Exercising regularly before conception and in the early stages of pregnancy may protect would-be mothers by stimulating the expression of two proteins thought to play a role in blood vessel health.
Some studies suggest that exercise has benefits such as decreasing the risk of women developing preeclampsia, a condition that raises blood pressure to dangerously high levels, but how this might happen has remained unknown.
Jeffrey Gilbert of the University of Oregon's Department of Human Physiology led the study with an animal model, while he was with the University of Minnesota Medical School.
In the study, female rats were separated into two groups, the exercise group and the control group, and later impregnated.
The researchers found that the rats in the exercise group had higher levels of a circulating protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) than those in the control group.
VEGF and a pregnancy specific version of the protein called placental growth factor (PlGF) are important because not only do they stimulate the development of new blood vessels, they also maintain normal vessel function which in turn promotes good cardiovascular health.
According to Dr. Gilbert, finding increased VEGF in the exercise group has important implications for understanding, and perhaps preventing, preeclampsia.
The team also found that the rats in the exercise group had increased amounts of heat shock proteins (HSPs) compared to those that did not exercise.
One HSP in particular, HSP 90, is thought to play a vital role in maintaining the blood vessels of the heart.
The study has been presented at the Physiology of Cardiovascular Disease: Gender Disparities conference at the University of Mississippi in Jackson.