Exercising During Pregnancy Improves Brain Development in Newborns

Matengo Chwanya's picture

The benefits of exercise are numerous to those who engage in them, from boosting academic performance in teens to enhancing overall health in adults. Even pregnant women are encouraged to engage in some exercise, of course after consulting with their physicians.

A Canadian team has discovered that pregnant women who exercise for at least 1 hour a week conferred some unexpected health benefits to their kids; they were found to have more brain activity than the children of those who lived a sedentary life during pregnancy.


A Randomized Controlled Trial

The team from University of Montreal set up a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that involved a total of 18 women. An RCT ensures that bias in the assignment of a group is eliminated; if the women knew beforehand that previous research (using animal models) suggests that exercise in pregnancy can improve brain development, then they would naturally want to be part of the exercising group. In this study, women gave the informed consent after accepting that they would be randomly assigned to either a sedentary or an exercising group. 8 women went to the sedentary group while 10 went to the exercising group. All women were yet to get into their 2nd trimester.

Some factors were controlled by the researchers, in order to better evaluate the significance of exercise on neonates. All women were given recommendations on healthy habits to develop during their pregnancies, and the Sensible Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy guidebook was provided to assist them in this.

That addressed, the researchers also offered the women who were in the exercise group some advice on the exercises they could carry out, especially with regard to the intensity of these exercises. A certified kinesiologist was on hand to conduct exercises and also offer tips on how the women would gauge their level of exertion by using the Borg Perceived Exertion Scale.

The women then submitted a daily log, and wore a pedometer for the remainder of their pregnancies. A pedometer is an electronic device that is worn around the waist and measures the number of steps one takes in a day; in this way, it serves as a rough measure of the amount of exercise the women engage in outside the purview of the researchers.  

A Mismatch Negativity to Gauge Brain Activity in Neonates

(Photo: As little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times per week during pregnancy enhances the newborn child's brain development. This head-start could have an impact on the child's entire life.)

The brain activities of the neonates at the end of these pregnancies were then measured using a technique known as mismatch negativity (MMN). This is a technique in which a quantifiable electric potential is generated by the introducing interruptions to a repetitive sound. This interruption can be an alteration of the duration, pitch or loudness of a tone. This event-related potential (ERP) is generated even when the person is not paying any attention to the stimuli, in this case sound. It can then be measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG), which uses electrodes strategically placed around the head to determine brain activity.

In the study, MNN tests were conducted when the babies were 8 to 12 days old. 124 soft electrodes were placed on the infant’s head, and when the baby was asleep on her/his mother’s lap, the researchers played the test sounds. The signals were then amplified and analyzed later on.

Greater Cerebral Activation

Children born of mothers who had exercised during pregnancy were found to fare better in the MNN tests, quickly responding to the interruptions in the sounds being played to them. For the researchers, this suggested that these babies had greater cerebral activation, thus improving their ability to discern sounds. Presenting these findings on a recent seminar, one of the researchers involved in the study suggested that this fact may lead to an advantage in the acquisition of language. Consequently, the babies will be monitored until they attain 1 year of age, to verify whether or not this advantage will hold.

To Sum Up….

Pregnancy is not an excuse to avoid exercising, especially when it confers upon the newborn such magnanimous gifts. So, consult your physician, and start working out.


Exercise in Pregnancy May Boost Baby’s Brain

Exercise during pregnancy gives newborn brain development a head start

The effects of exercise during pregnancy on the newborn’s brain; a study protocol for a randomized controlled trial




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