A Surprising Way to Boost Your Baby’s Brain Power

Exercise during pregnancy is great for your health and well being but did you know it could affect your baby’s brain? Find out how in this post.

Exercise during pregnancy is great for your health and well being but did you know it could affect your baby's brain? Find out how in this post.

As an expecting mama, you want the best for your baby. That’s why you take care of your body, eat the right foods, and take healthy supplements. But what if there was something else you could do to help give your baby a head start in life?

Well, there is. And you may already be doing it: exercise during pregnancy.

We know exercise is good for our brains

Of course exercise during pregnancy (and in general!) helps keep the body healthy. But it also has a profound impact on our brains. Exercise boosts our mood, vitality, and feelings of well being. More importantly, exercise can help reduce brain shrinkage and enhance our cognitive function.

According to a study cited in New York Times:

Animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice. Animals that didn’t run, no matter how enriched their world was otherwise, did not improve their brainpower in complex, lasting ways.

Exercise during pregnancy is also good for baby’s brain

It’s true. And what’s surprising is just how little exercise during pregnancy is needed. A University of Montreal study found that just 20 minutes of exercise, done three times a week, can enhance your baby’s brain development. And we’re not talking cross fit, spinning, or zumba. Moderate exercise – anything that leads to a slight shortness of breath – will do the trick, according to researchers.

How did they verify this info? Starting in the second trimester, women in their study were randomly assigned to exercise during pregnancy or a sedentary group. Then, after their babies were born, researchers measured what was going on in the infants’ heads. They did this by way of electroencephalography, which involves placing 124 soft electrodes on the child’s head. The results, according to lead researcher Élise Labonté-LeMoyne, were that, “babies born from the mothers who were physically active have a more mature cerebral activation, suggesting that their brains developed more rapidly.”

Interesting. But I can’t get that picture of babies with electrodes on their head out of my mind. Ah, science!

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What about the old school advice to rest and take it easy while pregnant?

Yeah, that’s a thing of the past, unless of course you’ve been ordered to bed rest. If that’s the case, LISTEN!

But for most of us, we can enjoy some moderate exercise. Steer clear of sports that could result in injuries. And slow and steady is the way to go – walking, swimming, prenatal yoga are all great exercise choices while pregnant.

Of course, your husband or partner still needs to step up, do more dishes, take care of the other kids if you have them, and dote upon you in general. That goes without saying. 🙂

Did you exercise during pregnancy?

What kind of exercises did you do? Share with us in the comments below so we can learn from each other!

Genevieve Howland

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a doula and childbirth educator. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 135,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.


  1. I’ve really enjoyed thr Barre Definition program. Jacqueline has a whole program for pregnancy divided by trimesters and weeks plus a whole pelvic activation and release series as well as a ton of helpful videos and tips. Everything is mapped out each day. I just log in and push play. I’ve exercised more pregnant than when I wasn’t! I always feel great and motivated afterward.

    I think our baby really enjoys the movement. Aches and pains have been minimal on this exercise program. Can’t say enough about it! Plus the instructor is a big supporter of natural birth and gave birth to her first at home after just 3 hours of labor! Amazing!

  2. I’m currently 32 weeks pregnant and last week I logged the most running miles of my pregnancy so far (14)! Of course I’m a lot slower than I was pre-pregnancy, but I feel like the focus and breathing during running will help me with labor. Plus, I love the idea of having a permanent running partner with me throughout the workout! The only thing is I make sure I’m close to a bathroom at all times. Almost every time I run, I have to take a bathroom break 🙂

  3. For me, I was able to maintain about 1/3 of my pre-pregnancy work outs! Fortunately for me, this meant 3 sessions of work outs instead of 9.

    At 39 weeks I’m still able to attend professional hip hop dance classes 2x a week. I substitute my last workout for an hour swim. I don’t count any walks as I typically don’t just walk for exercise, but I am conscientious about doing what I can to walk/move every day. So I’ll do a few at home exercises like squats to make sure I’m moving daily.

    With only a couple days left to go, I have little to no pain. I’ve had very few pregnancy symptoms. But many have been maintained because I’ve been fortunate to have weekly visits to acupuncture, chiropractor and masseuse since week 10. Highly recommend doing this early in pregnancy and making it a priority! Find a place that takes your insurance.

  4. My third pregnancy, my water broke prematurely at 30 weeks right after a long walk. Delivered at 33 weeks a healthy baby boy, no other issues. This time, 24 weeks,lots of round ligament pains, I wish I was walking more but …

  5. I was a runner, lifted weights on occasion and did yoga pre pregnancy. I also had been riding my bike to work 35 min one way every day.

