May 15, 2020

The heart of a healthy pregnancy

Photo supplied by the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation.

Research team believes risky complications could be prevented with an Rx for exercise

In 2018, Margie Davenport helped prove that exercise has the power to prevent high-risk complications in pregnancy.

Now her team, including fellow kinesiologists Craig Steinback and postdoctoral fellow Victoria Meah, hopes to learn what causes complications to develop and whether specific activities, like yoga, cardio or resistance training, could prevent them altogether.

It’s important research given that gestational diabetes, high blood pressure or preeclampsia affect about 20 per cent of all pregnancies, leaving these moms with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease in just a few decades.

Photo: William Au

“A lot of them end up being quite surprised when they have their first heart attack,” says Davenport. “These are young, healthy women. If we can prevent them from developing these pregnancy complications, we might be able to prevent them from having cardiovascular disease at such an early age.”

Their current research studies healthy and high-risk pregnancies alike, using facilities on campus and at the Lois Hole Hospital Women’s Research Centre.

Davenport and Steinback were among the centre’s first occupants when it opened in June 2018, just months before the publication of Davenport’s study on exercise and pregnancy. That research, which became the 2019 Canadian Guideline for Physical Activity throughout Pregnancy, proved that pregnant women who exercise are 40 per cent less likely to develop complications—and baby is healthier, too.

“So we know exercise works,” says Davenport, “but we don’t know why it works. And if you can’t understand the ‘why,’ then you can’t tailor exercise to different women.”

Steinback believes pregnancy complications are linked to the body’s “fight or flight” response when physiological stress causes the nervous system to take control of heart rate and blood flow.

“When a woman develops high blood pressure during pregnancy, we think this part of the nervous system plays a central role,” he says. “Something is wrong with the nervous system and its communication with the blood vessels.”

The research includes working with healthy pregnant women at the Program for Pregnancy and Postpartum Health at the University of Alberta. They’re monitored while exercising in the private fitness centre and while relaxing in what Steinback calls the lab’s “science spa.”

But those findings require comparisons against similar data from high-risk pregnancies—and that’s where the Lois Hole Hospital Women’s Research Centre has been a game-changer.

Thanks to the centre, the team is one of two in the world able to study high-risk pregnancies during the brief window between diagnosis and the baby’s birth. The lab’s equipment is permanently on-site at the hospital, allowing newly diagnosed women to be referred to the study and tested on the same day.

Meanwhile, Meah is researching stress tests—such as submerging hands in cold water—that could predict whether a healthy expectant mom is likely to develop those complications. Meah is a 2019 WCHRI postdoctoral fellowship recipient, working under Steinback and Davenport’s supervision.

“I’m over the moon that I’m being supported to do research in women by a women’s research institute,” she says.

The ultimate goal, says Davenport, is to use Meah’s tests to identify pregnancies that could develop complications and then prescribe an activity program to keep trouble at bay.

“If we can understand how their physiology is different,” she says, “we might be able to use different types of exercise to actually improve their outcomes.”

Davenport, Steinback and Meah are funded by the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through WCHRI.