Being born preterm and/or small for gestational age are well-established risk factors for cardiometabolic disease in adulthood. Physical activity has the potential to mitigate against the detrimental cardiometabolic effects of low birth weight from two perspectives: (i) maternal exercise prior to and during pregnancy; and (ii) exercise during childhood or adulthood for those born small or prematurely. Evidence from epidemiological birth cohort studies suggests that the effects of moderate-intensity physical activity during pregnancy on mean birth weight are small, but reduce the risk of either high or low birth weight infants. In contrast, vigorous and/or high-intensity exercise during pregnancy has been associated with reduced birth weight. In childhood and adolescence, exercise ability is compromised in extremely low birth weight individuals (< 1000 g), but only marginally reduced in those of very low to low birth weight (1000-2500 g). Epidemiological studies show that the association between birth weight and metabolic disease is lost in physically fit individuals and, consistently, that the association between low birth weight and metabolic syndrome is accentuated in unfit individuals. Physical activity intervention studies indicate that most cardiometabolic risk factors respond to exercise in a protective manner, independent of birth weight. The mechanisms by which exercise may protect low birth weight individuals include restoration of muscle mass, reduced adiposity and enhanced β-cell mass and function, as well as effects on both aerobic and anaerobic muscle metabolism, including substrate utilization and mitochondrial function. Vascular and cardiac adaptations are also likely important, but are less well studied.
© 2012 The Authors Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology © 2012 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.