    I was on doctor’s orders to do light exercise (just walking) until about 10 weeks then I got right back into things. I couldn’t bike anymore, so I switched to walking 25 min to the train station and riding train to work and back. I also walked to the train station from my building after work, which was another 25-30 min esp as I got bigger.

    On top of that, I built up to doing lighter weight training 2-3 times a week for 30 min each time and then “ran” (slow shuffle jogged, haha) 2-3 times a week for about 3 miles, which would take about 35-40 min. I would also go to a regular yoga class when I could once a week on Sundays.

    I think all this really helped my baby and my symptoms in second trimester. I cruised along pretty well, but I definitely was busting my butt. I am now 38 weeks and had to stop the running at 31 weeks, but have continued the occasional weight training, walking and yoga. Some women in my birth prep class looked at me like I was crazy when I said I had been running most of my pregnancy, but it helped with stress and felt good to do. I’m hoping I gave my baby the best chance he can have, esp since this also helped me not gain too much weight. I fully believe all the exercise I did was a tremendous help. A lot of hard work and many times I wanted to be lazy, but I’m glad I kept the routine as long as I could.

  6. About a year before getting pregnant, I started a pretty regular walking/jogging/hiking exercise routine, which I think helped A LOT once I was pregnant. I can’t imagine trying to get fit in that first trimester exhaustion haze. I’ve kept up a steady walking routine, going 2.5 miles every day during my work week. I was doing prenatal yoga at least once on the weekends, but I just felt so sore afterwards. I started going to a prenatal water fitness class at the local rec center around 32 weeks and I LOVE IT! I wish I had been swimming from the very beginning.

  7. As a fitness instructor + CBE + doula I can tell a huge difference in my mommas that stay active and fit through their pregnancies. For me, I continued to teach HIIT, kickboxing, Pilates, step, etc up until I went into labor will all 4 of my kiddos- 6x/wk minimum. Nothing like owning your body, especially with all the changes! If I stay fit my babes benefit and their momma has a healthier outlook on labor, birth, and parenting along the way. Then on top of brain benefits they see fitness/health as a ‘normal way of life’… a great gift to be able to give!!

  8. I was doing spin classes regularly 2 years prior to conception, so I just continued throughout my pregnancy. I also did a 15k the month before I conceived. Now it’s tough to not be at the gym until my LO is 12 weeks, since that’s the minimum age for the daycare there.

  9. I joined a gym and started doing 1 hour Zumba 3 to 4 times per week 2 weeks before conceiving. I’m currently 14 weeks pregnant and have kept it up all this time. This is my second pregnancy. I honestly feel so energized and in a better mood than when I have to skip class because of vacation, sick daughter, etc. My husband agrees and encouraged me to workout. My first pregnancy was very stressful because I had to hide it from my employer, co-workers, etc. being in a combat zone and knowing I would lose my job, have to move in with my parents, and be away from my husband. I had started doing Insanity group workouts before getting pregnant, but had to stop so people wouldn’t notice my changing figure. I walked, but it didn’t help with so much stress from beech baby and inevitable cg section. I was in the military for 7 years, so I’m pretty used to forcing my body beyond my mind’s limits. I recommend Zumba since all the moves can be modified to your level (many senior citizens in my class), but I still workout at regular to high intensity and I’m barely starting to show. I just focus more on my breathing, balance and hydration. I’m not the runner type though, only did it in the military cause I had to, injured my knees from it and it felt awkward to have my belly bounce around with first baby. For my last trimester I’m planning on waking, pool exercises, prenatal group classes, since working out with others builds bonds. My Fitbit helps me track my activity and gives me heart rate readings.

    • How were you able to hide being pregnant while you were in the third trimester? I tried hiding my pregnancy from my coworkers, but my manager was able to tell a difference from me and knew I was pregnant.

  10. I’ve always been a walker and exerciser, but as SOON as I found out that I was pregnant way back in September (I’m 33 weeks now!) I hit the trails and walked 2.5 -3 miles a day. I track it with my LG Fit tracker. And when it got cold out, I joined a gym and go 3-4 X week! I’m on the treadmill and eliptical doing 3 mi between each! Takes about an hour. I’ve gained 27 lbs my entire pregnancy and don’t have any back pain or swelling! I’m feeling good and would recommend it to anybody!

