Exercise During Pregnancy Improves Baby’s Brain Development


New research shows that babies born to mothers who exercised during pregnancy have more mature brains than babies whose mothers did not exercise.

Exercise during pregnancy can improve a baby’s brain development, according to research presented at the Society of Neuroscience 2013 meeting in San Diego this month.

Researchers from the University of Montreal found that 20 minutes of moderate, cardiovascular exercise 3 times a week led to more rapid development of the brain in newborns.

The Canadian researchers measured the brain development of babies, who were between 8 and 12 days old, by performing an EEG, or electroencephalography, to measure mismatch negativity (MMN), the neurophysiological brain potential that is associated with auditory sensory memory.

"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 PhD candidate lise Labont-LeMoyne, who presented the findings, in a news release. “We then measured auditory memory by means of the brain's unconscious response to repeated and novel sounds.”

The results showed that babies born to mothers who were physically active had more mature cerebral activation, she said. Specifically, the average difference wave for the MMN showed a positive wave peaking at 253ms for the babies born to the active mothers and at 209ms for those born from the sedentary mothers. Statistical analysis showed that the area amplitude of the MMN was significantly lower at the electrode sites Pz (Z = 5.00, P = 0.01) and Fz (Z = 8.00, P = 0.04) for the babies born from the active mothers.

The small study involved following 18 babies in the womb by randomly assigning their mothers to remain sedentary or to exercise beginning at the start of their second trimester. Women in the exercise group had to do at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 3 times per week at a moderate intensity, causing them to have at least a slight shortness of breath (minimal intensity of 55% of their maximal aerobic capacity.) They swam, walked briskly, or ran. The sedentary group did not exercise.

"While animal studies have shown similar results, this is the first randomized controlled trial in humans to objectively measure the impact of exercise during pregnancy directly on the newborn's brain,” said Dave Ellemberg, who led the study. “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."

Next, the researchers are evaluating the same children’s cognitive, motor, and language development at age 1 to determine whether the differences remain.

Pertinent Points:
- Moderate cardiovascular exercise 3 times a week for 20 minutes was associated with more rapid brain development in newborns.
- It remains unclear if exercise during pregnancy continues to impact the child’s cognitive, motor and language development, as he or she ages, but researchers are in the process of evaluating the children at age 1 year.



Labonté-LeMoyne E, Curnier D, Ellemberg D. Foetal brain development is influenced by maternal exercise during pregnancy. Presented at: Society of Neuroscience 2013 Meeting; November 10, 2013; San Diego.

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