Exercise and Postnatal Depression (PND): How to exercise yourself happy

Postnatal Depression. The big black cloud that can affect new Mum’s in the days, weeks and months after giving birth. It could be as mild as unexplained sadness or as extreme as paralyzing depression. But is it possible to exercise yourself back to a trouble-free mind?

What is Postnatal Depression?

Postnatal depression (PND) is a major health issue affecting up to 16% of all new mothers (although it can also affect fathers) and while it’s most common in the first 3 months after giving birth, it can last up to 1 year after delivery.

The causes of PND are varied but are usually a combination of hormonal changes, personal predisposition and sociocultural factors. Your birth experience, decisions about your career and finances, relationship stress, sleep deprivation and availability of support can affect your self-esteem and perception of yourself as a mother and may put you at risk of lowered mood or PND.

How does exercise help?

While psychological treatment and anti-depressants are very effective in treating PND and may be necessary for more severe cases, many women choose not to use these methods because of financial or social stigma, or because of concerns about the adverse effects of drug therapy while breastfeeding.

In many cases, exercise can be as beneficial as drug or psychological therapy in cases of mild to moderate depression, and recent research has shown that it’s also an effective tool for preventing or managing postnatal depression.

The current theories are that doing regular exercise – either aerobic or resistance exercise, or a combination – help treat depression by distracting you from stress, altering the hormone and chemical levels in your body, and increasing your sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.

What’s really important for new mothers is that you don’t need to see any changes in your physical fitness to get the mood-elevating benefits of exercise – in fact, even without any change in fitness over a 3 month period, scores on scales like the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression reduced significantly.

The other really positive message is that the more severe cases showed the biggest response, so if you feel you might be suffering from PND but are reluctant to try antidepressants or psychological treatment, you can at least try using exercise to help manage your mood as an initial step.

What exercises should you do?

Because you’re exercising to help lift your mood rather than to get fit, you don’t need to be as crazy about the type or intensity of exercise you do. Start off with something you’re confident you can achieve, like going for a simple walk either with or without the pram.

Newborns love getting out in the fresh air and experiencing all the new sights, sounds and smells so if you want to take your baby with you then go ahead, but sometimes a walk out in the sun can be a lovely break from it all as well. And if there’s no-one to watch your little one for you and they JUST-WON’T-STOP-SCREAMING then at least if you’re outside there’s a whole bunch of other sounds to listen to!

As little as a single one-hour, moderate intensity exercise session per week can significantly reduce the risk of developing PND, and can significantly improve the mood state of women with mild to moderate depression. While you only need as little as one session a week to start feeling the benefits, the more you exercise the greater the effect will be – so if you can manage it, try to stick to the recommended guidelines of at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days of the week. If you’re part of a local mother’s group or you regularly attend a Child and Family Health Clinic, try to use those meetups as opportunities to get out for a walk.

Resistance exercise is really beneficial for tackling common issues like neck or back pain associated with nursing a young baby, so if you can fit in a trip to the gym or even a session at home you can help to manage those niggles as well as improving your mood. Keep in mind, if you have specific areas that give you a lot of grief it might be an idea to check in with our team to get a program of exercises to help treat your specific issue.

Remember though, if you find that you just aren’t coping with things then there are services out there to help. Talk to your GP or Child and Family Health Nurse, or check out PANDA for more resources. If you’re feeling down you’re definitely not alone, and seeking help early generally reduces the length and severity of your symptoms.

Written by

Travis Waite

Trav is a Physiotherapist with an Exercise Science background who specialises in shoulder injuries and gym-based rehab. He believes that injury rehab is an opportunity to work on performance and to emerge better than before you were injured.

Travis Waite