Scientists have been highlighting the relationship between exercise and brain development for more than a decade, but new research shows that exercise just may help pregnant women pass along that enhanced brain advancement to their babies, too.
When researchers at the University of Montreal and the affiliated CHU Saint-Justine Hospital tested the brain activity of newborn babies between the ages of eight and 12 days old, they discovered that the babies whose mothers had regularly performed moderate cardiovascular exercise showed more cognitive activity than did babies of mothers who were sedentary. All it took was 20 minutes of exercise, three times a week.
"Our research indicates that exercise during pregnancy enhances the newborn child's brain development," Dave Ellemberg, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Montreal who led the study, told Al Jazeera. Ellemberg presented his research Sunday at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, Calif.
While the study was small and preliminary, with just 18 pregnant women participating, the researchers say it is the first to connect a mother’s physical activity with a baby’s brain development.
Ellemberg, who has primarily focused his research on exercise and brain development, first conceived of the idea when he came across a study in which pregnant rats that exercised birthed baby rats with better spacial memory than rats that didn’t exercise.
His group recruited pregnant women and randomly assigned them to an exercising or sedentary group. Starting in the second trimester, the women in the exercising group were instructed to do at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular workouts three times a week, at an impact level in which they just started to lose their breath. The other group was told not to exercise.
Over the next six months, both groups recorded their exercise, sleep, medication and eating habits daily through an online logging system and wore accelerometers to track their physical activity. Once a month, they traveled to the lab, where their oxygen consumption was measured while they rode stationary bikes.
After the women gave birth, they brought their babies back to the lab within a week or two. The researchers connected the babies to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which measures the patterns in the brain’s electrical impulses. The newborns whose mothers had exercised, Ellemberg said, had more “mature” brain activity in response to new and repeated sounds, “like the brain waves of babies who were four to six months of age,” he said.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology recommends that pregnant women exercise about 30 minutes per day, but that’s to help reduce the risk of gestational diabetes. Other research has shown that exercise during pregnancy can improve a baby’s cardiovascular functioning.
While Ellemberg said his group needs to conduct more research to understand the implications of the results, and that they will follow up with the babies each year to check on their progress, “this could mean that they might learn to speak more rapidly. They might learn to develop their motor skills more rapidly,” he said. “It could also enhance intellectual development in many ways. That’s what we are hoping for.”
“We can’t underestimate the benefit of the behaviors of the mother for the child,” he said.