Women who routinely exercise during pregnancy often enjoy fewer discomforts, speedier delivery, and healthier babies than women who don’t get enough physical activity. A team of researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) might have discovered even more incentive to stay active during pregnancy. The results of their recent study indicate regular exercise during and after pregnancy may help curb a child’s tendency toward high blood pressure in childhood.
Previous studies have established the connection between low birth weight and hypertension (high blood pressure) throughout life. This finding is but one aspect of a theory called the fetal origins hypothesis, which basically suggests that events during gestation influence the health of the baby. When the woman experiences arduous events during periods critical to fetal growth and development, permanent changes to the fetus are thought to occur in ways that can affect the child’s health even into adulthood.
Some members of the medical and research communities, including Dr. James Pivarnik, think of the fetal origins hypothesis as a form of genetic pre-programming, taking place in the womb but having lasting effects throughout a person’s lifetime. Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology and epidemiology at MSU where he is also Director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health, and his colleagues recently published the findings of a study they conducted on women’s physical activity during pregnancy and how it affected their children’s blood pressure.
Pivarnik’s research team enlisted 51 women for a 5-year study of their physical fitness during and after pregnancy. Some of the study participants maintained a steady regimen of running or walking throughout the study period, including the third trimester of their pregnancies.
The women in the study had babies born within the normal range for birth weights but, based on previous studies, those on the lower end of the range were at increased risk of hypertension. Pivarnik found, however, that babies born at the low end of the birth weight range did not develop hypertension as predicted if their mothers maintained a physically active lifestyle all through pregnancy.
Pivarnik suggests “The connection was disrupted, indicating that exercise may in some way alter cardiovascular risk that occurs in utero.” Children of all birth weights enjoyed lowered blood pressure when their mothers remained physically active during all trimesters of pregnancy.
“This told us that exercise during critical developmental periods may have more of a direct effect on the baby” than previously expected, according to Pivarnik. Regardless of birth weight, children of the women who maintained the most vigorous level of exercise during the third trimester enjoyed significantly lower blood pressures at ages 8 and 10 than the other children born during the study. Pivarnik expects this effect to last well into adulthood.
Children, like adults, increase the risk of hypertension if they don’t get adequate amounts of physical exercise, eat a poor diet, and are overweight. Hypertension is often the first sign of an impending cardiovascular disease which can lead to strokes and heart attacks. People born at low birth rates are more prone to hypertension than people born at a healthier weight.
- Gleason, Sarina, and Jim Pivarnik. "Mom's Exercise Habits Good for Blood Pressure in Kids." Michigan State University | Today. Michigan State University Board of Trustees, 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
- "High blood pressure in children." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.