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Lack of Exercise During Pregnancy Could Predispose Child to Obesity

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

exercise during pregnancy

Story at-a-glance -

  • Past research supported exercise during pregnancy to reduce risks during delivery and after birth for obese women; more recent data show babies born to mice that exercised during pregnancy also had greater brown fat activity, making them less prone to obesity
  • You have white fat, where energy is stored and hormones secreted, and brown fat, which burns calories. Subcutaneous fat is deposited directly under your skin while visceral fat wraps around your internal organs
  • Decades of research have found exercise during pregnancy is safe for the mother and baby, helps ease the pain during labor and delivery, and improves a new mother’s ability to meet the demands of a growing infant
  • You may be able to increase your brown fat activity and stores as an adult by exposing yourself to cold temperatures, using moderate to high intensity exercise and getting eight hours of quality sleep
  • Following my optimized nutrition plan gives you a strong foundation while pregnant. A nutritious diet helps feed your growing baby, reduces your potential for gaining too much weight and establishes healthy habits for you and your growing family after your baby is born

During pregnancy, a woman is responsible for both her own health and the health of her unborn child. Multiple studies have demonstrated the health of your growing baby is dependent not only on genetics, but also on the environment in which it's developing. Sometimes small changes during pregnancy may have a profound effect on life after birth.

For instance, in one study tracing genes in over 21,500 people, researchers found those genes not transmitted to the children also had a major effect on education and health.1,2 Another study evaluated how a mother’s psychological state affected the developing baby and found babies who developed best experienced a consistent environment before and after birth.3

In other words, if moms were healthy before and after birth, or depressed before and after birth, those children did better than those born of mothers who were healthy before birth and depressed afterward. Maternal obesity has been linked to an increased chance a child may experience asthma. Second-hand smoke has also been tied to asthma and breathing problems, even when experienced before birth.4

Low levels of vitamin D may increase the risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia,5,6 and low birth weight. Outdoor air pollution may increase the risk of low birth weight and impaired lung development and function during childhood. A recent animal study has now found offspring born to mice made to exercise during pregnancy had a lower risk of weight gain after birth.7

Exercise During Pregnancy May Reduce Your Child's Risk of Obesity

The current research builds on past studies evaluating the effects of exercise during pregnancy to prevent gestational diabetes and improve outcomes in women who are overweight and obese during pregnancy.8 The featured study was presented at the American Physiological Society’s annual meeting.

The scientists recommend women, whether or not they are currently obese or have diabetes, should exercise regularly during pregnancy as it appears to benefit the future metabolic health of their children.9 Although previous studies have shown exercise by obese [pregnant women] benefits their offspring, this is the first research to demonstrate that the same is true when nonobese females exercise,” a press release from the American Physiological Society said.10

In this animal study, the researchers encouraged pregnant mice to perform 60 minutes of moderate exercise every morning. Offspring born to mice that did not exercise were used as a control group. After weaning, the mice born to the group who exercised had increased levels of protein associated with greater brown adipose tissue.11

The researchers also found the offspring in the exercise group had higher body temperatures, indicating the brown fat was more efficient than in those who were born to mice who did not exercise. This higher thermogenic function has been shown to prevent metabolic dysfunction.

The mice then followed a high-fat diet for eight weeks after weaning. Those in the exercise group gained less weight and demonstrated fewer symptoms of metabolic disease. Based on these findings, the researchers plan additional studies, hoping to gain a better understanding of the protective biological mechanisms involved.12

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Exercise During Pregnancy Is Important and Safe

Although there are considerable physiological and psychological changes occurring during pregnancy that tend to promote sedentary behaviors, lack of activity is associated with an elevated risk of high blood pressure, greater weight gain, gestational diabetes and a long-term risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease.

One reason women may experience difficulty getting adequate amounts of exercise is the increased amount of fatigue, nausea and complications they may experience during pregnancy. Some of the first studies on the relationship between physical activity and improved birth outcomes were published in the early 20th century.13

Prenatal exercise programs were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s with the goal of easing labor and delivery. In 1949, the U.S. Children's Bureau published a standard recommendation for physical activity in the absence of maternal complications. Those recommendations included housework, gardening, daily walks and swimming, with a recommendation to avoid participation in sports.

In the 1970s and 1980s recommendations were highly specific and focused on improving fitness while easing labor and delivery. By 2002, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology updated their guidelines and recommended 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity during most days of the week.14

For the first time guidelines also included vigorous-intensity physical activity for women who habitually engaged in this type of activity before pregnancy. Researchers continue to find physical activity recommendations during pregnancy resulted in clear advantages for both mother and child.15

Exercise tends to reduce excessive weight gain, the risk of cesarean section, reduces lower back pain and urinary incontinence, while increasing the incidence of vaginal deliveries.16 Unfortunately, Maria Perales, lead author of a study from the Department of Physical Activity and Sports Science at Camilo José Cela University found:17

"The percentage of women who meet the recommendations for exercise during pregnancy is very low. This is due in part to uncertainty about what type of exercise should be recommended and which should be avoided."

