KARACHI - Pregnant women in Pakistan are missing out on the significant health benefits that come from regular exercise during pregnancy, according to new research by Aga Khan University (AKU) on Tuesday.

A study of the lifestyles of over 450 pregnant women found that just over one in three women (36 percent) were physically active during pregnancy with just three percent of those surveyed setting aside up to 30 minutes per day for sport or exercise. The majority of women, 86 percent, reported that they spent their leisure time in sedentary activities such as watching television.

“There is a misconception that exercise can cause harm to the baby,” says Dr Zahra Hoodbhoy, a senior instructor in pediatrics and child health at AKU. “Most women are told to rest and to adopt a healthy diet during pregnancy but they are rarely informed about the value of exercise. Our study found that very few mothers-to-be were aware of how physical activity could contribute to their health and wellbeing,” she added.

Guidelines from global obstetrics bodies recommend that pregnant women, who are not at risk of complications, engage in up to 30 minutes of exercise on most, if not all, days. Exercise is good for expecting mothers as it improves cardiovascular health, protects individuals from contracting diabetes or hypertension during pregnancy, limits weight gain and reduces the risk of postpartum depression.

There are also important health benefits for the baby as it boosts blood circulation, lowers the chance of foetal distress during labour and has been proven to have no impact on foetal growth. Researchers found that the predominant type of physical activity for pregnant women involved doing household work and taking care of elderly relatives. They noted that while any physical activity is beneficial, pregnant women need to think differently about exercise.

Since expecting women are generally very keen to learn about ways to stay healthy during pregnancy, the research team also called on doctors and family members to remind mothers-to-be about the benefits of exercise.

The study also found a number of social and physical barriers that prevented women from exercising more regularly. The most common concerns were a lack of support from peers and relatives, poor access to affordable facilities and concerns about safety.

“A lot of women said there are not enough facilities available to them even if they did want to exercise,”

says Dr Romaina Iqbal, an associate professor in community health sciences at AKU and a co-investigator on the study. “In many communities there aren’t sidewalks to walk on and there are no parks where women feel safe to go on their own. Stray dogs also present a safety risk.

“These challenges call for a multi-sectoral approach to promoting exercise during pregnancy. Besides creating awareness among women about the importance of exercise, we also have to address the environmental barriers that keep women from getting the physical activity they need,” she added.

The study household chores as the main source of physical activity: Perspectives of pregnant Pakistani women was funded by a grant from the Pakistan Medical and Research Council.