Sauleha Farooq

Supervisor: Margie Davenport

Project: Physical activity and blood vessel function during pregnancy

Degree program:

Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation

Lay abstract:

Despite the well-established benefits of exercise during pregnancy, recent data suggest that 85% of women in Alberta fail to meet current guidelines for exercise during pregnancy. Failing to meet exercise guidelines (physical inactivity) is a risk factor, as strong as smoking for the future development of cardiovascular disease. The elevated risk is due, at least in part, to decreased blood vessel health. Sedentary (or sitting) time is distinct from physical inactivity (which can include standing, gentle walking or other activities that minimally increase heart rate). Sedentary time is independently associated with development of cardiovascular disease. It is not uncommon to be both physically active as well as sedentary (e.g., a researcher who goes to the gym multiple times a week but sits at a computer most of their working day). Current information suggests that pregnant women are less likely to exercise and more likely to be sedentary than their non-pregnant counterparts. We are in the final stages of data collection of a large WCHRI-funded study assessing the impact of exercise and sedentary behavior on cardiovascular health during pregnancy. Data from this project has already identified that exercise, but not sedentary behavior enhances blood pressure control during late pregnancy. The goal of this WCHRI studentship is to examine the impact of exercise and sedentary behaviour on vascular (arteries in the body) system function. This study will be the first to examine the independent impacts of these behaviours on vascular function and pregnancy outcome.

What motivated you to participate in this research?

When I started university, I entered as a biology major with an undeclared minor until I began to explore classes in the Department of Women and Gender Studies. Through these classes, I became very interested in, as someone who liked to exercise, the politics of sport and the body. I wanted to explore how certain bodies and identities had the right to participate in sports while others did not, either through prescriptive controls or internal regulations. This got me hooked on understanding how we reinforce the stereotypes of specific identities and bodies being inherently athletically incompetent or out of place. Last year, I took a class on reproductive physiology and was enthralled by the various maternal adaptations that occur in preparation for pregnancy, through pregnancy and especially during exercise. It was compelling to examine how the discourse of exercise and pregnancy is still highly influenced by the societal notions that exercise and pregnancy cannot coincide. In 2017, I started volunteering at the Program for Pregnancy and Postpartum Health and was fascinated by the research on the effects of exercise during pregnancy and was further compelled by the possibilities of exercise diminishing cardiovascular risk factors. Pursuing a summer studentship at this lab was a wonderful way for me to continue to research the effects of exercise—this time looking at the physiological mechanisms that underlie its potential benefits.

What are your career aspirations?

While I’m still in the process of figuring out my career goals, I’m interested in pursuing a career as a medical practitioner. I hope to continue to work at the intersections of my major and minor in women's health with a holistic approach based in both the social and natural sciences. Concurrently, I aspire to promote healthy lifestyle choices in both my local and globally connected community by highlighting the physiological salience of active living while also reevaluating the implications of the politics of exercise.

How has this studentship helped you toward those aspirations?

Throughout this studentship, I’ve had the opportunity to work through the investigative nature of the research process. For me, this included developing my leadership skills when working with participants while also acquiring the necessary laboratory skills for this project. Furthermore, I’ve had the opportunity to work through data organization and analysis. I’ve also been able to develop my research dissemination skills through presenting my research project at lab meetings and learning how to prepare abstracts and posters for the purposes of broad dissemination. These detail oriented tasks have assisted my progression as a researcher and will hopefully aid me for my future goals.