Exercise And Pregnancy: Is Running A Marathon Safe?

When news broke about 27-year-old Amber Miller in Chicago, who gave birth immediately after finishing a marathon, we were shocked and awed. Women everywhere wondered whether this was something to aspire to … or be horrified by.

Exercise and pregnancy is already a tricky subject. Everyone has different bodies and workout routines to begin with. How can one woman know what to do when you throw a baby bump into her mix? To find out, we called Raul Artal, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.

The Marathon Question
Dr. Artal’s initial reaction to the marathon scenario summed up what we had assumed:

Can it be done? Sure. Is it advisable? No.

Any extreme physical activity is risky -– Artal pointed out there was a fatality at the Chicago marathon -- so why take that risk while pregnant? While he has worked with professional athletes who exercised heavily throughout their pregnancies, Artal says, in general, women should stay away from extreme, high-impact fitness activities, like marathons … or skateboarding … or skydiving.

The “Right” Amount Of Caution
There are a few reasons to be cautious when it comes to fitness, especially early on in your pregnancy. When you exercise vigorously, your core body temperature rises substantially. According to Artal, during the very early stages of pregnancy (around six weeks or so), unusually high body temperatures have been linked to birth defects. A 2007 Danish study specifically looked at physical activity during pregnancy, and concluded that during the early stages of pregnancy, high levels of exercise were correlated with a higher rate of miscarriage.

So What Should You Do?
It’s important to recognize the difference between extreme physical exertion and everyday physical activity. Artal stressed that a moderate amount of exercise is important for pregnant women. Keeping physically fit throughout pregnancy has been shown to prepare our bodies for labor, reduce backaches and other minor pains, promote stress relief and help prevent gestational diabetes.

Artal, who authored the guidelines on exercise and pregnancy for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, suggests that pregnant women engage in 30 minutes to one hour of light to moderate physical activity each day.

“It’s a good time to start exercising if you did not exercise prior to pregnancy,” says Artal. “It’s a unique time for behavior modification -- to eat right and live right.” He suggests walking, jogging and yoga as three great ways to stay fit. And, his own daughter is 33 weeks pregnant and doing yoga every day at his advice.

So, while we’re still shocked and awed by Amber Miller, you can rest assured -- her story is not the new normal. Because really, giving birth –- and everything that comes after it –- remains a feat of strength in itself.