newborn brain studyThe value of exercise makes headlines everywhere - on TV, the web, and in newspapers and in magazines. Exercise energizes us, helps us sleep better, builds stronger bones and muscles, keeps excess weight off, and helps fend off many common ailments. Expectant mothers are urged to exercise for easier labor and a speedier postpartum recovery. A new study suggests exercise is even more beneficial than all that. When women exercise regularly during pregnancy, it might make their babies smarter.

Elise Labonte-LeMoyne led a team of researchers at the University of Montreal in a study of 60 pregnant women, some of whom were given exercise regimens to follow, while the others were not encouraged to exercise. The randomly selected exercising group was asked to log each day’s exercise sessions while accelerometers and pedometers documented their activities.

When the women gave birth, the brain activity of each child was measured 8 to 12 days after delivery. Brain activity is an indication of how fully developed a child is when born. The brains of the babies born to mothers who exercised were much more active than the brains of the babies born to mothers who did not exercise regularly during pregnancy.

Labonte-LeMoyne says measure of a newborn’s electrical brain activity is the “most indicative way to measure a newborn’s cognitive status.” She emphasized that the study was of brain activity only, and did not address behavioral or neuropsychological development.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise during almost all days of pregnancy. Regular aerobic exercise during pregnancy can help ease back aches, minimize the risk of developing gestational diabetes, and improve the quality of sleep.

Exercise is invigorating, thanks in part to the way it floods the bloodstream with oxygen. During pregnancy, when the baby is connected to its mother’s bloodstream, the oxygenating effect is shared with the baby. Exercise also increases activity in the mitochondria of brain cells. The Montreal study indicates increased mitochondrial activity in the baby’s brain cells, too.

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who was not associated with the study, looks forward to more studies of longer duration that follow babies into childhood. Doing so would likely reveal the lasting benefits of a mother’s exercise habits during pregnancy. Further study would also determine if the increased brain activity is short-lived or if it carries forward into childhood. Ashton, board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, is senior medical contributor for ABC News.

Source: Siddique, Shazia Mehmood M.D. "Exercise During Pregnancy Can Boost Your Baby’s Brain." ABC News. 11 Nov 2013. Web. 19 Nov 2013.