Attention pregnant women: If you want to help your child get into Harvard, lace up those sneakers and exercise!
Hardly a week goes by without science delivering new evidence that exercise boosts the brain. Studies have linked exercise to brain health in senior citizens, middle-aged adults and kids. A trio of researchers from the University of Montreal figured the same might hold true for babies in utero as well.
Dave Ellemberg and Daniel Curnier, two professors from the university's Department of Kinesiology, and graduate student Elise Labonte-LeMoyne recruited women who were in their first trimester of pregnancy and randomly assigned them to an "active" or "sedentary" group. Women in the active group were advised to get at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise (using at least 55% of their maximal aerobic capacity) at least three times a week during their second and third trimesters, while women in the sedentary group pretty much took it easy.
After the babies were born, researchers tested their brains to see if they could spot any differences between infants whose mothers exercised and infants whose mothers were couch potatoes.
The researchers fitted the 8- to 12-day-old babies with specialized caps made up of 124 soft electrodes that detect electrical activity in the brain. (You can check them out in the photo gallery above.) Then they waited for the babies to fall asleep. Once they were snoozing, the scientists played a series of sounds – some new, some familiar – and measured the response of the infants' brains.
Sure enough, the babies whose mothers had exercised had more mature brains than the babies whose mothers were sedentary, according to study results presented Monday at the Neuroscience 2013 meeting in San Diego.
Though the women in the active group were asked to exercise for a minimum of 60 minutes per week, they wound up doing so for 117 minutes per week, on average. For the sake of comparison, the women in the sedentary group averaged only 12 minutes of moderate exercise per week, according to the study abstract.
"We are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child's future," Ellemberg said in a statement.
Ellemberg and his colleagues will continue to follow the babies until they are at least 1 year old, to see if the benefits of prenatal exercise are long-lasting. In addition to auditory memory, they are also evaluating their cognitive, motor and language development.