Though pregnant women are advised to consult their doctor before beginning an exercise program, researchers in Canada have found that expectant mothers who exercise at least 20 minutes three times per week could be giving their child a head-start, cerebrally speaking.
Prof. Dave Ellemberg, from the University of Montreal, conducted the research with his colleagues in partnership with the affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children's hospital. They recently presented their research at the Neuroscience 2013 congress in San Diego, CA.
"Our research indicates that exercise during pregnancy enhances the newborn child's brain development," says Prof. Ellemberg.
He notes that comparable results have been found in animal studies, but theirs is the first trial in humans to show the link between exercise during pregnancy and benefits for the brains of newborns.
Prof. Daniel Curnier, who also helped conduct the research, notes:
"Given that exercise has been demonstrated to be beneficial for the adult's brain, we hypothesized that it could also be beneficial for the unborn child through the mother's actions."
Researchers assessed the brains of newborns and found that those whose mothers exercised regularly had brains that developed more rapidly.
Image credit: Universite de Montreal
To conduct their research, the team randomly assigned women starting at the beginning of their second trimester to either an exercise group or a sedentary group.
The women in the exercise group completed at least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise that resulted in at least a slight shortness of breath three times per week, while the women in the sedentary group did not exercise.
'Mature cerebral activation'
After the births of the newborns, the researchers analyzed their brain activity between the ages of 8 to 12 days. They used electroencephalography, allowing them to record the electrical activity of the newborns' brains.
The team placed 124 soft electrodes on each infant's head and then waited for each baby to fall asleep in his or her mother's lap, after which they measured "auditory memory" via the brain's "unconscious response" to both repeated and new sounds.
PhD candidate Élise Labonté-LeMoyne, who also conducted the research, reveals their findings:
"Our results show that the babies born from the mothers who were physically active have a more mature cerebral activation, suggesting that their brains developed more rapidly."
The researchers note that although in the recent past, obstetricians told pregnant women to mostly rest for 9 months, it is now commonly known that inactivity can create health risks.
"While being sedentary increases the risks of suffering complications during pregnancy," says Prof. Curnier, "being active can ease post-partum recovery, make pregnancy more comfortable and reduce the risk of obesity in the children."
Hopes for public health interventions
Prof. Ellemberg says he hopes their results will "guide public health interventions and research on brain plasticity." He adds that they are "optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child's future."
He told Medical News Today that the "advanced cerebral maturation" the researchers observed in newborns of active mothers "could imply that babies acquire speech more rapidly, and the same could be true for their motor development." He noted that this could also help with their "intellectual and social development"
The team is continuing to assess the children's cognitive, motor and language development at 1-year-old, in order to determine if these brain differences remain over longer periods of time.
Mothers who exercise will gain additional benefits, as Medical News Today recently reported that new findings revealed exercise may ward off Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.