  11. I put my one year old in a pram and have a 20 minute walk every morining when its not to hot or wet. This helped me keep my mind on track when I was pregnant and you feel so good after

  12. Once I got to about 6 months, walking more than 10 mintues put a tremendous strain on my hips. I talked to my doctor about it, and she said to just break up my exercise into 10 bouts. That’s easier said than done but so worth it when you have gestational orthopedic issues.

  13. I did Crossfit. Of course I was training for 2 years before I got pregnant and competing for a year before. I did my last competition when I was 3 months. In my second trimester and throughout the end I scaled to my ability. This helped me SO much during labor and my recovery. I had a 9.5 hour labor and did an all natural water birth! I had the best experience! I swear my son came out with little muscles-8lb 4oz healthy and happy! He’s also the best baby… I coach now and we go to the box and he just sits and watches us workout or sleeps. He’s not phased at all by clanging plates, I guess he’s used to the sounds 🙂

  14. I’m 31 and pregnant with my first. I have always been into fitness off and on and have enjoyed interval treadmill running. When I got pregnant, I was about 20 pounds overweight. I had a rough first trimester, between extreme fatigue and vomiting. I ended up losing about 8 pounds in my first trimester. The day I hit 12 weeks, I began feeling better. I felt like I was given my life back! The inspiration to take advantage of feeling healthy again and the extreme fear of being someone who had to lose 40, 50, or even 60 pounds post-partum terrified me. Plus I had read in a million places how important exercise during pregnancy is and I knew if I didn’t strengthen my body, I would be riddled with all those pregnancy aches and pains.

    So I resumed my routine of interval running in my second trimester. I started off slowly but gradually was able to run faster and longer. I also eat healthy, allowing myself to indulge in cravings for fried chicken or mac and cheese moderately. I can’t state enough how amazing exercise has been for my pregnancy. My mood is great, I feel strong, and I have only gained 10 pounds, which my doctor says is a healthy range because I started off overweight. I am 35 weeks now and I can’t imagine stopping. Between warm up, running, and cool down, I’m on the treadmill for 30 minutes (I do the interval hill course). Nothing more nothing less, Monday through Thursday. I make sure to stretch thoroughly before, during and after my work out, which has helped keep me feeling tension free. I begin to feel all the typical aches when its been a couple days of not working out, but once I hit the gym I feel great again.

    Sometimes I think to myself, I’m about to start my ninth month, I must look ridiculous on this treadmill! Then I think, no I probably look so strong! I feel strong, empowered, and in charge. I want to scream from the rooftops, barring any medical considerations preventing working out, “ladies, you don’t have to have a miserable pregnancy!” I am stronger now than I was when I got pregnant, how amazing is the human body, especially the body of a woman!

    • love your story. congrats!

  15. Hi recently started following yr show so here is my question.
    I’m 32 weeks pregnant I’ve started to get these pains by my left hip and lower back, and my baby’s movement are feeling a lot closer to my skin. My friends tell me that means the baby’s coming soon but I’m not due until July. Would really love yr two cents.

    • I had this pain too. I saw a chiropractor regularly to help keep pelvic alignment. I don’t know if you will have the same as me but when I was in the late stages of labor I got terrible pain in the lower back in that area. I had to be adjusted during… It hurt pretty bad but I got through it. After my chiropractor asked me if I had ever had trama to my tailbone. Come to think if it I had been snowboarding years back and fell hard on it. Also I have a right hamstring injury which could also have been compensating for the left hip pain. Either way stretch as consider seeing a good prenatal chiropractor to help your ligaments and alignment.

  16. I’m 10 weeks and have hardly exercised at all. Ive been so incredibly tired, and a bit nauseated. But I do work 4 days a week, and am on my feet the whole time, 8 hours a day. Hope that counts for something.

    • Absolutely! AND, you’ll feel so much better in your second trimester so will probably be able to walk a bit. I didn’t do much in my first trimester 🙂

  17. I hiked 4 miles about 3 days a week along with light weight training and yoga twice a week. I had an August baby so the last couple months some of the hiking got substituted with swimming because of the heat. I went into labor around 10 pm after hiking 4 miles that morning, working in the garden, and beating my husband for the first time in a game of HORSE in basketball around 7pm. I was hoping to go into labor being well rested….that didn’t happen! After 8 hours of natural labor my son was born in the tub to one exhausted mama!

  18. With my first pregnancy I did yoga at least 3 times a week… one prenatal class and two regular classes and I walked and did the elliptical a couple times a week. Having a 18 month old has made it hard to get to yoga classes this time around. I’m 15 weeks along and I’ve been wanting to get more active. After reading this I’m going to step it up big time! Plus I’ll be trying for a VBAC so I want to give my self every opportunity for the best chances for that to happen.

