Exercise and physical activity have been found to be important to improving one’s general health and in reducing risk of developing different diseases. Recently, there has been an increased amount of research looking into the effects of exercise during pregnancy on newborns. Two such studies were presented at the 2013 Society of Neuroscience’s annual conference in San Diego. Specifically, they looked to determine the effect of exercise during pregnancy on infant brain development. Taken together, results suggest that physical activity has a beneficial impact on brain development for children.

Study 1 – Maternal exercise during pregnancy improves object recognition memory in adult male offspring

Researchers from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire used Long Evans rats as subjects to examine the effects of maternal exercise on memory in their adult male offspring. In particular, pregnant female rats were divided into two groups following conception. In one group, exercise wheels were placed in their cages and the pregnant rats were free to exercise. In the second group, the pregnant rats were placed in cages that did not contain an exercise wheel. After the offspring were born, the wheels were removed from the cages of the “exercise” group and the rats in both groups remained with their mothers until they were weaned.

At 60 days post birth the ability of the male offspring to recognize objects from memory over a period of 24 hours was assessed. Findings revealed that rats whose mothers exercised during pregnancy, were better at recognizing objects, demonstrating improved memory, compared to rats whose mothers did not exercise during pregnancy. Moreover, rats whose mothers exercised were better able to recognize objects two weeks later, demonstrating improved long term memory capabilities.

Study 2 – Foetal brain development is influenced by maternal exercise during pregnancy
In this study, researchers at the University of Montreal recruited women who were in their first trimester of pregnancy and randomly assigned them to either an active (minimum 20 minutes of low intensity exercise 3 days per week throughout their pregnancy) or to a sedentary group, who did not exercise.

A short time after the children were born (e.g. 8-12 days), the electrical activity of the children’s brains in response to auditory cues were examined using EEG (i.e. electroencephalography – which uses electrodes placed on the scalp to measure underlying brain activity). Results of the study showed that exercise had a beneficial effect on the brain of the newborns such that infants born to active mothers had brainwave patterns that indicated that their brains were more mature compared to infants born to inactive mothers.

In conclusion, physical activity during pregnancy has been shown to benefit the brain development of newborns. These studies further reinforce the importance of physical activity and the role it plays in promoting and maintaining health.

Graham Beaton is a Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Ottawa. If you have questions about how Naturopathic Medicine can help during pregnancy, about prenatal health or for an appointment, please call 613-290-6115.