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Spotlight Scholar

Improving Women’s Health
International expert sheds light on physical activity and pregnancy
UMass Amherst Professor Lisa Chasan-Taber and images of pregnant women

“If we can intervene up-stream to have women change their behaviors to reduce their risk in pregnancy then these interventions can have a positive impact on the health of future generations."

Lisa Chasan-Taber

Until recently, expectant mothers had little information about how physical activity could affect their health and the health of their unborn children. Research by epidemiologist Lisa Chasan-Taber and her colleagues is shedding light on how healthy lifestyle programs based on physical activity affect health risks in pregnant women.

Chasan-Taber is an internationally recognized expert whose research explores how modifying behavioral risk factors can decrease disease rates in mothers and their offspring. Her goals are threefold: to develop the best tools to measure physical activity in pregnant women, to use those tools to detect associations between physical activity and disease outcomes in pregnant women, and to see that programs derived from this research are incorporated into clinical practice and care.

To these ends, Chasan-Taber in 2000 led a national research team that developed the Pregnancy Physical Activity Questionnaire (PPAQ), the first scientifically validated instrument for determining guidelines for exercise during pregnancy. It has formed the basis for international scientific and medical studies of physical activity and its effects on maternal and fetal outcomes. Currently being translated into several languages, the PPAQ is being used by researchers in 40 countries and at 28 U.S. universities. Each year Chasan-Taber fields numerous queries by investigators interested in utilizing the PPAQ in their research.

“Up until fairly recently,” says Chasan-Taber “there were very conservative guidelines about exercise and pregnancy. Women were first told not to exercise at all and then were told only to exercise up to a certain body temperature, duration, and intensity. These recommendations were based on very little research. We, and others, are finding that exercise does not increase risk and is actually beneficial against certain diseases of pregnancy.” 

These days Chasan-Taber is using the PPAQ to understand the effects of healthy lifestyle programs on postpartum Hispanic women with a history of gestational diabetes (elevated blood glucose levels during late pregnancy). “Hispanic women are an underserved population,” says Chasan-Taber. “They really haven’t been represented in intervention studies. Because of their health disparities such as higher rates of obesity, inactivity, and diabetes, Hispanic populations are at greater risk for negative health outcomes.”

According to Chasan-Taber, gestational diabetes has been known to lead to large babies but new research has shown there is a generational effect – it increases the child’s risk for future obesity and diabetes. The mother is also at very high increased risk for future type-2 diabetes. Gathering data on these women will help researchers understand more about proper interventions and the relationship between gestational diabetes and adverse post-pregnancy health outcomes for both mother and baby.

“If we can intervene up stream to have women change their behaviors to reduce their risk in pregnancy, then these interventions can have a positive impact on the health of future generations. That’s a goal we have been chipping away at,” she says.

UMass Amherst and its surrounding community are ripe for conducting such research, Chasan-Taber says. The expertise of her colleagues in kinesiology and biostatistics was critical to helping her blend the physical-activity and epidemiology aspects of her research. “What’s unique about UMass too,” she adds, “is that we have access to various local medical-center populations. Penny Pekow, biostatistics, also works at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where many of my studies are based. I’m collaborating on a study with colleagues at UMass Medical Center in Worcester as well. Both institutions are rich environments for my studies and serve large Hispanic populations. ”

Lisa Chasan-Taber, center, with her research group
Chasan-Taber’s latest studies focus on behavioral interventions. She is leading a team of health educators who work with Hispanic women to incorporate modest, incremental behavioral changes into their daily lives. For example, she says, it’s easier to get women to do 10 minutes more a day of moderate activity than it is to get them to commit to a more ambitious regimen. “We’re still testing,” she explains. “The question is whether such changes can make a clinical impact on gestational diabetes.”

 

Chasan-Taber joined the UMass Amherst Biostatistics and Epidemiology faculty in 1997. She holds a B.A. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.P.H. from UMass Amherst, and a Sc.D. from Harvard University.  She is Associate Editor for Medicine Science Sports and Exercise and was a standing member of the Infectious Disease, Reproductive Health, Asthma, and Pulmonary Epidemiology Study Section of the National Institutes of Health. She received the 2000 American Diabetes Association Career Development Award and is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. In 2010, Dr. Chasan-Taber served as a member of a writing group for the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Diabetes Association sponsored position paper “Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes." Chasan-Taber has consistently been funded by the National Institutes of Health as principal investigator on a number of multi-million dollar grants totaling over $7 million.

University Relations

April 2013