Most dads say they’d like to have healthy, active kids.
They can increase the odds by getting into better shape themselves before their children are conceived, a new study hints.
Male lab mice that led a sedentary life and consumed a high-fat diet before conceiving offspring were more likely to father children with higher levels of body fat, glucose intolerance, and abnormal glucose uptake in skeletal muscles — the latter two being signs of diabetes.
However, male mice that exercised before fathering children were able to negate the negative effects on their offspring.
The study results were published by the American Diabetes Association in the journal Diabetes.
“Voluntary exercise training of male mice results in pronounced improvements in the metabolic health of adult male and female offspring,” the researchers stated in their study.
“Even a month or so of moderate exercise before conception can have major benefits to his children’s metabolic health,” added Kristin Stanford, PhD, an assistant professor of physiology and cell biology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who led the study.
“We saw an effect on offspring throughout their lifespan, but most prominently at 52 weeks,” Stanford told Healthline.
Researchers said that exercise improved sperm motility and caused genetic changes in sperm that could reduce the risk of inheriting risk factors for obesity and diabetes.
“We did a full small RNA sequencing and saw several classes of small RNA (which help regulate genetic expression) were changed in response to exercise. So it canceled out the consequences of the father’s poor diet,” said Stanford.
Most studies in the past have looked at the role that mothers’ health before, during, and after pregnancy plays in the health of their children.
Studies have shown a link between obesity during pregnancy and higher risk of childhood obesity.
Largely overlooked is how the health of prospective fathers can affect predisposition to diseases such as obesity and diabetes, although researchers have long known that using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs can decrease fertility among men.
“In humans there have been a few studies showing that mothers’ diets can really affect the health of their offspring, so maybe the same is true of dads,” said Stanford.
“We expect that women need to make certain lifestyle changes prior to conception, but the idea that men should be doing the same thing is a foreign concept,” Caleb Backe, a personal trainer and health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics, told Healthline. “Male obesity impacts testosterone levels and sperm levels, so this additional information is not at all surprising. It essentially affects the genetic expression of sperm, which would then have a lasting effect on offspring.”
In humans, cultural and environmental factors as well as genetics figure into risk of diseases like diabetes and obesity.
Stanford and colleagues were able to eliminate the non-genetic influences in the lab.
“We hope that the study would encourage dads to be more active for their offspring but also to be more active with their offspring,” said Stanford.
Research bears this out.
A 2018 study in the journal BMJ, for example, found that mothers who had healthy lifestyles during their child’s adolescence substantially reduced their children’s risk of obesity.
Dr. Diana Ramos, an OB-GYN and co-chair of the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative (PCHHC), points to studies showing that children with one obese parent have a 25 percent higher risk of obesity, and that risk rises to 75 percent when both parents are obese.
“The most important takeaway from this study is that Dad’s health does matter,” Ramos told Healthline. “Their health is integral to the health of the child from preconception to postnatal and through the life cycle of the child.”