Soon-to-Be Dads Who Exercise May Have Healthier Kids

 luanateutzi/ShutterstockSource: luanateutzi/Shutterstock

A new study on mice could provide some exercise-related motivation for wannabe fathers to get off the couch and start working out prior to conceiving a baby. Male mice in this study who exercised regularly for three weeks before fertilizing an egg triggered physiological changes in their sperm’s small RNA that improved the metabolic health of their offspring. This paper, “ Paternal Exercise Improves Glucose Metabolism in Adult Offspring ,” was published October 22 in the journal Diabete s.

According to the researchers, this is the first in-depth analysis of small RNAs in the sperm of exercise-trained male mice and reveals notable changes in small RNAs which potentially alter phenotypes in the next generation. Although this study was conducted using animal models, the findings suggest that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in the weeks prior to conceiving a baby may change the small RNA of human sperm in ways that pass on healthier metabolic traits from a father to his children.

This research was co-led by Kristin Stanford of The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Laurie Goodyear of Harvard Medical School’s Joslin Diabetes Center . Previous research by this team found that when the mother of mouse pups exercises, her offspring have better metabolisms.

The latest study by Stanford, Goodyear, et al. (2018) found that the adult offspring of male mice who had voluntarily exercised on a running wheel preconception showed better glucose metabolism, along with less fat mass and decreased body weight in comparison to sedentary mice who sired a litter of pups. The researchers believe that small RNAs in sperm can transmit specific information about a father’s health stats at the time of conception on to the next generation.

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These findings on paternal exercise and changes to small RNA in sperm add to a growing body of evidence linking a father’s diet, body weight, and overall well-being at the time of conception to the long-term health of his offspring. (For more see, “Lifestyle Choices Cause Epigenetic Changes to Father’s Sperm” and “Physically Fit Fathers May Have Healthier Children.”)

Interestingly, in 2017, a team of Australian researchers at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health reported that male offspring of mice conceived following paternal exercise were less likely to reinstate fear-conditioned memories as juveniles and were less prone to anxiety as adults. This paper, “ Exercise Alters Mouse Sperm Small Noncoding RNAs and Induces a Transgenerational Modification of Male Offspring Conditioned Fear and Anxiety ,” was published in Translational Psychiatry .

In the latest study on paternal exercise and metabolism, the researchers fed two groups of mice who were soon-to-be fathers a high-fat diet (HFD). As would be expected, based on our new understanding of how small RNA works, male mice who ate lots of fat but didn’t exercise passed on metabolic traits to their offspring linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Notably, male mice who ate a poor diet, but exercised regularly for a few weeks before conception, passed on much healthier metabolic profiles to their offspring.

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As the authors explain, “Strikingly, paternal exercise suppresses the effects of paternal high fat diet on offspring, reversing the observed impairment in glucose tolerance, percentage fat mass and glucose uptake in skeletal muscles of the offspring. These changes in offspring phenotype are accompanied by changes in sperm physiology; as for example, high-fat feeding results in decreased sperm motility, an effect normalized in males subject to exercise training. Deep sequencing of sperm reveals pronounced effects of exercise training on multiple classes of small RNAs, as multiple changes to the sperm RNA payload observed in animals consuming high-fat diet are suppressed by exercise training. Thus, voluntary exercise training of male mice results in pronounced improvements in the metabolic health of adult male and female offspring.”

"There's potential for this to translate to humans. We know that in adult men obesity impairs testosterone levels, sperm number and motility, and it decreases the number of live births," Kristin Stanford said in a statement. "If we ask someone who's getting ready to have a child to exercise moderately, even for a month before conception, that could have a strong effect on the health of their sperm and the long-term metabolic health of their children."

The latest research using animal models suggests that when both soon-to-be parents are physically active in the weeks leading up to conception, it could significantly increase the odds of their kids having better metabolic and mental health. Clearly, more human studies are needed before drawing any firm conclusions. That said, there are so many well-established benefits associated with aerobic exercise. Therefore, if you are currently leading a sedentary life but plan on having kids sometime soon: Why not use this research as a source of motivation for you and your partner to kickstart a more physically active lifestyle together, starting today?

"We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up."- Phyllis Diller