Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Today's Study on Exercise During Pregnancy

This is a Canadian study which seems to be quite widely disseminated in the popular media.  It's about pregnancy and exercise:

In what is being described as the first study of its kind in humans, University of Montreal researchers found that the brains of babies born to women who exercised moderately throughout their pregnancies appeared to mature more rapidly.
Eight-day-old newborns had brains as active as those of eight-month-olds.
The findings suggest that 20 minutes of exercise, three times a week, enhances a baby’s brain development and its “plasticity,” meaning the ability to make new connections, according to research to be presented Monday at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, Calif.

The study divided pregnant women into two groups, both roughly equal in education, health habits and socioeconomic status.  One group were assigned moderate exercise, the other one was told to be sedentary.

Now, I have not read the study, and have no medical expertise to judge its validity or spot errors in it in general.  But here's something which should truly make people be a bit more careful in their popularizations:

For the study, 18 women in their second trimester of pregnancy were randomly assigned to an exercise group or a sedentary group. Ten women in the exercise group were asked to exercise a minimum of 20 minutes, three times a week, at a moderate intensity that would leave them feeling slightly short of breath. The eight women in the sedentary group were asked not to exercise.

Those samples are very, very tiny.  I'm rather worried about the way the findings are discussed, given that such small samples could easily be influenced by pure chance events.

Being skeptical about the way these studies are sold is necessary even when it looks like common sense to assume that it's good for healthy women (and their fetuses) to move during their pregnancies (just as it's good for healthy men and women to exercise in general).  That's what human women have done all through the centuries, barring specific ill-health or conditions which would make exercise inadvisable.

Still, these are not the reasons why I write about this piece.  The reason is in that gender-political smell which often accompanies articles about maternal effects on children:  The presumption that all women try to avoid the "right" thing and must be coerced into it:

The team hopes the findings will encourage women “to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference in their child’s future,” said lead author Dr. Dave Ellemberg, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Montreal.

Bolds are mine.  The bolded sentence ASSUMES that pregnant women need to change their health habits, that those women are not already in the habit of regular exercising.  What is this assumption based on?

Whatever that might be, it looks agreed upon that women don't exercise prior to their pregnancies and that they must be scolded into exercise by telling them how exercise could make a difference in their child's future!  That "changing their health habits" thingy.

I wonder if women were similarly scolded for moving at all when the medical profession told pregnant women not to do much anything during pregnancy.

What I describe here is subtle.  But I have spotted the same subtlety umpteen times in my archives.  The presumption is always, always, that all pregnant women are at the very brink of misbehaving in some way and must be lectured to.  It's as if the uterus is seen as hostile territory against which the fetus must be protected.