Maternal Exercise During Pregnancy Epigenetically Improves Future Health of a Child, Regardless of Parental Weight

It’s never too late to exercise – even if you’re pregnant. Not only does it benefit the mother by reducing her chances of getting gestational diabetes or other possible complications, but it will also improve the baby’s total health. New research reveals that exercise could even prevent certain metabolic disorders from being passed on from overweight parents, and the findings point to epigenetics.

Women have always been
encouraged to eat
and maintain
a healthy weight during pregnancy
. But many times, the
mother is already overweight before conception, and the father may be as well. Unfortunately,
children born to obese parents have a higher risk of developing metabolic disorders
like diabetes, kidney damage, and heart disease later on in life. Besides,
these children will most likely fall into the obese category as adults
themselves, passing the same vulnerability on to their own offspring in a vicious
cycle of transgenerational disease transmission.

However, expecting
moms who are overweight don’t have to panic that it’s too late to make up for
bad habits. Getting physically active during their pregnancy can help prevent
complications and benefit the long-term health of their children. According to
a study out of the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine, exercise
during gestation can actually protect the growing embryo from acquiring the harmful
effects of parental obesity by offsetting abnormal DNA methylation transmission
to the offspring.

DNA methylation is one of the most applicable and well-studied epigenetic mechanisms known to affect gene activity. It comprises the covalent addition of a methyl group (-CH3) onto the fifth position of cytosine, resulting in 5-methylcytosine (5-mC). DNA methylation modifications are dynamic and can be altered by environmental stimuli. It can also remain stable and pass on to future generations. This phenomenon is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, and it explains how some acquired traits and conditions are handed down through generations.

Prior studies investigating
DNA methylation’s role in the deregulation of important metabolic pathways have
found that it relates to an increased predisposition for obesity along with its
comorbidities. For instance, maternal obesity in mice induced by a diet high in
fat causes hypermethylation of the Pgc-1? gene, a key regulator of energy
metabolism. This gene has also been found to be hypermethylated in subjects
with type 2 diabetes.

“Most of the chronic diseases that we talk
about today are known to have a fetal origin,” said Zhen Yan, Ph.D., a top
exercise researcher at UVA’s School of Medicine. 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

Inspired by previous research indicating that regular
exercise done before and during pregnancy saves the offspring from developing early-onset
diabetes, Yan and his team posed the questions, “what if an obese mother
exercises only during pregnancy, and what if the father is obese?”  He also wanted to assess how long the
benefits would last, something other studies have not yet measured.

The team conducted their study on mice, feeding
some a normal chow diet before and during pregnancy, while the others were fed
a high-fat diet (HFD) to simulate obesity. Of the HFD mice, some were given
access to a running wheel for voluntary exercise only during pregnancy, while
others were kept sedentary without access to much activity.

The results showed significant differences in
metabolic health and gene activity among the groups. The mothers and fathers in
the HFD group had offspring that were vulnerable to metabolic disorders,
especially the male offspring of the sedentary HFD dams, which had higher
incidences of high blood sugar and other metabolic problems as adults.

The big take-a-way from the study was that
maternal exercise done solely during pregnancy blocked any of the adverse epigenetic
modifications HFD parents acquired from transmitting to their offspring’s
genetic makeup. As the first study to show evidence of this kind, it is hoped
that more studies will confirm the benefits of exercise during pregnancy. If
these findings hold true in humans, the implications will be significant for
helping expecting mothers ensure that their children grow up to live their best
and healthiest life possible.

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

Source: Rhianna
C., et al. Exercise during
pregnancy mitigates negative effects of parental obesity on metabolic function
in adult mouse offspring
. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2021; 130
(3): 605.

Reference: Joshua
Barney. Exercise During
Pregnancy May Save Kids From Health Problems as Adults
University of Virginia Health System, March 11, 2021.

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