Exercise During Pregnancy May Boost Newborns’ Physical Coordination

More motivation to find a prenatal workout that works for you.
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profile picture of Laurie Ulster
Contributing Writer
September 4, 2019
pregnant woman exercising and walking with yoga mat
Image: Getty Images

Thanks to a new gestation study, we can add one more to the growing list of reasons to exercise while pregnant: Your newborn may be more physically coordinated, developing advanced motor skills that could have long-lasting effects.

It’s not news that exercising during pregnancy is good for you—it can lower your risk of conditions like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, reduce the need for a c-section and strength your body for childbirth and parenthood. Several studies have also found that prenatal workouts can mean big benefits for baby too, boosting brain activity and toddler language skills.

Now, a new study has revealed that when women exercise during pregnancy, their newborns may become physically coordinated earlier than other babies, an advantage that could have a long-term impact—especially when considering that poor coordination in early childhood often leads to a higher risk of obesity in adolescence and adulthood.

Linda E. May, PhD, an associate professor of foundational science and research at East Carolina University, conducted a study in 2011 showing that infants whose mothers exercised during pregnancy developed stronger and better-conditioned cardiac muscles. She decided to explore whether coordination could also be affected.

For this most recent study, she and her fellow scientists looked at 71 healthy pregnant women carrying single babies, most of them still in the first trimester. They divided them into two groups and had one of the groups exercise for 50-minute supervised sessions, allowing for preferences (and working around discomforts). The women rode stationary bicycles, did aerobics, jogged, walked briskly—whatever was best for them.

The women in both groups all gave birth to healthy, normal-weight babies. A month after each birth, the women returned to the lab and brought their new babies, who were tested on head control, fist-making, rolling over, arm-thrusting and other fun baby feats. They found the babies whose mothers had exercised performed better on almost every test, indicating more advanced motor skills—especially the girls, who often lag behind boys at that age. They even had more coordination than the boys in the study. The babies had more control as well, from how they gripped things to rolling over.

The next step for May is determining exactly how the mothers’ workouts accomplished this. She plans to examine whether the babies got more oxygen, blood and nutrients from the placenta during exercise, or if the babies’ bodies sensed the exertions and released growth hormones and other biochemicals. Researchers aren’t sure yet, nor are they 100 percent certain if the mothers’ interactions with their babies after birth had some effect on their motor control.

If you’re pregnant and looking for ways to exercise (not always the easiest, we know), check out these prenatal workouts designed with your particular trimester in mind.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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