There has been an abundance of recent research demonstrating that exercise can have a number of positive health implications during pregnancy. From improved cardiovascular and metabolic health, reduced fat gain during pregnancy, all the way up to improved fetal growth and development – exercise is now being seen as one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your baby throughout the entire pregnancy process. Interestingly, there is also some recent evidence to suggest that exercise may also impact your mental health after birth in a very positive manner.
What is Postpartum Depression after Pregnancy?
Postpartum depression (also commonly known as ‘post-natal depression’) is a mental illness that strictly affects women at the completion of the pregnancy period, almost immediately after giving birth. It is important to note that it is not entirely uncommon for women to feel sensations of sadness after giving birth. This is most commonly coined the ‘baby blues’, and typically last for a week or two after the pregnancy, after which it essentially disappears.
However, postpartum depression is different. With postpartum depression, it is not uncommon to experience strong feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety after giving birth. This can come with associated sensations of restlessness and fatigue, and even a loss of self-worth – all of which can last a whole lot longer than just a few weeks. In more severe cases, this can also come with rapid, extreme, and unexplainable mood swings – for example, going from feeling completely happy one minute, to completely bawling your eyes out the next. Moreover, it is not uncommon to have trouble maintaining concentration, experience a large loss of appetite, and see significant declines in sleep quality.
While this is certainly terrible for both parents, it can severely limit the quality of care that the newborn child receives in what is one its most important life stages – subsequently, it poses a great risk to the health of both the mother and child alike, even having potentially negative implications for years to come.
Related Article: Mothering – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
Exercise and Postpartum Depression Benefits
Over the last 20 years or so, exercise has become one of the most commonly recommended treatment options for clinical depression. Not only is cost effective and efficient, it has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of more traditional treatment options without eliciting any associated side effects (Daley, 2008). And it is this research that really paved the way for the exploration of exercise as a potential treatment option for postpartum depression – to which I must admit, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Improvements In Mood
Partaking in any form of exercise after birth has been shown to cause large improvements in mood, energy levels, and depressive symptoms (Poyatos‐León, 2017). While this has been hypothesized to be the result of exercise both acting as a distraction to negative thoughts and feelings, and as a way to increase sensations of usefulness and self-worth, there is also reason the believe that it may be the result of exercise eliciting positive physiological changes in the brain and hormonal system (Knapen, 2015).
Fitness And Body Image
Moreover, there is a clear demonstration that exercising after birth can have positive implications for cardiorespiratory fitness, weight management, and perceived body image. Through these interactions, exercise has been suggested to create further positive physical and emotional adaptations, further enhancing feelings of self-worth while simultaneously staving off negative thoughts and depressive feelings (NCCMH, 2007).
Improved Postnatal Outcomes
Finally, in conjunction with exercise during the postnatal period demonstrating improved postnatal outcomes, there is even evidence demonstrating that exercising throughout the entire pregnancy period can have similar positive outcomes (Poyatos‐León, 2017). You see, exercising during pregnancy can lead to chronic elevations in mood. Exercising also reduced fat gain throughout the pregnancy period, improved aerobic fitness, and the onset and maintenance of a healthy exercise routine.
While each of these in isolation has been shown to stave off depressive symptoms in the short term, they also increase your likelihood of participating in an appropriate exercise regime during the postpartum period – which, as we have already discussed, has obvious and positive implications for postpartum depression (Demissie, 2013). So, if I were to summarise it rather briefly, I would state that: ‘exercise both during and after pregnancy is essential to ensuring mental health and minimizing the risk of postpartum depression.’
Pretty simple really.
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Exercises to Help with Postpartum Depression
While the guidelines for exercise both during and after pregnancy differ somewhat between countries, there are some common recommendations that can be successfully applied to almost all situations – if there are no associated complications, of course. In doing so, this exercise can improve mental health and reduce the risk of postpartum depression (Pritchett, 2017).
Firstly, it is recommended that some form of moderate-intensity aerobic activity should be completed most days of the week, for around 30 minutes per session (Artul, 2016).
Secondly, completing some sort of muscle strengthening exercises 2-3 times per week has also been shown to be extremely beneficial.
In this manner, a single bout of resistance training has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression in the short term (Polman, 2007). Chronic weight training has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression after birth (Demissie, 2011).
Now, while this advice is all well and good, there are a few key considerations that we need to take on board to make sure that exercise during this period is as safe as humanly possible (Hinman, 2015).
Tips for staying safe:
- For exercise during pregnancy, avoid any activities that have you lying on the ground in the supine position.
- Extremely high impact exercises are not recommended either during or just after, pregnancy (such as powerful jumping and bounding movements).
- High load strength training performed to failure is not appropriate for a few weeks after childbirth (bodyweight and isometric core exercises are a much better alternative during this sensitive time).
This means that for your aerobic activity, your best bets are exercises such as walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming. These are great options because they don’t involve the higher real force and that comes with jumping and landing movements. Your muscle strengthening exercises can be comprised of isometric core exercises such as planks and side planks. Bodyweight exercises such as squats, chin-ups lunges, and push-ups are also safe exercises. Finally, you can participate in loaded free weight exercises such as presses, rows, and deadlifts. They should all stay within the 6-12 rep range, and not be performed to failure.
By adhering to these criteria, you have several great options that can be implemented easily and efficiently to seriously improve your postpartum health and stave off your risk of developing postpartum depression!
Related Article: Baby and Me Workout Plan
Take Home Message
Postpartum depression is a serious issue that occurs after giving birth. Posing significant health risk to both the mother and baby, this mental health concern requires appropriate treatment and prevention. Which is exactly where exercise enters the discussion. Both weight training and cardiorespiratory exercise performed during pregnancy and after giving birth have been shown to create lasting improvement in mood, energy levels, and sensations of self-worth. It significantly reduces the risk of developing postpartum depression. It is genuinely one of the most effective and efficient treatment options available to new mothers.
So, what are you waiting for?
Daley, Amanda. “Exercise and depression: a review of reviews.” Journal of clinical psychology in medical settings 15.2 (2008): 140.
Poyatos‐León, Raquel, et al. “Effects of exercise‐based interventions on postpartum depression: A meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Birth 44.3 (2017): 200-208.
Knapen, Jan, et al. “Exercise therapy improves both mental and physical health in patients with major depression.” Disability and rehabilitation 37.16 (2015): 1490-1495.
National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health. “Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance. NICE Clinical Guideline CG45.” (2007).
Demissie, Zewditu, et al. “Physical activity during pregnancy and postpartum depressive symptoms.” Midwifery 29.2 (2013): 139-147.
Pritchett, Ruth Victoria, Amanda J. Daley, and Kate Jolly. “Does aerobic exercise reduce postpartum depressive symptoms? a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Br J Gen Pract (2017): bjgp17X692525.
Artal, Raul. “Exercise in pregnancy: guidelines.” Clinical obstetrics and gynecology 59.3 (2016): 639-644.
Polman, Remco, Mariana Kaiseler, and Erika Borkoles. “Effect of a single bout of exercise on the mood of pregnant women.” (2007).
Demissie, Zewditu, et al. “Associations between physical activity and postpartum depressive symptoms.” Journal of Women’s Health 20.7 (2011): 1025-1034.
Hinman, Sally K., et al. “Exercise in pregnancy: a clinical review.” Sports health 7.6 (2015): 527-531.