Women who do moderate exercise during pregnancy may help their babies avoid diabetes, obesity and heart disease. That is because physical activity before giving birth could help increase an important compound that boosts the protective effects of breast milk.
The new study, published in the journal Nature Metabolism, analyzed how breast milk helps transfer health benefits from physically fit and pregnant animals and humans. Researchers hope the findings would guide the development of new products that can protect babies and children from life-long diseases.
“We’ve done studies in the past that have shown that maternal exercise improves the health of offspring, but in this study, we wanted to begin to answer the question of why,” Kristin Stanford, lead study author and a researcher at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said in a statement. “Because there is evidence that breast milk plays a major role, we wanted to isolate the effects of breast milk on offspring health.”
For the study, Stanford and her colleagues first observed how breast milk works in newborn mice. The researchers provided milk from mice that were active during pregnancy to pups born from sedentary mothers.
Results showed that breast milk of active mice helped boost the health of babies of sedentary mothers. The team then moved to 150 pregnant and postpartum women to see if the humans can get the same benefits.
Participants were followed using activity trackers as they exercise during and after pregnancy. The researchers found that the women who had more steps per day had a higher amount of the beneficial compound called 3SL in their breast milk, which potentially provides the protective effects to babies.
“The increase in 3SL [was] not necessarily related to exercise intensity, so even moderate exercise like a daily walk is enough to reap the benefits,” Stanford said. “Exercise is also great for your overall health during and after pregnancy, so anything you can do to get moving is going to benefit both you and your baby.”
Researchers aim to continue the study to find a way to isolate the 3SL compound from the breast milk of active moms and to use it on new infant formula. Stanford said the effort would help babies of women who are unable to breastfeed.