Exercise During Pregnancy May Save Kids From Health Problems as Adults

Summary: Mouse study reveals maternal exercise during pregnancy reduced the transmission of metabolic disorders from obese parents to the offspring, whether the disorder was apparent in the father or mother.

Source: University of Virginia

Exercise during pregnancy may let mothers significantly reduce their children’s chances of developing diabetes and other metabolic diseases later in life, new research suggests.

A study in lab mice has found that maternal exercise during pregnancy prevented the transmission of metabolic diseases from an obese parent – either mother or father – to child. If the finding holds true in humans, it will have “huge implications” for helping pregnant women ensure their children live the healthiest lives possible, the researchers report in a new scientific paper.

This means that one day soon, a woman’s first trip to the doctor after conceiving might include a prescription for an exercise program.

“Most of the chronic diseases that we talk about today are known to have a fetal origin. This is to say that the parents’ poor health conditions prior to and during pregnancy have negative consequences to the child, potentially through chemical modification of the genes,” said researcher Zhen Yan, PhD, a top exercise expert at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

“We were inspired by our previous mouse research implicating that regular aerobic exercise for an obese mother before and during pregnancy can protect the child from early onset of diabetes. In this study, we asked the questions, what if an obese mother exercises only during pregnancy, and what if the father is obese?”

Exercise and Pregnancy

Scientists have known that exercise during pregnancy helps lead to healthy babies, reducing the risk of pregnancy complications and premature delivery. But Yan, the director of the Center for Skeletal Muscle Research at UVA’s Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center, wanted to see if the benefits continued throughout the children’s lives. And his work, both previous and new, suggests it does.

To determine that, Yan and his collaborators studied lab mice and their offspring. Some of the adult mice were fed typical mouse chow before and during pregnancy, while other were fed a high-fat, high-calorie diet to simulate obesity.

Some receiving the high-fat diet before mating had access to a voluntary running wheel only during pregnancy, where they could run all they liked, while others did not, meaning they remained sedentary.

This shows a pregnant woman's belly
This means that one day soon, a woman’s first trip to the doctor after conceiving might include a prescription for an exercise program. Image is in the public domain.

The results were striking: Both mothers and fathers in the high-fat group could predispose their offspring to metabolic disorders. In particular, male offspring of the sedentary mothers on high-fat diets were much more likely to develop high blood sugar and other metabolic problems in adulthood.

To better understand what was happening, the researchers looked at the adult offspring’s metabolism and chemical (epigenetic) modification of DNA. They found there were significant differences in metabolic health and how active certain genes were among the different groups of offspring, suggesting that the negative effects of parental obesity, although different between the father and the mother, last throughout the life of the offspring.

The good news is that maternal exercise only during pregnancy prevented a host of “epigenetic” changes that affect the workings of the offspring’s genes, the researchers found. Maternal exercise, they determined, completely blocked the negative effects of either mother’s or father’s obesity on the offspring.

The results, they say, provide the first evidence that maternal exercise only during pregnancy can prevent the transmission of metabolic diseases from parent to child.

“The take-home message is that it is not too late to start to exercise if a mother finds herself pregnant. Regular exercise will not only benefit the pregnancy and labor but also the health of the baby for the long run,” Yan said.

“This is more exciting evidence that regular exercise is probably the most promising intervention that will help us deter the pandemic of chronic diseases in the aging world, as it can disrupt the vicious cycle of parents-to-child transmission of diseases.”

Findings Published

The researchers have published their findings in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The study’s authors were Rhianna C. Laker, Ali Altnta, Travis S. Lillard, Mei Zhang, Jessica J. Connelly, Olivia L. Sabik, Suna Onengut, Stephen S. Rich, Charles R. Farber, Romain Barrès and Yan.

Funding: The research was supported by an American Heart Association post-doctoral fellowship (14POST20450061) to Laker.

About this health research news

Source: University of Virginia
Contact: Josh Barney – University of Virginia
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Exercise during pregnancy mitigates negative effects of parental obesity on metabolic function in adult mouse offspring” by Zhen Yan et al. Journal of Applied Psychology


Exercise during pregnancy mitigates negative effects of parental obesity on metabolic function in adult mouse offspring

Parental health influences embryonic development and susceptibility to disease in the offspring. We investigated whether maternal voluntary running during gestation could protect the offspring from the adverse effects of maternal or paternal high-fat diet (HF) in mice.

We performed transcriptomic and whole-genome DNA methylation analyses in female offspring skeletal muscle and targeted DNA methylation analysis of the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ coactivator-1α (Pgc-1α) promoter in both male and female adult offspring.

Maternal HF resulted in impaired metabolic homeostasis in male offspring at 9 mo of age, whereas both male and female offspring were negatively impacted by paternal HF. Maternal exercise during gestation completely mitigated these metabolic impairments.

Female adult offspring from obese male or female parent had skeletal muscle transcriptional profiles enriched in genes regulating inflammation and immune responses, whereas maternal exercise resulted in a transcriptional profile similar to offspring from normal chow (NC)-fed parents. Maternal HF, but not paternal HF, resulted in hypermethylation of the Pgc-1α promoter at CpG-260, which was abolished by maternal exercise.

These findings demonstrate the negative consequences of maternal and paternal HF for the offspring’s metabolic outcomes later in life possibly through different epigenetic mechanisms, and maternal exercise during gestation mitigates the negative consequences.

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