Gestational diabetes is a condition where a pregnant woman experiences a sudden increase in blood sugar levels. It usually goes away after giving birth but if not controlled, may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes for the mother and affect the health of the baby. Gestational diabetes occurs when the body of a woman gets resistant to the insulin it produces during pregnancy, resulting in high blood sugar levels. It is most commonly seen in the second or third trimester. Gestational diabetes can be managed through exercise, healthy diet, and taking medications if required.
According to a report by the International Diabetes Federation, around 20 million women who gave birth in 2019 had high blood sugar levels during pregnancy. Out of these, 84% of cases were reported to be of gestational diabetes.
Who is at increased risk of developing gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes can develop in any pregnant woman but a few may be at increased risk of developing the condition. These include women:
- With a family history of diabetes
- Who were diagnosed with gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
- With body mass index (BMI) 30 or above making them obese or overweight
- Who have previously given birth to a baby weighing more than 4.5 kgs
- Who conceive after the age of 25 years
- Who have been diagnosed with prediabetes previously
How to deal with gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes can be managed successfully if detected early. Making sustainable lifestyle changes is usually the first step in tackling the condition. Doctors generally recommend the following:
- Consume a healthy diet: A dietician can help in creating a healthy meal plan for the pregnant mother to help control blood sugar levels. The diet would contain less processed foods and a larger portion of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Stay physically active: Regular exercising can help to lower blood sugar levels and support the effective utilization of insulin.
- Take medications: For women whose blood sugar cannot be controlled through diet and exercise, medications such as metformin (consumed orally) or insulin (injected into the body) may be prescribed.
- Checking blood glucose regularly: Regular monitoring of blood sugar levels is recommended for pregnant women to avoid complications associated with gestational diabetes.
Can exercising help manage gestational diabetes?
Studies have shown that regular exercising plays a vital role in controlling glucose levels and reduces the need for insulin in the body. Muscles of pregnant women demand more glucose when they exercise. Even when this demand reduces, the muscles remain highly sensitive to insulin for some time, resulting in low blood glucose levels in the body. Hence, pregnant women with gestational diabetes must indulge in some moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.
Which exercises are best for women with gestational diabetes?
Currently, there are no prescribed exercises that are specific to gestational diabetes. The exercises recommended for pregnant women (both with or without gestational diabetes) include:
- Aerobic exercises such as walking, swimming, stationary cycling, aquatic exercises and dancing.
- Strength training using weights or resistance bands two to three days per week.
- Kegel exercises to help strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor.
- Pilates and yoga can also be done to improve overall strength and flexibility.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that pregnant women must exercise for 30 minutes a day, at least 3 times a week.
Can all pregnant women exercise?
Exercise is considered healthy during pregnancy. However, there are certain conditions in which pregnant women must consult their physician before beginning any new exercise regimen. These include conditions like:
- Restrictive lung disease (stiffness in the lungs)
- Bone-related problems
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure, type 1 diabetes, thyroid disorder or epilepsy
- Extreme obesity or underweight
- Chronic bronchitis
- Severe anaemia
- Eating disorder
- Multiple pregnancies (twins or triplets) after 28 weeks
- Previous history of spontaneous abortion
- Cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- Cervical insufficiency (weak cervix)
- Persistent bleeding during the second or third trimester)
- Premature labour during the current pregnancy
- Preeclampsia (alarmingly high blood pressure during pregnancy)
- Placenta previa (attachment of the placenta in the lower portion of the uterus)
- Other pregnancy complications
Which exercises should pregnant women avoid?
There are certain exercises that are not considered suitable for pregnant women, and these include:
- Physical activities with a high risk of falling, such as skiing and horse riding.
- Exercises that require rapid changes in directions such as river rafting.
- Sports or activities that require extensive jumping, hopping or bouncing, such as basketball and volleyball
- Exercising in hot humid weather (especially during the first trimester)
- Exercises such as walking lunges or single-leg step-ups (especially during the third trimester)
- Exercises that require lying on the back or standing in the same position for too long
- Physical activities that require holding of breath
Keeping glucose levels in check through a nutritious diet and regular exercising is extremely important in pregnant women with gestational diabetes to ensure the well-being of the baby and the mother. While exercising is extremely important, it is equally important for the pregnant woman to look for warning signs after exercising, such as dizziness, pain in the chest and legs, shortness of breath, headache, loss of balance, uterine contractions, and leaking of fluid or blood from the vagina. In case of any such symptoms, one must stop exercising and consult a doctor immediately.