Exercising while pregnant can help children avoid serious health problems as adults

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Although every expecting mother’s experience will likely be different and unique, one can assume exercising while pregnant is more of a hassle than usual. Still, a new study finds all the moms-to-be out there may want to break a sweat every so often. Researchers from the University of Virginia report exercise during pregnancy may significantly reduce a child’s odds of developing diabetes and other metabolic diseases years and decades later.

A team from the U.S. and Denmark reached these findings through a series of experiments involving lab mice. Maternal exercise during pregnancy appeared to impede the transmission of metabolic diseases from obese mice to their pups.

While not confirmed yet, if the same holds true among humans this discovery will have “huge implications” for expecting mothers. Researchers believe some day “regular exercise” may be a common suggestion from doctors to women during their first prenatal appointment.

“Most of the chronic diseases that we talk about today are known to have a fetal origin. This is to say that the parents’ poor health conditions prior to and during pregnancy have negative consequences to the child, potentially through chemical modification of the genes,” says researcher Zhen Yan, PhD, a top exercise expert at UVA’s School of Medicine, in a university release. “We were inspired by our previous mouse research implicating that regular aerobic exercise for an obese mother before and during pregnancy can protect the child from early onset of diabetes. In this study, we asked the questions, what if an obese mother exercises only during pregnancy, and what if the father is obese?”

Obese mothers can pass on problems to their kids

Previous studies have discovered that exercising while pregnant helps foster a healthy baby until birth. However, it’s been less clear if exercise has any impact on life-long health developments for the child. Dr. Yan and his team decided to investigate this topic.

Researchers turned their attention to a group of lab mice and their offspring. Some adult mice received “typical” mouse food both before conception and while pregnant. Study authors fed others a particularly fatty, high-calorie diet to simulate obesity. Among the mice eating a fatty diet, only half had access to a voluntary running wheel while pregnant. The other half had no choice but to lounge all day.

Ultimately, mice born to parents eating a fatty diet were much more likely to develop a metabolic disorder. More specifically, males born to sedentary, obese mothers were especially at risk for high blood sugar and other metabolic problems as an adult.

Fitness levels during pregnancy impact the genes

When study authors looked at the offspring’s DNA and metabolisms more closely, they discovered numerous metabolic and gene differences depending on the weight of the parents. Luckily, they also report that when a mom exercised while pregnant, it helped prevent a number of “epigenetic” changes affecting their child’s genes. In other words, if mom exercises while pregnant, it largely negates the adverse impact of both mom and dad’s obesity.

“The take-home message is that it is not too late to start to exercise if a mother finds herself pregnant. Regular exercise will not only benefit the pregnancy and labor but also the health of the baby for the long run,” Yan concludes. “This is more exciting evidence that regular exercise is probably the most promising intervention that will help us deter the pandemic of chronic diseases in the aging world, as it can disrupt the vicious cycle of parents-to-child transmission of diseases.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.