Any mom knows the first few months at home with a new baby aren’t exactly easy. You’re sleep-deprived, dealing with crazy hormones, and most likely feeling a bit anxious, moody, and overwhelmed. But, if those latter symptoms linger, or become more intense, you might be suffering from postpartum depression. The condition impacts ten to 15 percent of mothers within the first year after childbirth. However, exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of postpartum depression. That’s right—working out makes you feel good. And here’s how new mothers can utilize exercise as a tool to also help manage postpartum depression.
First, check in with your doctor.
Dr. Alison Mitzner, MD, notes that there’s a big difference between normal “baby blues” and actual postpartum depression, and it’s important to clarify the two. She says up to 70 percent of women may experience “baby blues,” and will feel “hormonal” after delivery. This is most likely due to lack of sleep, stress, and a wave of hormonal, physical, and emotional changes that naturally come with being a mom. Conversely, postpartum depression takes those emotions to the next level, in a negative way, and tends to last much longer than a few weeks.
“Postpartum depression causes extreme sadness, moodiness, and depression—similar to depression, but temporally related to giving birth,” explains Dr. Mitzner. “Depression may include hopelessness, crying a lot, and a loss of appetite and interest in things mom once enjoyed, [as well as] other depression symptoms. It typically starts two to three weeks after giving birth, but it can come on anytime during the first few days, weeks, or even months after delivery.”
According to a 2013 study, one in every seven moms suffers from postpartum depression, so pay attention to how you’re feeling. Additional symptoms can include insecurity, irritability, fatigue, guilt, detachment, anxiety, or fear of harming your baby. That’s why it is so critical to stay in touch with your doctor post-delivery. Treatment for postpartum depression, such as therapy, medication, and a regular workout routine, can make all the difference for you and your child.
Take advantage of the endorphins.
It may seem impossible as a new mom to plan your workouts, especially if you’re feeling low. Experts agree, though, doing so is pretty crucial to your well-being.
“Exercise gets your endorphins going, which helps alleviate depression symptoms,” says Aaptiv trainer and pre- and postnatal corrective exercise specialist Candice Cunningham. “It can also get you focused on something for yourself,” she adds. Jaime McFaden, another Aaptiv trainer and maternity expert, calls it a “natural form of therapy to lift your overall mood.”
Science seems to agree. In an analysis of data from 1996 to 2016, researchers discovered that moms who stayed physically active after birth experienced fewer depressive symptoms. In contrast, one study found women who led a more sedentary lifestyle were, in general, more likely to experience postpartum depression in the first place. Finally, another 2012 review also describes high-intensity exercise as particularly helpful for alleviating mild to moderate symptoms. The type of workout doesn’t matter much. Yoga, stretching, and cardio are essentially equal in terms of making you feel better.
“Exercise really does help boost your mood, give you energy, and make you feel better physically and emotionally,” says Dr. Mitzner. “Even a light amount of exercise, such as a walk around the block with the baby [in the] stroller, can be beneficial. Be sure to discuss with your OB-GYN when you can start exercising more and what regimen is okay.”
Remember, exercise is only one piece of the puzzle.
In addition to exercise and professional help, self-care can also lessen postpartum depression symptoms. “Postpartum depression is very real and it can be scary. So, be sure to talk with your doctor if you feel you are down,” says McFaden. “If you don’t feel like exercising, ask a friend or loved one to join you, or try activities that make you feel good, like hiking or walking” she adds.
“Take care of yourself, and when able, start exercising, even if just lightly,” says Dr. Mitzner. “Get involved with support groups or other moms working toward the same goals, or there are many apps you can use if you want to track steps while walking with your baby and try to aim for certain goals. Often, moms start feeling better not only physically, but emotionally after starting an exercise routine, and that alone is motivation to keep going,” she explains.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you think you might have postpartum depression, contact your health care provider, as soon as possible.