As little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week during pregnancy enhances a newborn’s brain development, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Montreal note this head start could have an impact on the child’s entire life.
“We hope these results will guide public health interventions and research on brain plasticity,” said Dave Ellemberg, Ph.D., who led the study.
“Most of all, we 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.”
While in the past obstetricians would tell women to rest during their pregnancy, it is now commonly accepted that inactivity actually increases the risk of complications during pregnancy, noted Daniel Curnier, Ph.D.
“Being active can ease postpartum recovery, make pregnancy more comfortable and reduce the risk of obesity in the children,” he said.
“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.”
To verify this, the researchers randomly assigned pregnant women who were entering their second trimester to either an exercise group or a sedentary group.
Women in the exercise group were asked to perform at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week at a moderate intensity, which should lead to at least a slight shortness of breath, the researchers explained. Women in the sedentary group did not exercise.
The researchers then assessed the brain activity of the newborns between the ages of 8 to 12 days, by means of electroencephalography, which enables the recording of the brain’s electrical activity.
“We used 124 soft electrodes placed on the infant’s head and waited for the child to fall asleep on his or her mother’s lap,” said Ph.D. candidate Élise Labonté-LeMoyne. “We then measured auditory memory by means of the brain’s unconscious response to repeated and novel sounds.”
The results show that the babies born from the mothers who were physically active had a more mature cerebral activation, “suggesting that their brains developed more rapidly,” she said.
The researchers said they are now in the process of evaluating the children’s cognitive, motor and language development at age 1 to see if these differences are maintained.
Ellemberg, Curnier and Labonté-LeMoyne presented their findings at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.