Can exercise, for women with gestational diabetes, improve outcomes for mother and her baby?

What is the issue?

A previous Cochrane review on Exercise for diabetic pregnant women included women with pre-existing diabetes and women with gestational diabetes. That review has now been split into two new reviews on: exercise for pregnant women with gestational diabetes (this review) and exercise for pregnant women with pre-existing diabetes (the subject of another new review).

There will be similarities in the background, methods and outcomes between these two systematic reviews.

Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM), or diabetes during pregnancy, has both short- and long-term complications for the mother and her baby. Women with GDM are at an increased chance of developing high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, having their labour induced, giving birth by caesarean section, and experiencing perineal trauma. In the long term, up to half of women with GDM are likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Their babies are at increased risk of being born large-for-gestational age, experiencing a birth injury and being admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit. They are also more likely to develop metabolic syndrome in childhood and later life.

Why is this important?

Exercise may help to control blood sugar levels and improve outcomes for the mother and her baby, possibly leading to long-term health benefits. Physical activity for this review is planned, structured and repetitive body movements undertaken to improve physical fitness.

What evidence did we find?

We searched for evidence from randomised controlled trials in August 2016. We identified 11 trials that involved 638 pregnant women. They were conducted in middle-or high-income countries. We judged the overall risk of bias in the trials as unclear because of a lack of information about how the trials were conducted. Using GRADE, the quality of the evidence from the trials ranged from high to low quality. The main reasons for downgrading the quality were for risk of bias in the trials and imprecise effect sizes, low event rates and small numbers of participants.

For the mothers, exercising did not appear to reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia as the measure of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (two trials, 48 women, low-quality evidence), birth by caesarean section (five trials, 316 women, moderate-quality evidence), or the risk of induction of labour (one trial, 40 women, low-quality evidence). The mothers had similar body mass index at follow-up in the exercise and control groups (three trials, 254 women, high-quality evidence). Exercising was associated with lower fasting blood glucose levels (four trials) and blood glucose levels after a meal (three trials) but with variations in effect sizes between the different trials. The exercise programmes varied between trials as did their duration and whether or not they were supervised. None of the included trials reported on perineal trauma, postnatal depression or development of type 2 diabetes.

For the babies, no deaths occurred around the time of birth in (one trial, 19 babies, low-quality evidence) and there was no evidence of any difference in the risk of ill-health (two trials, 169 babies, moderate-quality evidence) or low blood sugar levels (one trial, 34 babies, low-quality evidence). None of the trials reported on the number of large-for-gestational-age babies or babies that went on to develop diabetes in childhood or adulthood or neurosensory disability that became apparent during childhood.

What does this mean?

Although exercise appeared to be able to lower fasting blood sugar levels and sugar levels after a meal, we did not find any differences in other outcomes for pregnant women with GDM. The present evidence is insufficient to advise for or against women enrolling in exercise programmes. Even if exercise does not provide any benefit during pregnancy, this change in lifestyle may persist after birth and may help prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and its long-term complications. Pregnant women with GDM who wish to enrol in an exercise programme may wish to discuss their choice with a health professional. Further research is needed comparing one exercise intervention with another (or with a control) and reporting on both the short- and long-term outcomes (for both the mother and infant/child/adult) as listed in this review.

Authors' conclusions: 

Short- and long-term outcomes of interest for this review were poorly reported. Current evidence is confounded by the large variety of exercise interventions. There was insufficient high-quality evidence to be able to determine any differences between exercise and control groups for our outcomes of interest. For the woman, both fasting and postprandial blood glucose concentrations were reduced compared with the control groups. There are currently insufficient data for us to determine if there are also benefits for the infant. The quality of the evidence in this review ranged from high to low quality and the main reason for downgrading was for risk of bias and imprecision (wide CIs, low event rates and small sample size). Development of type 2 diabetes, perineal trauma/tearing, postnatal depression, large-for-gestational age, adiposity (neonate/infant, childhood or adulthood), diabetes (childhood or adulthood) or neurosensory disability (neonate/infant) were not reported as outcomes in the included studies.

Further research is required comparing different types of exercise interventions with control groups or with another exercise intervention that reports on both the short- and long-term outcomes (for both the mother and infant/child) as listed in this review.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) is associated with both short- and long-term complications for the mother and her baby. Exercise interventions may be useful in helping with glycaemic control and improve maternal and infant outcomes.

The original review on Exercise for diabetic pregnant women has been split into two new review titles reflecting the role of exercise for pregnant women with gestational diabetes and for pregnant women with pre-existing diabetes.

Exercise for pregnant women with gestational diabetes for improving maternal and fetal outcomes (this review)

Exercise for pregnant women with pre-existing diabetes for improving maternal and fetal outcomes

Objectives: 

To evaluate the effects of exercise interventions for improving maternal and fetal outcomes in women with GDM.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (27 August 2016), ClinicalTrials.gov, the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (18th August 2016), and reference lists of retrieved studies.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing an exercise intervention with standard care or another intervention in pregnant women diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Quasi-randomised and cross-over studies, and studies including women with pre-existing type 1 or type 2 diabetes were not eligible for inclusion.

Data collection and analysis: 

All selection of studies, assessment of trial quality and data extraction was conducted independently by two review authors. Data were checked for accuracy.

Main results: 

We included 11 randomised trials, involving 638 women. The overall risk of bias was judged to be unclear due to lack of methodological detail in the included studies.

For the mother, there was no clear evidence of a difference between women in the exercise group and those in the control group for the risk of pre-eclampsia as the measure of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (risk ratio (RR) 0.31, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.01 to 7.09; two RCTs, 48 women; low-quality evidence), birth by caesarean section (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.63 to 1.16; five RCTs, 316 women; I2 = 0%; moderate-quality evidence), the risk of induction of labour (RR 1.38, 95% CI 0.71 to 2.68; one RCT, 40 women; low-quality evidence) or maternal body mass index at follow-up (postnatal weight retention or return to pre-pregnancy weight) (mean difference (MD) 0.11 kg/m2, 95% CI -1.04 to 1.26; three RCTs, 254 women; I2 = 0%; high-quality evidence). Development of type 2 diabetes, perineal trauma/tearing and postnatal depression were not reported as outcomes in the included studies.

For the infant/child/adult, a single small (n = 19) trial reported no perinatal mortality (stillbirth and neonatal mortality) events in either the exercise intervention or control group (low-quality evidence). There was no clear evidence of a difference between groups for a mortality and morbidity composite (variously defined by trials, e.g. perinatal or infant death, shoulder dystocia, bone fracture or nerve palsy) (RR 0.56, 95% CI 0.12 to 2.61; two RCTs, 169 infants; I2 = 0%; moderate-quality evidence) or neonatal hypoglycaemia (RR 2.00, 95% CI 0.20 to 20.04; one RCT, 34 infants; low-quality evidence). None of the included trials pre-specified large-for-gestational age, adiposity (neonatal/infant, childhood or adulthood), diabetes (childhood or adulthood) or neurosensory disability (neonatal/infant) as trial outcomes.

Other maternal outcomes of interest: exercise interventions were associated with both reduced fasting blood glucose concentrations (average standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.59, 95% CI -1.07 to -0.11; four RCTs, 363 women; I2 = 73%; T2 = 0.19) and a reduced postprandial blood glucose concentration compared with control interventions (average SMD -0.85, 95% CI -1.15 to -0.55; three RCTs, 344 women; I2 = 34%; T2 = 0.03).

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