It is thought that around 80,000 - 120,000 women may develop post-natal depression (PND) each year (that's about 10-15%). PND is a type of depression that women experience after childbirth. It typically arises from a combination of hormonal changes, extreme tiredness and the, often, stressful adjustment to motherhood.
PND often develops within the first six weeks of birth and is thought to last at least two weeks.
One of the most commonly cited recommendations for women experiencing PND is exercise. This is because exercise is known to maintain and even improve feelings of wellbeing by causing chemical changes in our brains.
And with maternal body weight and postpartum weight being important predictors of psychological wellbeing following birth, the additional benefits of exercise, which include weight-loss, accelerated post-birth recovery times, building strength and the social interaction that comes with certain types of exercise, led NICE (2007) to recommend in their guidelines on the management of postnatal mental health, to use exercise as a treatment for women suffering from mild to moderate depression.
What's more there are numerous studies to support this advice. In fact, in one study, it was found that exercise could help new mothers to decrease the chances of depression by up to 50%. These improvements continued for up to four weeks following the end of the program and were not found in the other groups of women where exercise wasn't part of the program.
The body can have a powerful effect on mental wellbeing; and therefore, moving your body and getting some exercise is likely to make you feel good!
What Type of Exercise is Best?
Most types of exercise will benefit postpartum women but pram walking may be the most convenient, social and safe to perform immediately after giving birth.
This type of gentle exercise is an activity that can be integrated into women's lives quickly and easily, it involves the baby and is enjoyable.
If you'd like to be a little more active there are some post-natal exercise guidelines that you should keep in mind.
• Not exercising when you feel over-tired or poorly
• Focus on maintaining a good posture throughout
• Always listen to your body and adjust the intensity and rest periods in accordance
• Not exercise if pain or bleeding occurs
• Start exercise slowly and only gradually increase the workload
• Avoid exercises which place stress on the unstable pelvic floor or hip joints until joint strength and stability have improved
• Avoid activities which require rapid changes of direction
• Avoid high impact activities, like running (for 3 months post birth)
• Avoid over-heating
• Don't exercise to fatigue; muscle aching and soreness should be avoided
• Ensure adequate hydration and energy intake
• Perform 3 sessions, but no more than 5 sessions, in any 7 day period
• Perform 10 minutes (excluding warm-up and cool-downs) of exercise initially and extend this to 30 minutes, per session*
Remember, it can take a full 9 -12 months to regain your pre-pregnancy body shape, composition, weight and fitness level, so try to be kind to yourself and not expect too much!
Does Exercise Affect the Breast Milk?
It has long been thought that exercise impacts both the quantity and quality of breast milk. However many studies have shown that regular, moderate intensity exercise, combined with good nutrition and hydration, has no affect on milk production.
On the other hand, high intensity exercise has been shown to make breast milk taste sour, due to an accumulation of lactic acid, and consequently, reduces infant feeding. In most cases, feeding the baby before exercise should over-come this problem.
When to Start Exercise After Birth
Always consult with your doctor and midwife before starting any kind of post-natal exercise. Most women will need to wait until their 6-week check up before even thinking about any formal exercise, however this doesn't prevent you from going on walks or performing your kegel exercises.
Gentle exercise, like walking, can generally start as soon as you feel comfortable enough. However, those who have had birth complications, or a caesarian, will need to wait a little longer until their body is ready.
As with before birth, your body will still be producing relaxin, a hormone which makes your joints and ligaments more pliable and therefore easier to strain and pull. To prevent this from happening be sure to warm up properly and avoid any high-impact exercises or plyometric exercises or sports that require rapid changes of direction (like tennis).
To help motivate yourself to exercise do it with someone else. Find a group, grab a friend or hire a personal trainer and find some fun ways to get out and about and moving your body.