Pregnant women who work out may help boost child's brain development

| Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, 7:24 p.m.

Being a native of India, Gayatri Sharma didn't need much convincing to take prenatal yoga classes as she cares for her baby bump, swollen with a baby boy.

“I feel good,” says Sharma, 29, of Squirrel Hill, as she prepares for neck rolls, warrior poses and other stretches. She says the classes give her an “ah factor.”

Meanwhile, Patricia Schmitt, the instructor of the six-week prenatal yoga series at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC in Oakland, tells her stretching students to envision a smooth, relaxed and happy labor.

It's not just the moms benefiting from the exercise; they may be nurturing little Einsteins in their wombs.

Pregnant women eat for two, as people often tell them. According to a recent Canadian study, they also exercise for two.

Though many studies have demonstrated the brain-boosting power of exercise for adults and children, the study from the University of Montreal's Department of Kinesiology suggests that in-utero babies get the same benefits. Professor Dave Ellemberg and two colleagues studied women in their first trimester of pregnancy and assigned them to either an active or sedentary group. The sedentary mothers-to-be mostly relaxed (and averaged 12 minutes of weekly exercise) during their second and third trimesters, while the active ones were advised to do moderate exercise for at least 20 minutes, a minimum of three times a week, during their second and third trimesters. On average, the active women exercised for 117 minutes per week.

Eight to 12 days after the babies were born, researchers fitted them with caps made of 124 soft electrodes to monitor electrical brain activity. When the babies fell asleep, the researchers played a series of sounds and observed the response of the babies' brains. The infants of the exercisers showed more mature brains than the inactive mothers' infants, according to the study's authors, who could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Draion Burch, an OB/GYN who delivers babies at Magee, believes it: Unborn babies definitely benefit from exercise, like the mothers do. Exercise produces brain-boosting neurotrophic factors similar to endorphins, he says.

“It's believable that this chemical can cross the placenta and make the baby have better brain function,” says Burch, who practices at eight offices, mostly in the East End and eastern suburbs.

Sharma, when told about this study, smiled and replied: “It was nice to know that.”

Burch advises pregnant patients to exercise for 30 minutes on most days. The physical activity helps improve pregnancy woes such as constipation, backaches and decreased energy and moodiness. The exercise also may prevent gestational diabetes and helps women improve their muscle tone and sleep better. The physical fitness even helps women go through the labor process and helps them lose weight after birth, Burch says.

Many previously idle patients who become pregnant begin an exercise program on Burch's recommendation. But moderation is the key: Some fitness-buff patients need to slow down: You can run for maybe 30 minutes a day, but don't train for a marathon when you're pregnant, he says.

Amanda Sivek, 30, of Oakland, enjoyed being a bicyclist — but now that she is about seven months into her pregnancy, it's too uncomfortable to ride. Now, Sivek is taking prenatal yoga classes at Magee.

“It really helps with my balance,” Sivek says about yoga, describing how pregnancy shifts the body's center of gravity.

Could she be nurturing a little genius in the womb, thanks to the exercise? “That's very cool,” she says about the possibility.

Gretchen North, associate vice president of healthy living for the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, agrees that pregnant women should exercise, but not exert themselves too much. They also must guard their delicate bellies, North and Burch say.

The YMCA offers occasional exercise classes specifically for pregnant women at different Pittsburgh-area locations, North says. Many female Y members begin fitness programs when they become pregnant, as part of a health overhaul that includes eating more healthfully.

“You're eating nutritiously for two and wanting to engage in activities that are going to be supportive for another life,” North says. “Just the awareness that you are carrying another life adds a layer of responsibility. ... You're more than just yourself.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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