Physical activity is important for those born preterm

Physical activity levels of young adults who were born preterm are clearly lower compared to their peers who were born at term, and those born preterm also have weaker muscles. Low levels of physical activity and fitness can increase the risk of chronic diseases later in life, so those born preterm should particularly be encouraged to be physically active.

These findings were obtained in Marjaana Tikanmäki’s doctoral research which studied the relationship between early-life determinants and physical activity and fitness during youth and young adulthood.

According to the questionnaire carried out as part of the research, 23-year-olds who were born early preterm, before 34 weeks of gestation, engaged in less physical activity than those born at term, meaning after at least 37 weeks of gestation. This observation covered conditioning and non-conditioning leisure-time physical activity, commuting physical activity, and vigorous physical activity.

Measurements of muscle strength, push-up tests and handgrip strength tests also indicated that young adults born before 34 weeks of gestation have weaker muscles and also consider themselves to have lower physical fitness than those born at term. Poorer muscle strength was also observed in the push-up test for those born late preterm, between 34 and 36 weeks of gestation, who comprise 70 % of all preterm births.

The precise reasons for the lower physical activity levels among those born preterm are not yet known. In this research, the low levels of physical activity were not explained by conditions related to preterm birth, preterm individuals’ background factors, or socio-economic factors.

Lack of physical activity may lead to health risks

Low levels of physical activity and muscle strength can increase susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and weakened functional capacity later in life. Earlier research has presented a link between preterm birth and increased risks of cardiovascular disease.

“Health risks can be reduced through physical activity and improved physical fitness. Exercising and improving muscle strength benefits everyone, but the research shows that it may be of particular benefit to those born preterm”, Tikanmäki explains.

Active lifestyles should be encouraged in maternity and child welfare clinics

Tikanmäki believes that it is important that pregnant women and families with children are helped to develop an active lifestyle. “From earlier research we already know that an active lifestyle developed in childhood is tracked into adulthood, leading to reduced risk of disease and increased well-being throughout the whole lifespan.” Particularly in the case of those born preterm, healthcare professionals have a significant role in raising this issue and offering the necessary support while taking into account the families’ particular needs.

The ESTER research project, which seeks to establish the long-term consequences of preterm birth, involves a total of 149 individuals born early preterm, 248 late preterm individuals and 356 individuals born at term, all of whom were born in Northern Finland and are now young adults. The research has been carried out by the National Institute for Health and Welfare in cooperation with the University of Oulu and the University of Helsinki. Part of the research population in the ESTER research project belong to the broader 1986 Northern Finland Birth Cohort.

Licentiate of Medicine Marjaana Tikanmäki will defend her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oulu on Friday 25 May 2018.

Last updated: 30.5.2018