Preventing Postpartum Depression With Exercise

Research indicates that women with a personal and/or maternal history of depression are more likely to develop depression during the postpartum phase than women without a history. We recently examined how exercise can play a role in preventing postpartum depression among these women.

During the study, participants were randomly assigned to a six-month exercise intervention program or to a six-month health and wellness intervention program. Despite the health and wellness intervention group not receiving any exercise advice, both groups exercised for an average of about 125 minutes per week. The intent was to determine whether or not these programs would help in reducing postpartum depression.

Results indicated that only 8 percent of both groups experienced postpartum depression after the six-month intervention programs. Previous studies have shown that 30 to 40 percent of this same at-risk population would develop postpartum depression without the use of intervention programs. Furthermore, higher levels of exercise were related to fewer depressive symptoms in this study.

New Research Endeavors

In order to better understand the role of exercise in preventing postpartum depression, we are now in the intermediate phases of a study which randomizes participants into three groups.

Group 1 is part of a telephone-based exercise intervention program in which an exercise counselor conducts calls designed to motivate the participant to exercise on their own. The intervention is theory-based and focuses on topics such as making time for exercise, goal setting, tracking exercise, social support and increasing enjoyment.

Group 2 is part of a six-month health and wellness intervention program where participants discuss sleep, nutrition and stress. This group does not include an exercise component.

Group 3 is considered the control group. These participants receive no intervention techniques to assist in physical or mental health for nine months.

The results of this study are ongoing; however, based on previous research, we expect that participants in the exercise and wellness interventions will be less likely to develop postpartum depression than the control group (participants interested in participating in this study can call 612-625-9753 or email

Exercise can help deal with stress commonly experienced during the postpartum phase. Researchers postulate that exercise may serve as a natural antidepressant given it increases serotonin levels in the brain, in turn fostering a better mood.

Why Exercise Helps Ease Postpartum Depression Symptoms:

Mastery hypothesis: Taking initiative to exercise instills feelings of achievement. It feels good to accomplish this personal goal.

Time-out hypothesis: Taking a break from your everyday routine to exercise is especially important to postpartum women as they look to regain some control in their life. Finding alone time without the baby can be especially effective.

It is common for postpartum women to feel more energized and proud of what they have accomplished immediately after exercise. This short-term gratification can be more motivating than working toward long-term health benefits—and it’s often what keeps people motivated to continue their exercise routine.

A positive support system also plays a role in motivating increased exercise after pregnancy. Social support from a spouse or partner can be especially important in helping postpartum mothers stick with their exercise routine.

Finally, the intrinsic benefits of exercise tend to be more motivating for postpartum women than extrinsic benefits. For example, when a woman exercises for her own personal enjoyment, instead of for some other reason such as losing weight, she is more likely to reach her exercise goals.

Tips For Postpartum Women to Encourage Physical and Mental Health

  1. Do what works best for you. Some people enjoy vigorous exercise regimes and some do not. While consistent strength and cardiovascular exercises are ideal, walking is a great common alternative. Do whatever works best for you because if you are not enjoying it, then you will not stick with it.
  2. Take care of yourself. Taking good care of your baby requires also taking care of yourself. Frequent exercise, eating right and getting plenty of sleep are all necessary steps toward a healthy postpartum lifestyle.
  3. Be realistic. Setting goals can be a great motivational method, but not if those goals are unattainable. Be realistic about how much time you have to dedicate to exercise and how many tasks you can manage to avoid excessive stress.
  4. Have fun. The best way to ensure a healthy exercise routine is to make it fun. Getting together with other people with similar exercise goals is a great way to encourage one another and bring a social aspect to the everyday exercise routine. Just because you had a baby does not mean you should lose your own social identity.
Beth Lewis

About the Author

Beth Lewis, Ph.D.

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