Physical Activity During Pregnancy Tied to Improved Lung Function in Babies

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Being physically active during pregnancy may have benefits for infant lung function, according to new research.

The study, presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress, found a link between lower lung function in babies born to physically inactive mothers compared to those born to active mothers.

“Impaired infant lung function is associated with childhood wheezing and asthma and lower lung function later in life,” Dr. Hrefna Katrin Gudmundsdottir, a pediatrician and PhD student at the University of Oslo, Norway, said in her presentation.

“Women who are physically active during the pregnancy have a lower risk of cesarean delivery, preterm birth, and having infants that are small or large for gestational age. These factors may be associated with lung function and respiratory health, but it is not known if physical activity in pregnancy affects infant lung function,” she noted.

To investigate, the researchers studied 814 babies (48.8% girls) and their mothers from the PreventADALL birth cohort.

Lung function was assessed when the babies were about three months old by measuring normal breathing in calm, awake infants.

Based on self-reported data, the women were categorized as inactive, fairly or highly active during their pregnancy. “For women reporting moderate or high-intensity exercise, the median number of active minutes per week was 120,” Dr. Gudmundsdottir reported.

The main outcome for the study was the ratio between the time to Peak Tidal Expiratory Flow and Expiratory time (tPTEF/tE). A low tPTEF/tE means there is a limitation in the flow of exhaled breath.

The average tPTEF/tE measurement for all 814 infants was 0.391.

The 290 babies of inactive mothers had the lowest average tPTEF/tE (0.387) and the 299 babies of very active mothers the highest average tPTEF/tE (0.394). This difference was not statistically significant.

However, Dr. Gudmundsdottir noted that while tPTEF/tE as a continuum was not significantly associated with maternal physical activity, infants of inactive versus active mothers had significantly higher odds of having a tPTEF/tE less than 0.25 (which indicates low lung function) in both univariate (odds ratio, 2.15; 95% confidence interval, 1.19 to 3.92) and multivariate analysis (OR, 2.18; 95% CI: 1.18 to 4.06).

“Although there is no clear definition for ‘low’ lung function, studies, including from our own group, have found that infants with a tPTEF/tE measurement of less than 0.20 shortly after birth were more likely to have a history of asthma by the age of 10 years. Also, children with lung function in the bottom 50% of the group were both more likely to have current asthma at 10 years and to have a history of asthma,” Dr. Gudmundsdottir said in a conference statement.

Summing up her presentation, Dr. Gudmundsdottir said, “The potential link between maternal inactivity and low lung function in infancy adds to the importance of advising pregnant women and women of childbearing age on the importance of physical activity.”

In a conference statement, Dr. Jonathan Grigg, chair of the European Respiratory Society Tobacco Control Committee, said, “There is much that we know already about the importance for expectant mothers of staying physically fit and active, but far less is known about the impact of this on their babies.”

“This study offers a fascinating hint that increased physical activity of mothers is associated with better lung function in their babies and, therefore, possibly their health in later life. More research is needed to confirm this link, but it is important that women feel supported by their healthcare providers to be active in a way that is comfortable and accessible to them,” said Dr. Grigg, who wasn’t involved in the study.

The study had no specific funding and the authors have indicated no relevant disclosures.

SOURCE: European Respiratory Society International Congress, presented September 5, 2021.

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