cost to the mother first if there is inadequate nutrition. Thus, activity to the level the mother can tolerate and following nutritional guidelines above – in the absence of medical complications – produces healthy offspring. Multiples will garner all the same benefits a singleton does.
Note about images: we strive to use images we own or that are advertised as free on the internet. We want to thank google, bing and yahoo for making free images available.
Sometimes it seems like pregnancy is a time of restrictions. Avoiding risks can be one thing that makes it seem that way. But, bear with us here in an interesting trip through danger and finding you find ways of enhancing your pregnancy!
Risk Factor #1:
Lack of prenatal care.More than anything else, be sure you have care. Having someone monitor your health and that of your baby during pregnancy is vital to a good outcome.
Risk Factor #2:
Not exercising. Sedentary behavior increases the risk for metabolic, cardiovascular and immune disorders.
I know, I know, you don’t have time to exercise. Well, pay now or pay later, as they say. Make time to go to a class (make sure it includes 20 -30 minutes of aerobics) a couple times a week. A class will also provide social support, another factor that enhances your pregnancy. Take a walk at lunch time. Practice relaxation techniques.
Risk Factor #3:
Breathing dangerous fumes. Yes, this includes smoking and second-hand smoke. But, it also means avoiding environments where there is a lot smog (near highways), living with mold or dust, and fancy cleansers that may have dangerous chemicals in them. Stick with vinegar, ammonia or bleach as cleansers.
Smog can endanger your fetus!
We are learning that combustion exhaust from cars and trucks can negatively affect birth weight and prematurity. If you live or work near a highway or in an area where smog is prevalent, what are your options? Can you transfer or move? Can you wear a mask? Talk to your care provider and figure out the best protection for you and your fetus.
Risk Factor #4:
Poor Nutrition.Yup, just go back one entry and find out how food affects pregnancy. If you don’t eat enough protein and drink enough water, you don’t make sufficient blood volume to nourish your placenta and thus your fetus.
Eat whole foods and learn to read labels when you buy processed foods. What is a “processed” food? Anything with more than one ingredient!
Some processing (ex: homemade soup) takes little nutrition away, but some processing (ex: potato chips) takes everything good away and replaces it with unsafe substances. Look for low sodium, low sugar, high vitamin and mineral content items with no saturated or trans fats.
Read the ingredients; if you don’t know what the words mean, maybe you want to pass it up.
Risk Factor #5:
Alcohol and Drugs. Common items can be as dangerous as street drugs, which
There is plenty of time in life for a glass of wine...later.
No. No. No. Only meds from your prenatal care provider are okay.
Caffeine? Only one cup & only if you must.
can severely compromise you baby’s future. If you have a drug or alcohol habit, get help.
Risk Factor #6:
Genetics. You can have genetic predispositions for many pregnancy issues. However, that does not necessarily mean you will develop a given disorder. For example, nutrition and exercise greatly reduce the risk and severity of metabolic issues. Some genetic issues are unavoidable however, and your care provider will alert you to these, if they are relevant.
Risk Factor #7:
Social issues – isolation, lack of support, abuse, poverty. All of these factors can have negative effects.
If isolation is a simple matter of needing to meet other moms-to-be, join an exercise program. That way, you get both support and exercise; just be sure it includes aerobics, along with centering, relaxation and appropriate strength.
If your situation is more dire, seek the help of a care provider or social worker at your local hospital or clinic. Safety and support are critical for you at this time. Get the help you need. There are people who care. And, if you know of someone who needs help, help them.
If you have other risk factors to offer, please post them in the comments. Thanks!
How lucky is this? Just a few days ago, yet another study was released and has been circulating on Medscape and other medical sites that indicates exercise is beneficial in pregnancy, whether the mother is a previous exerciser or not. Just in time for this entry!
Behavior Affects Pregnancy Outcome
Physical exertion (we call it “exercise” nowadays) is a normal state for healthy humans. Only in the last century has the desire to rest or the need to store extra calories as fat become more possible to achieve than our need to move about to survive.
Pregnancy is a state in which both of these factors (resting and storing calories) are enhanced through organic changes in body chemistry, adaptations that favor fetal survival. The current sedentary lifestyle exaggerates these metabolic changes and results in syndromes that increase the risk for a number of metabolic, cardiovascular and immunological disorders of pregnancy.
