There’s nothing quite like pregnancy to inspire a shake-up in a gal’s wellness routine. All at once, she’s switching to decaf, popping extra vitamins, and adopting gentler workouts. But until you see that little blue plus sign on the stick, you’re totally okay to keep shooting espresso and cranking the resistance all the way up in spin class, right?
Actually, a growing number of medical pros are beginning to question that logic. Some believe that parents’ habits during the preconception period—the 180 days or so before sperm meets egg—may be just as crucial to the long-term health of their future child as what happens during pregnancy and infancy.
According to one of the leading researchers on this topic, Sergio Pecorelli, MD, PhD, the concept is tied to epigenetics, or the idea that a person’s genetic expression is influenced by his or her environment. “[Healthy and unhealthy habits] affect the scaffolding of DNA… and make changes in the genes,” he tells me. “The air, stress, our relationships with other people, what we eat, exercise—all of these things can turn genes on or off so that they can function, not function, or work in conjunction with others.”
One example: Things like smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise are known to “turn on” the expression of genes relating to diseases like obesity and heart disease, while adopting a healthier lifestyle has been found to suppress these genes’ expression.
“The behavior of the father and mother before conception, if not correct, can predispose the newborn to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and so on.”—Sergio Pecorelli, MD, PhD
So what’s this have to do with a not-yet-conceived baby? Dr. Pecorelli’s theory is that sperm and egg cells are also susceptible to this kind of epigenetic activity. “These germ cells within the body of each parent are sensitive to the environment,” he posits. “This is extremely important because the behavior of the father and mother before conception, if not correct, could predispose the newborn to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and so on.” (That’s right, your partner needs to get in on this action, too.)
Luckily, it doesn’t take much time for healthy lifestyle habits to translate into more positive gene expression—Dr. Pecorelli’s pinpointed the sweet spot at six months. Here, he and some other pregnancy pros outline the three most important shifts every mom- and dad-to-be should make in the 180 days before conception. Plus, they share a few bonus ways to get a jump-start on preparing a mom’s mind and body for pregnancy before the baby-making process begins. Because let’s be honest, it’s hard to start making major life changes once you’re in the throes of morning sickness and mood swings.
Read on for the top 3 things you and your partner should do in the 6 months before you try for a baby.
1. Adopt a pregnant woman’s eating habits
Dr. Pecorelli says the rules of eating for two should apply to both parents during the preconception phase. Essentially, that means cutting out the junk food, alcohol, and caffeine, and loading up on healthy whole foods, like leafy greens, eggs, and omega-3s. He says both parents should also make an effort to avoid any foods that could be contaminated with pesticides (such as conventionally grown fruits and veggies) or heavy metals (like high-mercury fish).
Nutritionist Brooke Alpert, RD, adds that prenatal vitamins should also be part of a prospective mom’s supplement routine during those 180 days. “Some nutrients—like folic acid to prevent neural tube defects—need to be present in the very early stages of conception, likely before a woman would even know she is pregnant,” she says.
Alpert also notes that establishing healthy eating habits in advance can impact fertility, especially on the man’s part. “Men who maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle are more likely to have quality sperm and improved overall fertility,” she says. “I often recommend consuming zinc-rich foods, like oysters, to help boost semen and testosterone production.” That’s your next few date nights sorted, then.
2. Establish a regular—but not too intense—exercise routine
Experts agree that being physically fit is crucial before conception. “Try to get in the best shape you possibly can—as close to your ideal body weight as possible,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine.
This won’t just help you have an easier pregnancy and delivery, but it may also reduce your unborn child’s future disease risk, says Dr. Pecorelli. “If you practice physical exercise before conception, this has a very important positive effect on [sperm and egg] cells,” he says.
But there’s one caveat: Dr. Pecorelli says that during the preconception phase, you should only practice mild to moderate exercise, unless you’re an elite athlete who’s fully adapted to high-intensity activities. Why? “You are raising the stress and inflammation on the sperm and egg cells, and disease is the end result of inflammation,” he reasons. So skip the marathon training this year and adopt Dr. Pecorelli’s preconception workout of choice, instead—30 minutes of fast walking per day.
3. Get your stress levels in check
“Stress is one of the most important components [acting] upon sperm and egg cells,” says Dr. Pecorelli. “If we are stressed, we should do things like meditation, massage, saltwater floating, or listening to music.”
This is also a good time to pinpoint potentially stressful situations that could arise while trying to conceive and talk about them with your partner, says psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini, LPC. “You have to get really good at telling your partner what you need—the more intimacy-building skills you can learn now, the better,” she says, adding it’s also important to discuss what’s going to happen after the baby arrives. “A lot of times, people don’t talk about their parenting styles. How do you guys want to raise this baby? What things made your parents angry, and how are you going to deal with annoyance and anger?”
She also believes that this is the time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do as a couple because it’s not always as easy as you think it’ll be once your family starts to grow. So go ahead and book that epic couples getaway you’ve been dreaming about—and think of it as a particularly great form of preconception R&R.
For more expert and real-mom-approved parenting (and pre-parenting!) intel, dive into Mom Crush May. And if your boss is your main source of stress, it might be time to find a new gig—here’s how to navigate the job search when you’re trying to conceive.
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