Adaptation of Maternal-Fetal Physiology to Exercise in Pregnancy: The Basis of Guidelines for Physical Activity in Pregnancy

Clin Med Insights Womens Health. 2017 Feb 23;10:1179562X17693224. doi: 10.1177/1179562X17693224. eCollection 2017.


Only 50 years ago obstetric care providers and women had many concerns regarding whether exercise during pregnancy created a harmful competition for substrate resources between the fetus and the mother. Animal and human research in the past 50 years, which includes acute and chronic aerobic exercise during pregnancy, has a reassuring margin of safety throughout gestation in women. Maternal physiology adapts to pregnancy changes involving the cardiorespiratory and glucometabolic alterations. Due to these changes, pregnant women have slight differences in response to acute exercise sessions. Chronic exposure to aerobic exercise before and during pregnancy is associated with numerous maternal and neonatal adaptations which may have short- and long-term benefits to maternal and child health. On the basis of the consistent evidence of safety of exercise during pregnancy, multiple nations and health care organizations, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, recommend moderate exercise for 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week. Despite the 15 to 20 years since the first recommendations were made, only 10% to 15% of pregnant women meet this recommendation. It seems there may be 2 foci for failure to achieve these exercise recommendations: patient specific and culturally driven and/or obstetric provider not recommending regular exercise due to lack of knowledge or motivation. This article addresses the provider knowledge by a review of the normal (at rest) physiologic adaptation to pregnancy. Then, we provide a detailed description of the type and intensity of controlled experiments that document the safety of exercise during pregnancy. The short- and long-term benefits are reviewed, including the safety in moderate-risk women.

Keywords: Pregnancy; fetal; health outcomes; maternal; physical activity/exercise.

Publication types

  • Review