Exercise May Increase Brown Adipose Tissue in Offspring

Researchers in the featured study found the experimental group increased the amount of brown adipose tissue found in their offspring, a positive effect of exercise. Although you might think of body fat as being something bad, there are two different types and several places where they it may be found.

White fat is much more plentiful than brown fat and has the job of storing energy and producing hormones secreted into your bloodstream. However, those who are lean tend to have more brown fat than those who are obese.18 Researchers have found that, when stimulated, brown fat burns calories.

Children also have more brown fat than adults, which is what helps keep them warm. When activated, brown fat burns white fat.19 Your body stores fat directly under the skin, called subcutaneous fat, or wrapped deeply around your inner organs, called visceral fat. Belly fat is a combination of visceral and subcutaneous fat.

Researchers have investigated the potential use of brown fat as a therapeutic intervention for obesity and diabetes. The thermogenic capacity of even small amounts of brown fat may produce disproportionately large results.20

Scientists have reported transplantation of brown adipose tissue in mice could reverse anabolic abnormalities.21,22 However, you may increase your brown fat stores without resorting to pills or surgical procedures.

How to Increase Your Brown Fat

Thanks to improving technology, researchers are better able to locate and study brown fat, improving your ability to determine ways to boost your existing brown fat activity and increase stores. Research has already determined several ways you may improve your ability to generate and use energy through brown fat thermogenesis, including the following.

Temperature — Most crave an effortless state in which the environment meets your physical needs. Western living has enabled many to achieve this through indoor plumbing, central heating and artificial lighting. In fact, most people spend only a few minutes outside every day.23

Exposure to cold temperatures may help you burn body fat, increase mitochondrial biogenesis and increase the production of norepinephrine in your brain. Interestingly, cold temperature helps you think more clearly24 and perform tasks better.

Cooler temperatures are also better for sleep as your body's core temperature naturally drops as you're falling asleep.25 Research has found male animals that spent time in lower temperatures before mating produce offspring with more active brown fat tissue.26

Exposure to cold changes some functions in your body to help you better prepare for the next time you're exposed to cold weather. This acclimatization is the result of your body's ability to generate more heat.

Researchers have demonstrated when men are exposed to cooler temperatures, they increase the amount of brown fat in their body and enjoy a corresponding boost in metabolism.27

To activate your own brown fat, consider using an ice pack on your upper back and chest for 30 minutes each day, taking cold showers or immersing yourself in a cold bath to your waist for 10 minutes three times each week.

Exercise — In 2012, Harvard scientists28 discovered a previously unknown hormone, irisin, was created in the working muscles in mice and would then jump-start the process of triggering white fat into brown. Scientists questioned whether this hormone might have an effect on human cells as well.

In a study published in the Journal of Physiology,29 researchers from the University of Florida used white fat tissue from women who had undergone breast reduction surgery and brown fat tissue from those who had surgery to treat kidney cancer.

The cells were bathed in irisin for four days, during which the scientists checked the levels of a protein, UCP1, known to contribute to the change of white fat to brown fat. White fat exposed to moderate or high doses of irisin began producing significantly more UCP1 cells, but the hormone had no effect on brown fat.

This suggested moderate to high intensity exercise, which produces moderate to high doses of irisin, may also contribute to developing brown fat stores.

Sleep — Sleep is highly influenced by the hormone melatonin, and research shows melatonin also has an effect on how your body uses brown fat. This may answer, in part, why weight loss efforts often stall when you don't get enough quality sleep.

In a study published in the Journal of Pineal Research,30 data demonstrated rats with higher levels of melatonin had more activated brown fat and higher calorie burning capabilities. Without affecting food intake or activity, melatonin appeared to help lower the obesity levels in rats.

Eating These Foods May Help Nourish You and Your Baby During Pregnancy

Exercise is an important part of taking care of your body and the health of your unborn child. Your nutrition is as important, since there's rarely a more demanding time during a woman's life than pregnancy. Your intake of nutrients are needed to keep your body running, and nourish and support your rapidly growing baby.

Good nutrition is crucial at all stages of development, and even before conception. My optimized nutrition plan offers a succinct and easy-to-follow strategy for getting all types of foods and nutrients supporting a healthy pregnancy.

It's important to focus on minimizing processed foods and increasing your intake of vegetables, healthy fats and high-quality sources of protein. If your diet to this point has been filled with processed and packaged foods, you may think cooking with whole food will be more difficult or not as tasty. Thankfully, you'd be wrong!

A quick search through our recipe section will help you find main meals, snacks, breakfast foods and desserts to meet your growing nutritional needs in a healthy and satisfying way. For a shortlist of important foods while you're pregnant, see my previous article, "Top Foods to Eat When You're Pregnant."