Pakistani mothers-to-be missing out on health benefits of exercise

KARACHI: Pregnant women in Pakistan are missing out on the significant health benefits that come from regular exercise during pregnancy, said researchers associated with Aga Khan University. During a study titled “Household Chores as the Main Source of Physical Activity: Perspectives of Pregnant Pakistani,” the lifestyles of over 450 expecting mothers was assessed and it was found out that just over one in three women (36 per cent) were physically active during pregnancy. Ironically, just three per cent of those surveyed were found setting aside up to 30 minutes per day for sport or exercise while majority of women, 86 per cent, 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,” said Dr. Zahra Hoodbhoy, a senior instructor in paediatrics and child health at Aga Khan University (AKU).

Mentioning that most of these women were told by their elders and even the doctors to rest and to adopt a healthy diet during pregnancy, the researcher said that these expecting mothers were 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 well being, reiterated Dr. Hoodbhoy.

Contrary to the local practice, the guidelines from global obstetrics bodies recommend that pregnant women, who are not at risk of complications, need to engage in up to 30 minutes of exercise on most, if not all, days. Exercise has been identified to be 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 and lowers the chance of distress during labour.

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,” said Dr Romaina Iqbal, an associate professor in community health sciences at AKU and a co-investigator on the study.

“In many communities, there are not sidewalks to walk on and there are no parks where women feel safe to go on their own,” said the researchers mentioning that stray dogs also present a safety risk. These challenges, they said call for a multi-sectoral approach to promote 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,” said Dr. Iqbal mentioning that the study was funded by Pakistan Medical and Research Council (PMRC).