The babies of 10 women who did as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week during pregnancy showed more advanced brain activity when they were tested at eight to 12 days old than the babies of eight women who did not exercise during pregnancy, reported University of Montreal researcher David Ellemberg and his colleagues at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego on Sunday.
“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,” Ellemberg said in a statement.
The women in the study were randomly assigned to an exercise group or a sedentary group at the beginning of their second trimester. Those in the exercise group had to spend at least 20 minutes three times a week doing exercise intense enough to lead to at least a slight shortness of breath.
After their babies were born, the researchers tested them by placing a cap of electrodes on the babies' heads and then playing novel sounds while they slept. They measured the electrical response of the babies' brains to see how well they could distinguish between different sounds. The researchers found that the babies in the exercise group produced signals associated with more mature brains.
The researchers said they plan to test the children’s cognitive, motor and language development at age one to see if there are lasting effects.
Although women in the past have been told to rest during pregnancy, exercise is now recommended for pregnant women because it has been shown to reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy and can help a woman recover more quickly after giving birth.
Ellemberg has previously researched how exercise affects children’s brain development. He said he was inspired to see how a mother’s exercise during pregnancy affected her baby’s brain after reading studies that showed baby rats performed better on memory tasks if their mothers exercised during pregnancy.