Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

The offspring of mice who exercised regularly while pregnant had better stress resilience and improved insulin sensitivity into adulthood when compared to the offspring of sedentary mouse mothers, according to a new report.

Although this was a rodent study, the researchers believe that maternal exercise during pregnancy may be an effective short-term intervention that could provide a lifetime of health benefits for the next generation of human children, too.

Kevin J. Pearson, from the University of Kentucky Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences, presented his team’s preliminary findings in a lecture, “Exercise During Pregnancy and Long-Term Impact on Offspring Health,” at the recent American Physiological Society’s Integrative Biology of Exercise VII meeting in Phoenix. This symposium brings together thought leaders and scientists to discuss exercise physiology as it relates to topics that include: sedentary behavior, metabolic diseases, brain cell stress responses, exercise and pregnancy, aging, cardiovascular disease, mitochondrial signaling, and stem cells.

Exposure to regular physical activity (or chronic inactivity) can have profound impacts on your well-being at every stage of life...from preconception to old age. In a statement to APS, Pearson's research team wrote, “Our findings highlight pregnancy as a sensitive period when positive lifestyle interventions could have significant and long-lasting beneficial effects on offspring metabolism and disease risk.” From a public health perspective, encouraging someone to stay physically active during pregnancy may be a low-cost and effective way to protect future generations from costly age-related health problems.

The focus of Pearson’s ongoing research is to examine markers of oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin sensitivity in mice that exercise regularly compared to their sedentary counterparts. Oxidative stress can damage the body via an accumulation of free radicals, which are unstable molecules.

Throughout a human or animal’s lifespan, the buildup of free radicals increases his or her risk of age-related chronic diseases, while decreasing stress resistance. On the bright side, reducing oxidative stress through physical exercise appears to lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

"How Much Should I Exercise During Pregnancy?"

This study doesn’t offer specific recommendations for the optimum quantity or intensity of maternal aerobic exercise during pregnancy. That said, if you are going to stay physically active during pregnancy, please consult with your physician regularly, listen to your body, and use common sense. When it comes to exercise, more is not necessarily better. In fact, too much exercise can backfire and is clinically proven to be bad for your health. 

As an anecdotal example of finding an "exercise sweet spot" during pregnancy.... When the mother of my child—who has been a competitive Ironman triathlete for the past two decades—was pregnant with our daughter, she dramatically cut back on her sports training. Instead of high-impact, vigorous exercise, she opted for low-impact, moderate-intensity aerobic activity. During the later part of her pregnancy, my daughter's mom stopped running, became an avid mountain hiker, and spent much more time swimming. This seemed to be a winning formula for both mother and child. 

If you need another source of motivation to stay active during your pregnancy, it's inspiring to know that aerobic exercise may have a positive impact on the long-term well-being of your child. Again, it’s always imperative to consult with your physician about the quantity, intensity, and type of physical activity you are doing at various stages of your lifespan—​especially throughout a pregnancy or when trying to become pregnant. 

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