Maternal and fetal responses to exercise during pregnancy

Physiol Rev. 1985 Jan;65(1):1-36. doi: 10.1152/physrev.1985.65.1.1.


Exercise has numerous effects on the pregnant woman, the developing fetus, and the placenta. In turn, pregnancy affects the ability to perform physical activity. During pregnancy, increased metabolism at rest results almost exclusively from the gestational increase in mass. Because of this increase, a higher cardiorespiratory effort is required to perform a given amount of external work. One would expect the result to be some training effect, unless a more sedentary lifestyle is adopted. The possibility that maximal O2 consumption may increase during pregnancy has not been studied extensively, yet it is a most important variable that puts other changes in perspective. The sedentary lifestyle commonly adopted in late pregnancy in most western societies may reflect a cultural rather than a physiological phenomenon. In contrast to the physiological alterations in the mother and despite the reductions in uterine blood flow during maternal exercise, physiological changes in the fetus are small. Relatively minor changes occur in the blood concentrations of O2 and substrates during prolonged exhaustive exercise. In addition, despite a temperature increase of 1 to 2 degrees C, there is little evidence for significant alteration in fetal metabolism, cardiovascular hemodynamics, or blood catecholamine concentrations. These observations suggest that acute exercise normally does not represent a major stress for the fetus. Of course, most of the information concerning the fetus is derived from studies in experimental animals, particularly in sheep. In humans the upright position and increased uterine contractibility may affect the fetal responses differently. Virtually nothing is known about the physiological effects of exercise training on the fetus. The most likely effect may be a relatively small reduction in birth weight in some species, but this needs further investigation. Further studies are also needed for a more complete understanding of the mechanisms involved in the remarkably effective mechanisms that account for the relative homeostasis of the fetus during maternal exercise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Circulation
  • Body Temperature
  • Cardiac Output
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Female
  • Fetus / physiology*
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Placenta / physiology
  • Pregnancy*
  • Respiration
  • Uterus / metabolism