Skip to main content


  • Lee Ellis (a1), Russell Eisenman (a2) and Anthony Hoskin (a3)

Studies have found positive correlations between prenatal exposure to testosterone and masculinization of offspring traits, particularly among females. The present study sought to determine if physical or sexual activity by the mother during pregnancy was related to masculinized/defeminized offspring traits in adulthood. Data were obtained from a large sample of North American college students (offspring) and their mothers. Information about maternal activity levels during pregnancy were reported retrospectively by each mother. The offspring provided self-ratings of various sexually dimorphic traits. Several significant correlations were found. By and large, as maternal physical activity increased, feminine mannerisms decreased and masculine mannerisms increased in the offspring, particularly for females. Maternal physical activity was also associated with increased upper- and lower-body strength and especially with adult height among offspring. Sexual activity by the mother was only associated with upper-body strength and adult height, particularly of the female offspring. Several sexually dimorphic physical traits in offspring are associated with maternal activity levels during pregnancy. Prenatal testosterone is almost certainly involved. The associations could either reflect genetic influences (given that prenatal testosterone is highly heritable) or an effect of maternal testosterone being transferred to the developing fetus. More research is needed to assess the relative merit of these two possibilities.

Corresponding author
1 Corresponding author. Email:
Hide All
Barona, M., Kothari, R., Skuse, D. & Micali, N. (2015) Social communication and emotion difficulties and second to fourth digit ratio in a large community-based sample. Molecular Autism 6, doi: 10.1186/s13229-13015-10063-13227.
Buka, S. L., Goldstein, J. M., Spartos, E. & Tsuang, M. T. (2004) The retrospective measurement of prenatal and perinatal events: accuracy of maternal recall. Schizophrenia Research 71, 417426.
Eliakim, A., Brasel, J. A., Mohan, S., Wong, W. L. T. & Cooper, D. M. (1998) Increased physical activity and the growth hormone-IGF-I axis in adolescent males. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 275, R308R314.
Ellis, L., Hershberger, S., Field, E., Wersinger, S., Pellis, S., Geary, D. et al. (2008) Sex Differences: Summarizing More Than a Century of Scientific Research. Psychology Press, New York.
Gitau, R., Adams, D., Fisk, N. & Glover, V. (2005) Fetal plasma testosterone correlates positively with cortisol. Archives of Disease in Childhood – Fetal and Neonatal Edition 90, F166F169.
Hegaard, H. K., Pedersen, B. K., Bruun Nielsen, B. & Damm, P. (2007) Leisure time physical activity during pregnancy and impact on gestational diabetes mellitus, pre‐eclampsia, preterm delivery and birth weight: a review. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica 86, 12901296.
Hodges-Simeon, C. R., Gaulin, S. J. & Puts, D. A. (2011) Voice correlates of mating success in men: examining “contests” versus “mate choice” modes of sexual selection. Archives of Sexual Behavior 40, 551557.
Hönekopp, J., Manning, J. T. & Müller, C. (2006) Digit ratio (2D:4D) and physical fitness in males and females: evidence for effects of prenatal androgens on sexually selected traits. Hormones and Behavior 49, 545549.
Hönekopp, J. & Watson, S. (2010) Meta‐analysis of digit ratio 2D: 4D shows greater sex difference in the right hand. American Journal of Human Biology 22, 619630.
James, W. H. (2014) An update on the hypothesis that one cause of autism is high intrauterine levels of testosterone of maternal origin. Journal of Theoretical Biology 355, 3339.
Melzer, K., Schutz, Y., Boulvain, M. & Kayser, B. (2010) Physical activity and pregnancy. Sports Medicine 40, 493507.
Oken, E., Ning, Y., Rifas-Shiman, S. L., Radesky, J. S., Rich-Edwards, J. W. & Gillman, M. W. (2006) Associations of physical activity and inactivity before and during pregnancy with glucose tolerance. Obstetrics and Gynecology 108, 12001207.
Owe, K. M., Nystad, W. & , K. (2009) Association between regular exercise and excessive newborn birth weight. Obstetrics & Gynecology 114, 770776.
Palomba, S., Marotta, R., Di Cello, A., Russo, T., Falbo, A., Orio, F. & Sala, G. B. L. (2012) Pervasive developmental disorders in children of hyperandrogenic women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a longitudinal case-control study. Clinical Endocrinology 77, 898904.
Paul, S. N., Kato, B. S., Cherkas, L. F., Andrew, T. & Spector, T. D. (2006) Heritability of the second to fourth digit ratio (2d:4d): a twin study. Twin Research and Human Genetics 9, 215219.
Qi, L., Liu, J., Zhang, Y., Wang, J., Yang, M., Gong, T. & Du, Y. (2013) Risk factors for non‐syndromic oral clefts: a matched case-control study in Hubei Province, China. Oral Diseases, doi: 10.1111/odi.12200.
Rao, S., Kanade, A., Margetts, B., Yajnik, C., Lubree, H., Rege, S. & Fall, C. (2003) Maternal activity in relation to birth size in rural India. The Pune Maternal Nutrition Study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 57, 531542.
Sallis, J. F., Prochaska, J. J. & Taylor, W. C. (2000) A review of correlates of physical activity of children and adolescents. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32, 963975.
Sarkar, P., Bergman, K., Fisk, N., O’Connor, T. & Glover, V. (2007) Amniotic fluid testosterone: relationship with cortisol and gestational age. Clinical Endocrinology 67, 743747.
Shephard, R. J. (2003) Limits to the measurement of habitual physical activity by questionnaires. British Journal of Sports Medicine 37, 197206.
Szwed, A., Kosinska, M. & Manning, J. T. (2017) Digit ratio (2D:4D) and month of birth: a link to the solstitial-melatonin-testosterone effect. Early Human Development 104, 2326.
Ventura, T., Gomes, M., Pita, A., Neto, M. & Taylor, A. (2013) Digit ratio (2D:4D) in newborns: influences of prenatal testosterone and maternal environment. Early Human Development 89, 107112.
Voracek, M. & Dressler, S. G. (2007) Digit ratio (2D: 4D) in twins: heritability estimates and evidence for a masculinized trait expression in women from opposite-sex pairs. Psychological Reports 100, 115126.
Wells, J. C. (2007) Sexual dimorphism of body composition. Best Practice & Research: Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 21, 415430.
Yawn, B. P., Suman, V. J. & Jacobsen, S. J. (1998) Maternal recall of distant pregnancy events. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 51, 399405.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Biosocial Science
  • ISSN: 0021-9320
  • EISSN: 1469-7599
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-biosocial-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *

Related content

Powered by UNSILO