Exercise in pregnancy improves health of obese mothers

Exercise immediately prior to and during pregnancy restores key tissues in the body, making them better able to manage blood sugar levels and lowering the risk of long term health problems.


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Worldwide, the prevalence of obesity is increasing rapidly. Obesity during gestation adversely affects maternal and infant wellbeing both during pregnancy and for long afterward.

A new study by the University of Cambridge suggests that a period of maternal exercise during pregnancy can improve the metabolic health of the obese mother and her offspring. The outcomes of this study strengthen the significance of an active lifestyle when planning pregnancy.

In the UK, recent findings have indicated that more than 50 % of women of reproductive age and more than 30% of pregnant women are overweight or obese. This is particularly concerning, as obesity during pregnancy has detrimental effects on the mother and infant both during pregnancy and in later life.

In obese women and experimental animals, the metabolic responses to pregnancy are often exaggerated, with a greater degree of hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia in late gestation compared to leaner mothers. Moreover, being overweight or obese during pregnancy increases the risk of complications in the mother, such as gestational diabetes, and predisposes both her and her infant to develop metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes in the years after pregnancy.

Exercise or physical activity is advocated as the nonpharmacological intervention to combat the metabolic dysfunction of obesity. In addition, it is known to improve entire body glucose tolerance, lipid handling, and insulin sensitivity and in this manner, decreases the danger of type‐2 diabetes and metabolic disorder in nonpregnant humans.

In the latest study, scientists fed mice a sugary, high-fat diet such that they become obese and then the obese mice were exercised. The mice exercised on a treadmill for 20 minutes a day for at least a week before their pregnancy and then for 12.5 minutes a day until day 17 of the pregnancy (pregnancy lasts for around 20 days in mice).

The researchers found that the beneficial effects on metabolic health in obese mothers related to changes in how molecules and cells communicate in maternal tissues during pregnancy.

Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow from the Centre for Trophoblast Research in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who co-led the study said, “A moderate level of exercise immediately before and then during pregnancy leads to important changes in different tissues of the obese mother, effectively making the tissues more like those seen in non-obese mothers.”

“We believe these changes may explain how exercise improves the metabolism of the obese mother during pregnancy and, in turn, may prevent her babies from developing early signs of type 2 diabetes after birth.”

The key organs of the mother that were affected by exercise were:

  • White adipose tissue – the fatty tissue that stores lipids and can be found in different parts around the body, including beneath the skin and around internal organs;
  • Skeletal muscle – muscle tissue that uses glucose and fats for contraction and movement;
  • The liver – the organ that stores, as well as syntheses lipids and glucose.

Co-lead Professor Susan Ozanne from the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge said, “Our findings reinforce the importance of having an active lifestyle and eating a healthy balanced diet when planning pregnancy and throughout for both the mother and her developing child.”

“This can be important in helping to reduce the risk of adverse health problems in the mother and of later health problems for her child.”

The study is published in the journal Physiological Reports.


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