Maternal exercise enhances health benefits of breast milk for babies

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Many mothers believe breast milk is a healthier option for their newborns. Now, a new study finds those moms can make their milk even healthier with a little physical activity. Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center suggest maternal exercise increases a compound in breast milk that reduces babies’ future risk of serious health problems like heart disease and obesity.

Confirming previous studies, the OSU team says exercising during pregnancy improves the health of offspring. However, it’s been unclear exactly how or when these health benefits occur. Researchers were left to ask if benefits are inherited or occur through developmental changes during pregnancy. They also theorized that the health benefits may be transferred through breast milk.

Milk does a (mouse’s) body good

While it’s likely that exercise helps babies at all stages of development, the study authors want to specifically know whether exercise enhances the benefits of breast milk.

To do this, the new study examines mouse pups born to mothers that were inactive during pregnancy. The pups were then fed milk from mothers that were active during pregnancy. This allowed them to separate the health benefits that occur during pregnancy from improvements received from breastfeeding after delivery.

The experiment finds better cardiac and metabolic health among the pups on breast milk from active mothers. The results suggest that something within the milk itself is improving the pups’ health.

Breast milk’s healthy secret revealed?

Further experiments reveal oligosaccharide 3′-sialyllactose (3SL) may be the compound responsible for the exercise-induced health benefits for breast milk in both mice and humans. In humans, women who walk more have more 3SL in their breast milk than those who walk less.

Researchers note that supplementing 3SL can negate the detrimental effects of a high-fat diet.

“The increases in 3SL were not necessarily related to exercise intensity, so even moderate exercise like a daily walk is enough to reap the benefits,” lead author Kristin Stanford says in a media release. “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.”

While these findings highlight the importance of exercise during and after pregnancy, they also have broader implications. Because the benefits come from a compound in breast milk, scientists may be able to add it to baby formula in the future. This could be particularly beneficial for mothers who are unable to breastfeed or who require bed rest after giving birth.

The study is published in Nature Metabolism.

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