Maternal Exercise Makes Baby Smarter

As the end of 2013 rapidly approaches, I would like to return to a familiar theme that is central not only to my practice of medicine but also to my personal health; that is, the tremendous benefits of regular exercise. At every annual exam of every patient, I inquire as to what they are doing for exercise. Many, if not most, are not doing anything consistently and some, nothing at all. I pose this question every year to every patient because I believe it is incredibly important to the health of each individual, their families and to society as a whole.

The benefits to cardiovascular health and weight control are well-known. Increased cognition in individuals who exercise has also been well-documented; but is it possible that exercise during pregnancy can make your offspring smarter? A fascinating study out of the University of Montreal demonstrates that this may actually be the case.

These researchers divided a group of similar women in their first trimester of pregnancy into two separate groups one of which began an exercise program in the second trimester, the other remained sedentary. The exercising group exercised three times each week for a minimum of 20 minutes at a moderate level. For most, this exercise consisted of some variation of running.

Following delivery of these patients’ newborns, the researchers began testing the newborns almost immediately. This testing consisted of placing a cap on the heads of the newborn babies which allowed the researchers to analyze the electrical activity in the newborns’ brains that occurred in response to sounds which were played through in a loop. The lead researcher Elise Labonte-LeMoyen, PhD., explained that these sounds normally produce characteristic spikes in the electrical activity of immature brains but that these spikes diminish as brains mature and are able to process information more efficiently.

In Dr. Labonte-LeMoyen’s study, those newborns born to the exercising mothers had a more blunted electrical response to the auditory stimuli than did the babies born to the sedentary moms; thus indicating that their brains were more mature. This is truly amazing! The mechanism through which maternal exercise is able to facilitate this effect is not known, but the researchers hypothesize that chemicals released during maternal exercise are transferred via uteroplacental bloodflow to the baby’s bloodstream and on to their nervous systems.

This is obviously an exciting area of research and there is much more to learn. However, if the well-known personal benefits to regular exercise are not enough to motivate you to start a regular exercise program, maybe the thought of having your child attend Harvard will provide that motivation! I hope to see you out on the running trails!!!