Exercise Begins in the Womb

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We’re a quarter of the way through 2016, and an untold number of people have surely already given up on their New Year’s resolutions to begin a new workout regimen, get in shape, and become more active. This collective annual failure of overeager exercisers is par for the course, as some people just aren’t inclined to perform regular physical activity—but new research might give us a better idea why.

A study recently published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Journal suggests that a mother’s physical activity during pregnancy has an enormous effect on her offspring’s affinity for activity later in life. Dr. Robert Waterland of Baylor University, one of the study’s co-authors, explains that the primary motivation behind the study was exploring the effect on the development of obesity in humans.

“Specifically, we were interested in what’s called developmental programming of obesity,” Waterland tells BTRtoday. “The idea is that your risk of obesity is not determined just by your genetics and the environment that you’re in as an adult, but rather environmental influences during critical periods of development can help to shape your metabolism and change your risk of disease, in this case obesity.”

With the key help of undergraduate researchers Jesse Eclarinal and Shaoyu Zhu, Waterland et al measured the physical activity in pregnant mice and found that mice with active mothers were 50 percent more active as adults than those whose mothers did not exercise.

The study piggybacked on previous research that found positive correlations between physical activity during pregnancy on improved glucose levels and higher insulin sensitivity. There was also a study that found very similar results to Waterland’s, but used an outbred strain of mice, and attributed their findings to a genetic inheritance defect.

“We used genetically identical mice and found this exact same effect, showing it’s not due to genetics,” Waterland explains. “This is a clear example an early environmental influence on one’s propensity for physical activity.”

Many clinicians and expert groups already recommend moderate exercise for mothers during pregnancy (when medically cleared to do so), but that’s usually with the idea that it will benefit the mother by maintaining strength, relieving stress, and reducing complications. This study, however, suggests the exercise is equally, if not more, beneficial to the unborn child.

“What I’m hoping is that our work will help to make people realize the importance of these early environment effects in having a long-term impact on metabolism, energy balance, and risk of obesity,” Waterland says. “That’s what’s really beautiful about our results. It doesn’t change that recommendation, but hopefully will provide moms with more motivation.”

The study also looked into the running velocity of the pregnant mice, which predictably weakened as their pregnancies went on. Waterland believes that provides an even more encouraging directive to pregnant mothers looking to get active.

“I think that’s a nice message to deliver,” he says. “I’m not saying that women need to go out and run a 10k every night while they’re pregnant in order to have these benefits, but rather just to be engaged and healthy with movement, getting out, and going for a walk.”

Does this explain why some people can’t stop exercising, while others have such a natural inclination for physical activity? Perhaps not entirely, but the results do strongly indicate that environmental factors during key periods of development can be a big determinant in activity levels—and predilection therein—later in life.

BTRtoday advises readers that when it comes to pregnancy exercise, the first thing you need to do is discuss it with your doctor or midwife. Your doctor is going to have the most information about your personal health issues and any risks you and your baby face in the months to come.

Follow their recommendations. A professional or qualified pre/post natal certified trainer with experience training pregnant women is also a great asset during this time. The more knowledgeable, professional people you have helping you, the better.