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Exercising While Pregnant, May Boost Baby's Brain Development

December 05, 2013 4 min read

We've all heard about the benefits of exercising while you're pregnant. Whether it's reducing the stress of the mom to be and improving mood, combating fatigue, helping to speed in postpartum recovery, and possibly even helping in the delivery of the baby. These and so much more, are documented in almost everything you'll read on keeping active while you're pregnant. But, did you know that these benefits could actually cross over into babies brain development as well? Last month, a study was conducted at the University of Montreal's Department of Kinesiology, where two professors and a graduate student recruited women who were in their first trimester of pregnancy. The women where then assigned randomly to an “active” or “sedentary” group. Women in the active group were advised to get at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise (using at least 55% of their maximal aerobic capacity) at least three times a week during their second and third trimesters, while women in the sedentary group pretty much took it easy. Even though the 'active' group were told to exercise about 60 minutes a week, they ended up averaging about 117 minutes of moderate intensity structured exercise per week, or about a six or so on a scale of exertion from 1 to 10. The sedentary group performed on average 12 minutes per week. Once the babies were born, the researchers performed tests on their brains, to see if there were any differences between the 'active' and 'sedentary' groups,  that they could pinpoint. Within 12 days after birth, the babies were fitted with specialized caps made up of 124 soft electrodes that detect electrical activity in the brain. (As shown in the image above courtesy of University of Montreal /November 11, 2013). Once they were asleep, the scientists played a series of sounds both familiar and old, and measured the response of the infants’ brains. The babies brain activity was then recorded.  
“We know that baby’s brains respond to these kinds of sounds with a spike in certain types of brain activity", said Elise Labonte-LeMoyne, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montreal, who led the study and also presented her findings at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. She continued to say, "This spike is most pronounced in immature brains, and diminishes as a newborn’s brain develops and begins processing information more efficiently. It usually disappears altogether by the time a baby is 4 months old, she said,

In this case, the relevant brainwave activity SOARED in response to the novel sounds among the children born to mothers who had remained SEDENTARY during pregnancy. But it was noticeably BLUNTED in the babies whose mothers had EXERCISED. Therefore, the mothers who exercised, birthed babies whose “brains were more mature,”Ms. Labonte-LeMoyne said.

[caption id="attachment_32487" align="alignright" width="500"]Crossfit mom, Lea-Ann Ellison Crossfit mom, Lea-Ann Ellison[/caption]

Just exactly how gestational exercise can transform or reconstruct an unborn child’s brain is not clear, Ms. Labonte-LeMoyne admits, since, unlike circulatory systems, a mother’s brain is not hardwired directly to that of her child. “But we suspect that when mom exercises, she generates a variety of chemicals,”including many related to brain health, that can circulate in the mother's bloodstream and then make its way into the blood of her unborn baby. This is still in the early stages of research though. Right now, it's unclear whether or not this brain development advantage will linger later on into their lives. Ms. Labonte-LeMoyne and her colleagues plan to retest the children on various cognitive tests once they are a year old.

Ms. Labonte-LeMoyne stated, “If a woman can be physically active during her pregnancy, she may give her unborn child an advantage, in terms of brain development…”She went on to say, “We were surprised by how much of an effect we saw from barely an hour of exercise per week." running-pregnanr-woman_700x700

Dave Ellemberg, one of the professors who conducted the experiment also added,  "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."

Most of this shouldn't come as a HUGE surprise to most, considering all the positive effects that staying active while you're pregnant can bring. Being a mother of 2, with a 3rd on the way in 4 weeks, I have thankfully had 3 'fit' pregnancies and have stayed active up until delivery. As I have said before and will say again, everyone is different. Every pregnancy is different. Despite any contraindications to exercising while you're pregnant that your doctor may present to you, staying physically active during your pregnancy is so beneficial to not only the mom but her unborn child. Pregnancy is such a beautiful time for a woman, and a time where she can continue her exercise routine she did prior to getting pregnant, with modifications along the way. Stay active, stay healthy. Lace up those sneakers and give not only yourself a mental boost, but your growing baby as well!

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