There’s no foolproof way to ensure your newborn is the next Einstein, but the best place to start might be at the treadmill. According to a new study, moderate prenatal exercise by the mother can help the baby’s brain develop faster. Researchers in Canada found that just 20 minutes of physical activity three times per week was enough to enhance a newborn’s cerebral activity.
To compare the effects of exercise or lack of it during pregnancy, researchers from the University of Montreal randomly assigned 60 women starting at the beginning of their second trimester to an active or inactive group. Medical News Today reported that the exercise group had to perform at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular activity three times a week, until they were short of breath. Women in the inactive group were asked not to exercise at all.
After the babies were born and were between the ages of eight and 12 days, researchers attached electrodes to the infants’ heads and waited for them to fall asleep in their mothers’ laps. “We then measured auditory memory by means of the brain's unconscious response to repeated and novel sounds," Élise Labonté-LeMoyne, a Ph.D. candidate and one of the authors of the study, wrote in a statement. "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."
While the benefits of exercise during pregnancy have been suggested before, this is the first time scientists have used a randomized controlled experiment to measure the impact of prenatal exercise on newborns.
"Our research indicates that exercise during pregnancy enhances the newborn child's brain development," Prof. Dave Ellemberg, who led the study, said. "We hope these results will guide public health interventions and research on brain plasticity. 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."
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"While being sedentary increases the risks of suffering complications during pregnancy, being active can ease post-partum recovery, make pregnancy more comfortable and reduce the risk of obesity in the children," Prof. Daniel Curnier, who also worked on the study, explained. "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."
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists already encourages expecting mothers to exercise about 30 minutes almost every day during pregnancy. The idea behind daily exercise is that it can help alleviate back pain, improve sleep and mood and prevent pregnancy-related diabetes.
“We know that aerobic exercise has an immediate result of increasing mitochondrial activity in the brain, but this study shows that this effect may in fact ‘cross the placenta’ and benefit the fetal brain as well,” Dr. Jennifer Ashton, senior medical contributor to ABC News and board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, told ABC News. “More studies with larger numbers are needed and we also need to follow these fetuses through early life to see if these effects result in higher aptitude or accelerated development down the road.”
So what are the best prenatal workouts? According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, the best forms of exercise for women who are pregnant are walking, swimming, cycling and aerobics. Sports in which there is a high risk of falling, like horseback riding or water skiing, are not recommended. And it probably goes without saying, but it’s best to avoid contact sports all together.
As always, it’s smart to consult with your doctor before changing your workout routine during pregnancy.