Hopeful dads have been given even more reason to lace up the running shoes before sliding between the sheets.
New research released on Wednesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry suggests increasing a father’s exercise levels may also help the mental health of an unborn son.
The study, lead by Professor Anthony Hannan from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, compared the offspring of healthy, fit mice with that of lazy, unfit mice.
The sons of running mice had lower anxiety levels, along with other benefits, than male offspring of unfit fathers, Hannan said.
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The research could have major public health and socio-economic implications, he said.
Currently, health advice around conception mainly focuses on healthy lifestyle and diet in women, Hannan said.
“This new work emphasises the need to also optimise the father’s environment and lifestyle in order to positively influence his children’s health outcomes”.
The study was based on a relatively straight forward experiment, using rodents as a model for human genetic inheritance.
A group of male mice were given access to a running wheel for four weeks.
“Unlike some of their human counterparts, these mice absolutely love to run, making their fitness regime no burden at all,” Hannan said.
A second group of non-running “Homer Simpson” mice sat around in their cages without access to the exercise wheels.
The fit fathers and sedentary males were then mated with non-running female mice, and their offspring put through a range of behavioural and anxiety assessments.
“Our most striking findings was that the male offspring of running mice were better at suppressing bad memories as juveniles, and had lower anxiety levels as adults than male offspring of sedentary fathers.
“In contrast, female offspring of fit fathers showed no differences to the female offspring of sedentary fathers,” Hannan said.
From this, the research team were able to identify an emerging type of “epigenetic signal” in the fit fathers’ sperm that could be responsible for the improved mental health of sons.
“Epigenetics is an emerging area of interest in biological research. It is the bridge between ‘nurture’ and ‘nature’, providing the signals that switch certain genes on or off in response to our environment,” Hannan said.
“[Proving that] not only will more physical activity improve your own health, it could have a positive impact on the health of your offspring.”
The team are still learning exactly how these “epigenetic signals” get into the sperm – and therefore genetic material – to influence the offspring’s brain development and function.
Mice were a good species do this experiment on owing to their relatively short life span – it would be a different story altogether trying to replicate it in humans.
“This work is difficult to perform in humans as it’s hard to separate the environment that the children were reared in from the genetic component inherited from their parents, except in adoption studies.
“The fact that we have identified a molecular pathway that could allow the inherited benefits of exercise from your father really shows the power of doing these studies in closely related animal models.”