Exercise during pregnancy greatly increases the benefits of breast milk. Researchers have found that even moderate levels of exercise can lead to incredible long-term health effects for babies.
According to the study, expectant mothers who exercise produce more of a compound in breast milk that reduces a child’s lifelong risk of serious health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Study lead author Kristin Stanford is a researcher at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an associate professor of Physiology and Cell Biology at the Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute.
“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,” said Professor Stanford. “Because there is evidence that breast milk plays a major role, we wanted to isolate the effects of breast milk on offspring health.”
The team also included experts from UC San Diego, Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, and the Joslin Diabetes Center.
For the investigation, the researchers examined mice born from sedentary mothers and fed them milk from mothers who were active throughout pregnancy.
The study revealed that the health benefits of exercise during pregnancy were transferred to the offspring. This shows that the positive effects were passed through breast milk and not simply through traits that were inherited genetically.
In a separate trial, the researchers followed 150 pregnant and postpartum women using activity trackers and found that those who got more steps each day had increased levels of a compound in their breast milk known as 3SL, which appears to be responsible for the remarkable health benefits.
“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,” said Professor Stanford. “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.”
Many women are unable to breastfeed, while others experience complications that limit their activity during pregnancy. The researchers are investigating the potential to isolate 3SLin breast milk and add it to infant formula.
“This human milk oligosaccharide had a significant impact on offspring health,” said Professor Stanford. “Being able to add this into formula could provide benefits for babies when women aren’t able to breastfeed.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Metabolism.