The benefits of running and exercise during pregnancy have long been studied: Mothers who exercise have better overall mental health and it helps reduce the risk of gestational diabetes. Inspirational mothers like Olympic track athlete Alysia Montano and marathoners Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe have busted the myth that running during a healthy pregnancy is selfish and unsafe. But, if you needed another reason to lace up, emerging research from the Washington University School of Medicine recently published in the April 2015 issue of Nature suggests that running during pregnancy may guard against serious fetal heart defects in infants.
“Hearts develop so soon after conception that the damage is done before we even know it’s started,” says leader researcher Dr. Patrick Y. Jay. While scientists recognize that older mothers are at a greater risk than younger mothers of having babies with congenital heart disease (affecting approximately one in every 100 babies in the US), it’s never been fully understood whether it’s the age of the woman or her eggs that that increases the odds.
Using female mice genetically bred to have a high risk of having babies with heart defects, scientists transplanted young ovaries (containing young eggs) into the older mice and old ovaries into the younger mice. They determined the age of the ovaries and eggs ultimately played no role in the mother’s risk of delivering offspring with heart defects. Suspecting activity levelsmay be a factor, scientists allowed half the mice (both older and younger) to run at will several weeks before coming pregnant (while the other half stayed sedentary). When the mice had their babies, the older mice that could run had babies with far few fewer heart defects than the sedentary mice. More than 20 percent of the sedentary mice had babies with heart defects.
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