Review of Recent Research Finds Healthy Women Can Exercise While Pregnant Without Risk of Preterm Birth

Women who exercise while pregnant do not have an increased risk of preterm birth, according to a new study published online in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. The systematic review, by Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) alumna Mira A. Kahn, MPH ’15, examined studies from 1984 through 2014 comparing the risk of pre-term birth between women who engaged in leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) during pregnancy with women who did not engage in LTPA.  “Women who are otherwise healthy are able to exercise without having any fear of preterm birth,” Kahn said.

Previous systematic reviews looked at research through 2007, but over the years there has been a shift towards encouraging physical activity while pregnant. Kahn said this notion, which challenges the assumption that physical exertion during pregnancy may cause harm to the fetus, motivated her to inform the research gap and examine the issue more closely. After her initial search generated 1,472 studies, Kahn narrowed the research down to 27 studies that met her criteria.

Mira A. Kahn gives her culminating experience presentation
Mira A. Kahn giving her culminating experience presentation

Kahn conducted the research as part of her culminating experience (CE) required for graduation from her Master of Public Health (MPH) in physical activity in public health program. “I got the idea from a summer elective class on systematic reviews that I took with Dr. Kim Robien, which was extremely helpful and influential,” Kahn says. At the onset, Kahn knew she wanted to publish her paper and found support through Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Chair Loretta DiPietro and Associate Professor Kim Robien. “I really appreciated Dr. DiPietro’s and Dr. Robien’s encouragement and scientific guidance,” Kahn says. “They showed me the ropes, and helped me get the paper ready for publication.”

Her advice to current students? Start early on your CE—set a plan in place the semester before you graduate so you can hit the ground running and utilize the resources available at the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library.

While her research did not find any risk of preterm birth associated with LTPA during pregnancy, Kahn says more research needs to be done. The majority of the studies included in the review were conducted in a controlled environment, Kahn notes, which is not always an accurate reflection of real life. In addition, there are a lot of other factors associated with pregnancy risk that were not considered in this review, she says. 

Kahn recently started working as a program associate for health and wellness at The Boston Foundation where she is involved with grant management for nonprofit organizations devoted to health-related issues, such as obesity prevention, in the Boston community. Prior to The Boston Foundation, Kahn was working as a research associate in the Energy and Metabolism Lab at Tufts University’s Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. Kahn says her coursework and research experience while at GW have helped her in the field.

While a student, Kahn worked on the Healthy Body Healthy U (HBHU) research study led by Associate Professor Melissa Napolitano. Kahn says she has directly applied research skills developed through her work with HBHU in her career. “I’m grateful for that opportunity because it really helped in my job search and applying it to my work,” she says. “I knew I wanted to have the public health skills to apply to research as well as community public health programs,” Kahn says. “I knew this degree would allow me to work in a variety of organizations and I’m definitely seeing I have that flexibility with this degree.”