How Does Hitting the Gym Boost Baby’s Brain?

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ByAnisa Arsenault
Associate Editor
Updated
Mar 2017
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Photo: The Bump

We know there are so many benefits to exercising during pregnancy — it helps with aches and pains, you’ll probably sleep better and it can even make childbirth easier. Well, here’s one more reason you’ll want to stick with it: it can give a boost your newborn’s brain development.

A study out of the University of Montreal found that moderate exercise during pregnancy — just 20 minutes three times per week — was enough to improve a newborn’s brain function. And that boost is pretty big: eight-day-old newborns had brains as active as those of eight-month-olds.

Here’s why: “It’s as if the baby is also working out while his mom is working out,” said lead author Dr. Dave Ellemberg, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Montreal. When mom’s heart rate increases, the fetus’s does too. While the exact benefit of this elevated heart rate is unclear, researchers think that it might increase oxygen levels to baby’s brain, or boost levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. What is clear: babies who reaped the benefits of mom’s workout showed better plasticity in their brains, or better ability to make new connections.

To conduct the study, researchers followed 18 women in their second trimester, randomly placing ten in a workout group and eight in a sedentary group. All of the women had comparable health habits, education levels and socio-economic statuses. Eight to 12 days after the babies were born, doctors placed an electrode cap on their heads, measuring brain activity through an electroencephalogram (EEG). Specifically, they measured a sleeping baby’s response to high- and low-pitched sounds. A more “mature” response — found in the exercise babies — matched activity levels typically found in eight-month-old babies.

Knowing this puts pre-natal exercise in a whole new light, right?

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