Dr. Michelle Mottola dragged her fingers lightly over the two red photo albums open on the counter in front of her. A smile spread across her face as she stopped at a picture of her first-born daughter.
Mottola is the founding director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Lab at Western. Her daughter is the first picture in the first volume of baby albums that document every baby ever born throughout the program.
Mottola, a certified embriologist, was the first pregnant woman enrolled in the program when the lab made its transition from animals to humans during her first pregnancy in 1994.
“(The lab) was involved in animal work first, looking at exercising pregnant rats because we didn’t know what happened with exercising pregnant women,” said the joint-appointment professor in Kinesiology and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
The official R. Samuel McLaughlin Foundation – Exercise and Pregnancy Lab, named after a foundation that helped fund the clinic, opened in 1996 when it moved to Western’s campus. Mottola is now one of North America’s top researchers in the study of exercise during pregnancy.
“The fun part about research is that when you answer some questions, more questions develop which then leads to designing more studies,” she said. “The success of the program is the most important and rewarding part for me because I not only help each pregnant woman, but also see the result with her baby.”
The lab has had more than 300 pregnant women in its programs over the last 19 years. It is one of the only labs in Canada to test the effects of exercise during pregnancy and investigate the effects of exercise in women postpartum.
It is the only Canadian lab to test for the prevention of gestational diabetes in pregnant and postpartum women whose increased blood sugar and hormones put them at a higher risk of developing diabetes.
Mottola, who also participated in the postpartum study after her two pregnancies, recently began a new investigation, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research and partnered with McMaster University, attempting to prevent excessive gestational weight-gain during pregnancies. The lab will see 160 women through this study over the next three years.
The only two qualifications for participation are being less than 14 weeks into the pregnancy and being cleared for moderate exercise by a physician.
To be cleared for exercise during pregnancy, physicians use a line of testing called the PARmed-x for Pregnancy, which includes checklists to guide screening prior to participation in prenatal fitness. The nationally used PARmed-x has been based, in part, on Mottola’s research.
Her research is also responsible for the guidelines for exercise during pregnancy distributed by Health Canada and the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology.
“It’s pretty cool seeing your name in there,” she said.
To continue its success, Mottola and her clinic continue to advertise their volunteer-based studies in family physicians and midwife offices throughout the London community. Sending informational flyers to doctors’ offices is one way the clinic reaches out to its community.
The lab recently began using social media and has posted its first advertisement on Kijji to attract more women in the London area.
A local London physician’s office is where mother-of-two Rebecca Faber saw a flyer about the free study.
“My two pregnancies were so close together, when I heard about this at the doctor’s office, I knew I wanted to do it,” Faber said.
Once a week, Faber came to the clinic where she had her blood sugar, blood pressure and weight measured. Afterwards, she went for a 45-minute walk outside or on the treadmill with the company of either Mottola or one of her staff members, while they monitored her heart rate.
“It was nice having someone to encourage you,” she said. “It made it easier than (exercising) on your own.”
Participants in the study are also asked to keep a food diary of one day per week. Faber gained less weight in her second pregnancy while participating in the study.
After the delivery of her daughter, Nora, she returned to the clinic to be part of the postpartum study.
“It was the same thing just without the blood pressure and blood sugar tests,” she said. “For me, it was good to have an appointment. It made me accountable and kept me on track and kept me focused.”
Faber often brought her 2-year-old son, Adrian, where he played in the supervised mini-daycare set up outside of the exercise room.
“It was really nice to take my older son with me,” she said. “It just made being part of it that much easier.”
Faber said it was a great experience and she learned a lot about the importance of fitness during pregnancy she didn’t know during her first pregnancy. Not only are the pregnant women in the London area helping Mottola with her research, they are getting a healthier pregnancy in return.
“Exercise during pregnancy is extremely important,” Mottola said. “It is no longer a time to put your feet up and eat for two because you’re pregnant.”