In the study over female mice who voluntarily exercised during pregnancy, the team found that the offspring were about 50 percent more physically active than those born to mothers who did not exercise.

"Our study in a mouse model is important because we can take all those effects out of the equation. We studied genetically identical mice and carefully controlled the amount of physical activity of the mothers before pregnancy," said senior author Robert A Waterland from Baylor College of Medicine in the US.

To reach this conclusion, the team selected female mice that all enjoyed running and divided them into two groups. One was allowed access to running wheels before and during pregnancy, and the other was not.

During early pregnancy, females with running wheels ran an average of 10 km a night. They ran less as pregnancy progressed, but even by the beginning of the third trimester they ran (or walked) about three kms each night.

Importantly, their increased activity persisted into later adulthood and even improved their ability to lose fat during a three-week voluntary exercise programme.

If a similar effect can be confirmed in humans, it could represent an effective strategy to counteract the current worldwide epidemic of physical inactivity and obesity.

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