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Exercise and Pregnancy: Women Who Workout While Pregnant Have Healthier, Smarter Babies

As a teenager, Annie Murphy Paul had found peace of mind in running. But she hadn’t done much exercising since — at least not until she was pregnant and read about two studies that showed that exercise during pregnancy is good for mom and baby, and that it may even make baby smarter.  From her book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives

I lace up a pair of sneakers. I’m preparing to exercise, something I haven’t done much since I was—well, a teenager. When my feelings overwhelmed me, as they often did in those days, I found some peace of mind in running. Fresh from a fight with my mother or some misunderstanding with a boyfriend, tears still wet on my face, I would pull on my sneakers and head out the door, on my way to the elementary school down the road. Around the perimeter of empty playing fields, I ran as hard as I could, liking the jarring feeling of my feet striking the ground, glad that my breathing was too loud to hear the recent argument replaying in my head. Finally after three-quarters of an hour I would slow, wiping the sweat from my face with a forearm, checking gingerly on my anger and self-pity. Almost always, I’d find that I’d outrun them.

Once the dramas of adolescence passed I gave up the running habit, but now I consider taking it up again. I know from my reading that exercise can alleviate depression during pregnancy, as it does at other times in women’s lives. Research suggests that it may also reduce the risk of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, and help manage musculoskeletal problems like low back pain.

More surprisingly, exercise may also make the fetus healthier. Linda May is an assistant professor of anatomy at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. Using a device called a biomagnetometer, which measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the heart, May conducted a study of the effects of maternal exercise on the fetus. Comparing sedentary pregnant women to those who engage in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for at least thirty minutes three times a week, May found that fetuses show the same beneficial effects of cardiovascular training as do their physically active mothers: their heart rates are significantly lower, and their heart-rate variability is greater, than those of fetuses of mothers who don’t exercise. May is now investigating whether exercise during pregnancy could be used as a very early intervention to improve children’s health.

Exercise may even make the fetus smarter. In a recent widely praised book, Intelligence and How to Get It, University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett argues that IQ is more malleable than once believed. One of his principal pieces of advice for raising smarter kids: work out while you’re pregnant. Women who exercise while expecting tend to have larger babies who grow up to be smarter adults, Nisbett writes, perhaps because their brains are bigger.

And so I find myself at a gym a few blocks from my apartment, feeling acutely aware of my six-months-pregnant form as dozens of toned bodies bob and gyrate around me. I have my doubts, too, about the hulking treadmill I’m about to step on: can this piece of equipment give me what I once got from fresh air and hardpacked dirt? But as the treadmill starts up its steady hum, I discover that I like the high-tech machine and the pleasantly pliable reality it offers. I punch away at its buttons, making my jog faster and then slower, steeper and then flatter. As the manufactured miles slip past, as I scale the tilted-treadmill hills and descend its valleys, I find that for the moment I’ve left my gloom behind.

What makes us the way we are? Some say it’s the genes we inherit at conception. Others are sure it’s the environment we experience in childhood. But could it be that many of our individual characteristics — our health, our intelligence, our temperaments — are influenced by the conditions we encountered before birth? In her new book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Discover, and The Best American Science Writing, among other publications, explores the rich history of ideas about how we’re shaped before birth. You can follow her on Twitter @anniemurphypaul.



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