ball4In an article in the New York Times  (Nov 20, 2013), Gretchen Reynolds notes that”if a woman is physically active during pregnancy, she may boost the development of her unborn child’s brain, according to a heart-tugging new study of expectant mothers and their newborns.

The findings bolster a growing scientific consensus that the benefits of exercise can begin to accumulate even before someone is born.

We have already discussed the positive effects of a good diet during pregnancy on the baby’s own eating habits and health as he/she grows up; the research on which this article was based tells us that exercise during pregnancy is important, too.  “Past studies have shown, for example, that a baby’s heart rate typically rises in unison with his or her exercising mother’s, as if the child were also working out. As a result, scientists believe, babies born to active mothers tend to have more robust cardiovascular systems from an early age than babies born to mothers who are more sedentary.”  But what about exercise boosting baby’s brain development? The study in question, which examined babies’ reactions to certain sounds at 12 days of age.  Babies whose moms exercised during pregnancy reacted less to the sounds – a sign that their brains were more mature than those of babies whose mothers were sedentary during pregnancy.

What kinds of exercise, and how much, are best for pregnant moms?  Moms who were very active before pregnancy can remain so, while moms who were more sedentary can start slow and build up, with a target of at least 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five days a week.  (Women with chronic health conditions should confer with their midwife or physician before beginning an exercise program.) Walking is a great way to start for women who aren’t used to strenuous activity.  Any activity that increases your heart rate is good.  According to an article in Clinics in Sports Medicine (Volume 19, Issue 2, April 2000), “research dealing with exercise during pregnancy continues to demonstrate marked benefits for mother and fetus. The type, intensity, frequency, and duration of the exercise seem to be important determinants of its beneficial effects. Maternal benefits include improved cardiovascular function, limited weight gain and fat retention, improved attitude and mental state, easier and less complicated labor, quick recovery, and improved fitness. Fetal benefits may include decreased growth of the fat organ, improved stress tolerance, and advanced neurobehavioral maturation. Currently, the offspring are leaner at 5 years of age and have a slightly better neurodevelopmental outcome. Postpubertal effects are still unknown. In the absence of medical contraindications, women should be encouraged to maintain their prepregnancy activity level.”  That pretty much sums it up – get moving and benefit both your baby and yourself!

For more on exercise in pregnancy, read an original article by Carolyne Anthony, Founder of the Center for Women’s Fitness in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Carolyne has produced several excellent exercise programs on DVD for pregnant women to use at home.