The days of pregnant women being told to put their feet up and take it easy for nine months are long-gone; nowadays, mums-to-be are urged to stay active for as long as they can. Exercising while pregnant will help them cope with the physical demands of pregnancy and make labour easier too, say medical experts.
But now, it seems, we’re not just benefiting ourselves if we exercise during pregnancy; recent research suggests we’re giving our babies’ development a boost, too. A study published earlier this months suggests newborn babies whose mothers exercise during pregnancy develop motor skills more quickly than those born to mothers who don’t.
One of the authors, Linda E May, an associate professor of foundational science and research at East Carolina University in North Carolina, US, had already been part of a 2011 study that found babies whose mothers worked out during pregnancy had stronger hearts. For the new project, Dr May and her colleagues set out to learn whether exercise during pregnancy could also affect a baby’s physical condition after birth. It followed other research which indicated that poor coordination in early childhood often leads to lead to inactivity and obesity in later life.
The study involved 71 healthy women who were pregnant with a single baby, mostly in their first trimester. They were divided randomly into two groups, one of which carried on with their usual routines.
The women in the other group took part in three supervised exercise sessions per week of 50 minutes each. The women jogged, walked briskly, rode exercise bikes or joined an aerobics class, depending on personal preference and ability. The sessions, classed as moderate activity, continued throughout their pregnancies.
A month after giving birth, a paediatric physical therapist examined each baby, carrying out a standard check of reflexes and motor skills. This included head control, the ability to make a fist and general reactions and movements.
Improved motor skills
The results, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, showed that babies whose mothers had exercised tended to perform better across all the tests. The differences were greater among the girls, who generally develop slightly later than boys at that age. However, those in the exercising group showed the same capabilities as boys in their group, and more than the boys in the control group.
While the differences weren’t enormous, said Dr May, those babies whose mothers were in the exercising group were definitely ahead of those in the control group. She added this might encourage them, as they grew older, to be more active than children with less developed motor skills at the same age.
Further studies planned
However, while the research team allowed for breastfeeding – which can affect physical development – it did not take into account the babies’ home environments. Factors such as how often the new mothers played with their infants could also affect motor development.
Dr May says there are plans for future studies to examine just how exercise during pregnancy affects a baby’s physical skills – for example, by providing the foetus with increased amounts of oxygen and nutrients, or the release of growth hormones.
But she says the message from this study is, assuming they are healthy and able, pregnant women who exercise are more than likely boosting the development of their baby’s motor skills.