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Exercise in Pregnancy May Boost Baby's Brain

Whether early advantage continues through childhood remains to be seen
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Kathleen Doheny

HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, Nov. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Moderate exercise during pregnancy may boost your baby's brain development, according to new research.

The study involving 18 moms-to-be and their babies found that "at 10 days, the children have a more mature brain when their mothers exercised during the pregnancy," said study researcher Elise Labonte-LeMoyne, a Ph.D. candidate in kinesiology at the University of Montreal.

Other studies have found health benefits for newborns and older children whose mothers worked out during pregnancy, the researcher said. And while animal studies have shown that exercise during pregnancy alters the fetal brain, she believes this is the first study to look at exercise's effect on human brain development.

For the study, which was scheduled for presentation Sunday at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, the researchers randomly assigned 10 pregnant women to an exercise group and eight to an inactive group at the start of their second trimester. The active group was told to engage in at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week at a moderate intensity -- meaning it should lead to at least a slight shortness of breath. They typically walked, jogged, swam or cycled, Labonte-LeMoyne said.

On average, the workout group clocked 117 minutes of exercise a week; the sedentary group 12 minutes weekly. Using an EEG, which records the brain's electrical activity, the researchers measured the newborns' brain activity while sleeping when 8 to 12 days old. They focused on the ability of the brain to recognize a new sound, Labonte-LeMoyne said, noting this reflects brain maturity.

The babies whose mothers exercised showed a slight advantage, the investigators found. "The brain is more efficient; it can recognize the sound with less effort," she explained.

The differences may translate to a language advantage later in life, she speculated. The researchers are continuing to track the children's development until age 1 to see if the advantage remains.

It's possible that exercise speeds up a process known as synaptic pruning, whereby extra nerve cells and connections are eliminated, helping brain development, Labonte-LeMoyne said.

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