Maternal exercise during pregnancy epigenetically improves the future health of a child, regardless of the parents’ weight

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It is never too late to exercise, even if you are pregnant. Not only will this benefit the mother by reducing her chances of developing gestational diabetes or other possible complications, it will also improve the overall health of the baby. New research shows that exercise may even prevent the transmission of certain metabolic disorders from overweight parents, and the results point to epigenetics.

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

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

DNA methylation is one of the most applicable and best-studied epigenetic mechanisms known to affect gene activity. It involves the covalent addition of a methyl group (-CH3) at the fifth position of cytosine, resulting in 5-methylcytosine (5-mC). DNA methylation changes are dynamic and can be altered by environmental stimuli. It can also remain stable and be passed on to future generations. This phenomenon is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, and it explains how certain acquired traits and conditions are passed down from generation to generation.

Previous studies on the role of DNA methylation in the deregulation of important metabolic pathways have shown that it is linked to an increased predisposition to obesity as well as to its co-morbidities. For example, maternal obesity in mice induced by a high fat diet causes hypermethylation of the Pgc-1α gene, a key regulator of energy metabolism. This gene has also been shown to be hypermethylated in subjects with type 2 diabetes.

“Most of the chronic diseases we are talking about today are known to have fetal origin,” said Zhen Yan, Ph.D., a senior working researcher at AVU Medical School. That is, the poor health conditions of the parents before and during pregnancy have negative consequences for the child, potentially through the chemical modification of genes.

Inspired by previous research indicating that regular exercise before and during pregnancy prevents offspring from developing early diabetes, Yan and her team asked the following questions: “What if an obese mother only exercised during pregnancy?” pregnancy, what if the father is obese? “He also wanted to assess how long the benefits would last, which other studies have yet to measure.

The team conducted their study in mice, feeding some a normal diet before and during pregnancy, while the rest were fed a high fat diet (HFD) to simulate obesity. Among the HFD mice, some were given access to a racing 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 between groups. Mothers and fathers in the HFD group had offspring vulnerable to metabolic disturbances, especially male offspring from sedentary HFD dams, who had a higher incidence of hyperglycemia and other metabolic problems in adulthood.

The big finding of the study was that maternal exercise performed only during pregnancy blocked one of the unwanted epigenetic changes acquired by HFD parents by passing on to the genetic makeup of their offspring. As the first study to show such evidence, it is hoped that further studies will confirm the benefits of exercise during pregnancy. If these findings hold true in humans, the implications will be significant in helping expectant mothers ensure their children grow up to live the best and healthiest lives possible.

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

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

Reference: Joshua Barney. Exercise during pregnancy can save children from health problems in adulthood. University of Virginia Health System, March 11, 2021.


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