  19. I also used a jawbone up to watch my step count (you could also use a fitbit) and that really helped too. At the end I wasn’t quite making my 10k steps but it really pushed me to stay consistent throughout the whole pregnancy.

    • Good for you! Wow, I’m impressed with being anywhere near 10,000 steps near end of pregnancy 🙂

  20. With my first I wasn’t terribly active but with my second I took FIT4MOM classes right up until my due date and I totally think it played a major role during my pregnancy! My labor was about a bazillion times easier too. The classes were great because I could bring my oldest son and they modified the exercises for me each trimester. Totally recommend as a way to stay active through your pregnancy: http://www.fit4mom.com I’m back for postnatal classes too and it’s great!

  21. Studies like this always fascinate me because I wonder how they divide the participants into groups without violating research ethics. Doesn’t it seem unethical to tell one group that they need to stay sedentary when activity has been shown to improve recovery and pregnancy outcome overall? It seems like a better design would be to survey women throughout their pregnancy on activity rates and analyze the results later. You would still be able to estimate the impact of exercise but you wouldn’t be instructing anyone NOT to work out. With a large enough sample you will be people who exercise more or less than average. Also, I’m curious about the measure they used – auditory memory of a sleeping newborn. What does this signify exactly? Why did they choose this measure?

    • I thought the same thing about the sedentary mamas. I would not want to be in that control group!

  22. I worked with a trainer at the gym for 2 times a week at the gym until 12 weeks. Then it was walking along with pregnancy fit videos doing kettle bells and leg exercises. Snow shoeing during this awful winter now it’s walking and videos again! The occasional
    Swim felt great as well! It was hard to stay consistent but a few times a week did the trick, I get more restless when I don’t exercise. 2 more weeks (I think) to go until little boy arrives and we’re still staying active!

    • Good for you, Nina!!! I think you’ll have an awesome delivery 🙂

  23. Normally I am very active during my two previous pregnancies but this one I’m having twins! Taking it easy cuz things are so different and you grow so much faster. Going grocery shopping is a workout :-\

  24. I try my best to attend yoga at least twice a week and walk a couple of miles everyday. I am almost always tired which is why I can’t muster that much energy to go to the gym daily. Thanks for this informative post. I’ll keep up on my exercise from now on! Thanks for sharing!

    • Aw, my pleasure! It can be tough towards the end but I always felt better when I got activity!

  25. I am currently 33 weeks and have been going to the gym 4-5 days a week since pre-pregnancy. This past week has by far been the most difficult for me energy wise and starting to feel pain and strain in abdomen and back. I am now cutting my workouts to 3 days a week and will be doing treadmill at a comfortable walking pace as well as light weight training compared to my more rigorous program. I feel that I need the rest now in my final weeks. But I am really happy I kept it up this long.

    • Good for you! Sounds like a great plan 🙂

  26. I am a regular exerciser when not preggers:) But I have had miscarriages in the past so the advice of my OB was always to take it easy because of my medical history.

    • Oh yes, makes complete sense. Everyone needs to do what’s best in their situation. XO

  27. My husband is a neuroscientist who does electroencephalography, and I PROMISE that no babies were hurt 🙂 Speaking from experience, wearing the electrode cap sort of feels like an octopus is hugging your head/face. Hooray for brain science! Great post!

    • Glad to hear this! 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  28. Thanks for sharing this study! I tried to exercise as much as I could by walking, swimming, and doing pregnancy videos in my living room. I truly believe it helps with recovery and labor/delivery.

    • Amen! It seems the Cross Fit girls have killer deliveries and fast recoveries. Not that I can do that, even when I’m not pregnant, but I do think the more in shape we are, the easier things can be.

  29. I jogged up until my 26th week of pregnancy! It felt GREAT. After that I focused on yoga, swimming, and walking. I felt really guilty about the last month of so of my pregnancy because I wasn’t doing as much exercise; I rested a lot. I think that was good for me, and thankfully it didn’t affect my labor because I had a great labor and delivery! Praise God.

    • Oh good! Sounds like you listened to your body, which is so important!

    • Caitlin, what a great spirit, I admire this. I do think fitness and mindfulness are two things we should all consider in our day-to-day lives and especially while pregnant. I myself practice daily meditation and swim twice a week, and I can tell it helps me to cope with all stress and anxiety around the D-Day 🙂

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