Researchers study impact of exercise on moms-to-be, babies


Kim Womack of Greenville uses free weights during an exercise session offered to women in their second and third trimesters as part of a study under way at ECU to assess how exercise during those months affects the health of the mother and baby. Womack is due in August. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

July 7, 2014

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

East Carolina University researchers are studying the impact that exercise during pregnancy can have on newborn babies and moms.

Linda May, assistant professor of anatomy in the School of Dental Medicine, is leading the study. She has teamed up with graduate and undergraduate kinesiology students in the College of Health and Human Performance to offer exercise training to women in their second and third trimesters.

“We hope to find that children from women who exercise during pregnancy have better heart measures and are leaner than children from women who do not exercise during their pregnancy,” said May, who is an adjunct assistant professor of exercise physiology.

Kim Womack of Greenville, who is expecting her first child in August, is one of 55 women enrolled in the study to date. A speech language pathologist for Pitt County Schools, Womack does resistance training at ECU’s FITT building near Minges Natatorium.

As part of the study, Womack works out for 45 minutes three days a week at ECU. A friend, Emily Brewer of Greenville, also a speech language pathologist in the school system, told Womack about the study.

“I’m excited to be supervised (during pregnancy) by folks who know what they’re doing,” Womack said.

“I have felt fabulous,” Womack said. “I hope it helps with labor and delivery and to get back in shape afterward, and to have positive effects on the baby.”

Brewer, whose daughter Elyza was born in April, has recruited several women to the study. “I thought it was a great opportunity to stay in shape while I was pregnant and see the benefits through my baby,” Brewer said. “Labor and delivery was definitely something I wanted to get strong for. It helped my endurance in being able to push.”

Brewer was a regular exerciser before her pregnancy and committed to staying fit before and after her daughter’s birth. “Exercise has always been really important in my life. It’s been wonderful continuing to do something I felt was important for my mental and physical health,” she said.

Deandra Woods of Roxboro, an exercise physiology major who helps the women with their exercises, said “The moms love it. It’s a really good stress relief.” Woods is completing requirements for graduation with the internship this summer.

Jessica Van Meter, an instructor and program coordinator in the FITT building, said the study has benefited both graduate and undergraduate students. “Our graduate students get to find a topic that interests them and still do the coursework in their curriculum,” Van Meter said.

Each semester – spring, summer and fall – undergraduate students schedule and monitor exercise sessions with the mothers in the study. “Everyone works well together,” said Van Meter, who also oversees and coordinates exercise physiology graduate students’ assistantships.

Women in the study have been assigned to do specific exercises during their pregnancy. Some women are doing aerobic activity, such as walking on a treadmill or using the elliptical machines, while others are doing resistance training like free weights. Some are doing a combination of the two. “We know a fair amount about aerobic activity during pregnancy, but little is known about resistance training throughout gestation,” May said.

Beth Ketterman, assistant director for collections at Laupus Library, is expecting in August. “I think it’s helped me to keep my weight gain in a healthy range,” she said. “The core exercises are not exercises I would challenge myself with so it’s been good to have someone motivate me.”

Ketterman said she has achieved her goal to become stronger, and “I hope it has positive effects on my baby.”

Alanna Naylor of Greenville had her third baby, Elora, on April 7. She had never exercised before, but could tell a difference, particularly in her baby. “She was my biggest baby and she didn’t have any problems at all,” Naylor said, adding that her daughter’s motor skills seem to be developing more quickly than her other children.

Data for the study is gathered from ultrasounds, electrocardiograms, measuring the length and circumference of the baby and skin folds. “We are looking for differences in heart measures and body composition,” May said.

Babies are evaluated at one month, six months and 12 months.

The multidisciplinary project is supported by Amy Gross McMillan, associate professor of physical therapy, who is assessing infant nervous and motor system development; Robert Hickner and Joe Houmard, professors of kinesiology;  and faculty members in medicine and nutrition. Deirdre Dlugonski, assistant professor of kinesiology, is following up with mothers after delivery  to determine if they will keep exercising.

“The main focus of the project is to determine the effect of various types of exercise on infant and child outcomes,” May said. “Ultimately, my goal is to help children be healthier even before birth.” May, who has been at ECU for about two years, teaches medical gross anatomy and microscopic anatomy to dental students. An exercise physiologist by training, her research is exercise-focused. She also has a study on pregnancy and child oral health under way.

Anyone interested in enrolling in the exercise during pregnancy study should contact May at or 252-737-7072.