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Born to run? Love of exercise may start in the womb

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If you see me on the street and I am running, there is a good chance you should be running as well, because something dangerous is coming. I don’t run, I hate to run, I loathe running, did I mention I don’t like to run? Maybe it’s all the running I did in the military, or if a new study is correct, it may have to do with my mother. Which is good, because now I can blame someone else for my hatred of running.

Researchers have discovered that female mice that voluntarily exercise during pregnancy have offspring that are more physically active as adults. Are we then assuming that if your mother was a mouse, this applies to you? Well, not quite, researchers noted that although the study was done on mice, the results agree with several human studies.

Several observational studies in the past have shown that women who are physically active when they are pregnant have children who tend to be more physically active. So if you like to sit on the couch more than anything else you may have gotten it from your lovely mother. However, these results could be attributed to the mothers’ influence on the children after they were born, active parents make for an active child. Or it could be genetic, mothers could pass to their offspring a predisposition to be physically active; that is where this particular study comes in.

“Our study in a mouse model is important because we can take all those effects out of the equation. We studied genetically identical mice and carefully controlled the amount of physical activity of the mothers before pregnancy,” said Dr. Robert Waterland, senior author.

To help eliminate differences the team selected female mice that all enjoyed running. Then they divided them into two groups. Very simply, one group was allowed access to running wheels before and during pregnancy, and the other got to do a whole lot of nothing.

During early pregnancy, the females with running wheels ran an average of 10 kilometers — or a little over 6 miles a night — making most runners look like couch potatoes. As expected the mice ran less as the pregnancy progressed, but even by the beginning of the third trimester, they ran (or walked/waddled) about 3 kilometers — or just shy of 2 miles — each night, making me wonder what my excuse is… but moving on.

The researchers found that the mice born to mothers that exercised during pregnancy were about 50 percent more physically active than those born to mothers who did not exercise. Importantly, their increased activity persisted into later adulthood. This wasn’t the only difference, it also improved their ability to lose fat during a three-week voluntary exercise program.

So yet another thing that mothers-to-be need to worry about, they need to exercise. The findings, unfortunately, support the idea that being active during pregnancy influences fetal brain development, making the offspring tend to be more physically active throughout life.

“Although most people assume that an individual’s tendency to be physical active is determined by genetics, our results clearly show that the environment can play an important role during fetal development,” Waterland said.

This might actually help explain the obesity epidemic. As technology became more prevalent in the home we have eliminated the need for physical activity on a regular basis.  If these findings can be confirmed in humans, it could give us a way to counteract the worldwide issue.

Unfortunately, the mice had a running wheel and not a tiny set of barbells. So for those of us — myself included — who enjoy powerlifting, weightlifting, or anything involving not having to run the study is silent on how that may affect offspring. While there isn’t a huge powerlifting pregnant ladies group (at least that I am aware of), the effects could be different when compared to running.

Weightlifting aside, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), insufficient physical activity is one of the 10 leading risk factors for death worldwide, so while we can save you from most virus’ and bacteria, we cannot apparently save you from yourself… yet.

So while your mom might not have been a mouse, it is probably a good idea that we just take it that exercise is important while pregnant or just in general. Experts already recommend that, in the absence of complications, pregnant women get 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise a day, no running wheel needed, although it may be fun in short intervals (or for children, don’t judge, you know you were thinking it too).

“I think our results offer a very positive message,” said Waterland.

“If expectant mothers know that exercise is not only good for them but also may offer lifelong benefits for their babies, I think they will be more motivated to get moving.”

Sorry ladies, it’s not like research into pregnancy hasn’t made the recommendations complicated enough as it is. No more Netflix binging for awhile, but if your significant other gives you trouble, you could always make them exercise with you.

Eclarinal, J., Zhu, S., Baker, M., Piyarathna, D., Coarfa, C., Fiorotto, M., & Waterland, R. (2016). Maternal exercise during pregnancy promotes physical activity in adult offspring The FASEB Journal DOI: 10.1096/fj.201500018R

4 responses

  1. meghanmcgee

    Very important info! More and more research on pregnancy and the developmental period are proving this time point to be essential for predicting (and preventing) future disease risk.


    April 5, 2016 at 3:55 pm

  2. Alex

    This is definitely an interesting study. There is evidence that specific genes are related to specific behavior, so running could be just that. A mother’s health, diet, and smoking and drinking habits during pregnancy can greatly influence her child’s development, especially the brain development, so it makes sense that a behavior that influences that diet and health could be passed down to the child.


    April 11, 2016 at 10:06 am

  3. Haley

    I agree that this is a very interesting study, though I think there needs to be more research done to broaden the spectrum a bit. The mice that loved to run were separated into two groups – one’s who had a wheel to exercise with and one’s who did not. This means that the mice who loved to run were deprived of their exercise, which in turn could influence their mood and behavior during pregnancy, as well as just making them more unhealthy in general. In humans, at the very least, mood and stress levels are very important for the fetus during development and after being born.

    Essentially, my concern is that maybe the baby mice who had mother’s that were deprived of exercise lacked the motivation and ability to lose weight because of the stress that was put on the mother.

    It would be interesting to see this study conducted with a group of pregnant mice who all had the same access to a running wheel, but were monitored to keep track of those who exercised the most and those who exercised the least. Then the baby mice could be monitored and tested as they grew to see if the amount of exercise their mother’s participated in had any effect on their own activity levels and ability to shed and keep off weight.


    April 14, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    • That is a great idea. The researchers were planning on a follow up study (which will probably become multiple studies) so hopefully they will expand on the research more.

      You obviously thought a lot about how you might expand on the research, if you were so inclined, you could reach out to the authors of the study and offer them your take. If you’ve never done it before, I highly recommend it.


      April 16, 2016 at 11:24 am

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