When confronted by the idea that it is counterintuitive to think exercise in pregnancy might be safe (let alone beneficial) I am dumbfounded. To me, it is counterintuitive to think that a sedentary lifestyle in pregnancy might be safe!
Burning Calories in Pregnancy Improves Outcomes!
What is the evidence that exercise in pregnancy is beneficial? Keep in mind that some studies have been executed more expertly than others. But, what is compelling is that numerous well-respected researchers have sought to test the hypothesis that exercise is not safe, but come away with results that indicate the opposite!
Here are some of the major findings:
• The placenta is larger and has more transport surface in exercisers than sedentary women
• The fetuses of (aerobic) exercising mothers make beneficial cardiovascular adaptations
• Women who do aerobic exercise are less likely to develop severe preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, and the long term health problems that accompany these disorders
• Women who are aerobically fit recover from birth 10 times faster than sedentary women (as measured by time needed to metabolize free radicals produced in labor)
• Women who exercise in pregnancy are more likely to be physically fit in midlife
• Babies of aerobically fit women are at reduced risk for prematurity and low birth weight
So, we have arrived at the take-home message: MOVE!! Pregnancy works best when you move and burn calories in a moderate to vigorous fashion. But, alternate this activity with rest and good nutrition, and be sure to stay well hydrated.
If you want more specifics and resources on this topic, try these:
Hot topic for today: Toxins and infections in pregnancy.
Pregnancy Exposure to Toxins and Infections
A mother-to-be needs to be aware of items that can have adverse effects on the health and development of her fetus, as well as her own health. Two of these factors are toxins and infections.
1. Toxins can be food, environmental factors, and medications, alcohol or drugs. Let’s start with food. Interestingly, many plants have slight toxins in them that can have a small negative impact during early fetal development. One theory of nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy is that this helps the mother’s body prevent these toxins from interfering with normal development. Pica – especially eating dirt that is largely clay – may be another manifestation of how the body strives to counter plant toxins, as clay can counteract some of the effects of these toxins. So, plant toxins can be one food source in early pregnancy.
Another source is food additives (things you cannot pronounce, so read the ingredients!). We have no idea how many chemicals and hormones added to foods affect fetal development.
Environmental factors that may affect fetal development can include air pollution, household cleansers, mold and other items encountered anywhere one goes. Things we breathe can be particularly dangerous, so be sure to keep cleanser use to simple items such as vinegar, ammonia or chlorine bleach. Wearing a mask while cleaning is also a good idea.
Medications, drugs or alcohol that might normally be considered safe for a non-pregnant person – something as simple as aspirin – can be dangerous as they affect blood clotting factors and threaten the placenta. Or, because they cross the placental barrier but cannot be metabolized by the immature fetal liver, they are toxic and induce damage to the fetus.
2. Infections are of concern, as well. It is possible that an active infection at the time of fertilization and implantation can contribute to dysfunction in pregnancy because it interferes with the normal immune responses of early pregnancy. Hypertension in pregnancy may be related to infection in the early days of pregnancy. Some infections – particulary sexually transmitted infections – are known to have detrimental effects on the baby’s health. Preterm premature rupture of membranes (P-PROM) almost always reflects active infection.
Taking Precautions: First, be sure to let your health care provider know about any illness or infection. Second, take care of yourself. Follow recommendations for frequent handwashing and carry sterile hand gel in your purse or backpack. Avoid places where hygiene might be compromised. Practice safe sex.
Back to work! Thank you for your forebearance while we wrote a chapter for a nursing textbook!
During the course of pregnancy, the mother/fetus dance is ongoing. The maternal immune system and the trophoblast cells continue to influence each other even beyond the implantation.
Because the mother’s immune response modulates near the start of each trimester, the fetus is affected to some degree and mounts a response, as well. For a long time it was thought that maternal and fetal DNA material was not exchanged across the placental membrane, however recent findings indicate that there is some exchange of material. Thus, we all carry some portion of our mother’s DNA and our mother carries some of ours.
What is the impact of this chimeric effect? It depends on how well our DNA gets along!
How does this affect the fetus in utero? The fetus may be affected by clotting issues. Depending on maternal health status s/he may be subject to a stronger or weaker immune system.
How does this affect the mother? Women are more likely than men to develop autoimmune disorders (pregnancy playing a role here), and those who bear male offspring are more likely than those who only have girls to have these disorders.