Depressive Symptoms in Postpartum Women Reduced By Exercise

Pregnant woman running.
Pregnant woman running.
Physical activity is a safe and effective strategy for preventing depressive symptoms in pregnant and postpartum women.

Physical activity during pregnancy and the postpartum period is effective in controlling depressive symptoms and improving the overall psychological well-being of pregnant women and new mothers, according to a systematic review recently published in Birth.

“Postpartum depression is a disorder with high prevalance among women — up to 15% of women are affected by the condition,” said Celia Álvarez-Bueno, MS, research scientist at the Health and Social Research Center, University of Castilla-La Mancha, in Ciudad Real, Spain, and study co-investigator in an email interview with Psychiatry Advisor.

A team of investigators from Spain and Chile searched 7 literature databases, including Science Direct, Cochrane Library Plus, PubMed, Web of Science, Scopus, EMBASE, and CINAHL, for studies analyzing the effects of physical activity on postpartum depression. Included in the meta-analysis were 12 randomized and nonrandomized controlled trials published between January 1990 and May 2016. The effects of physical activity interventions on postpartum depression were determined by calculating the pooled estimates of effect size and respective 95% confidence intervals.

“The most important finding of our study is that physical activity during and after pregnancy may reduce the occurrence of postpartum depression and mitigate the symptoms in women who suffer from this disorder,” said Álvarez-Bueno.

The effect size of physical activity interventions in women with postpartum depressive symptoms during pregnancy and the postpartum period was 0.41 (95% CI, 0.28-0.54). The pooled effect sizes were 0.67 (95% CI, 0.44-0.90) and 0.29 (95% CI, 0.14-0.45) in mothers who did and mothers who did not meet the criteria for postpartum depressive symptoms at baseline, respectively.

The symptoms of postpartum depression include irritability, panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, guilt, excessive fatigue, fear of harming the baby, and an overall loss of interest in daily activities. When these symptoms become severe, there is a significant impact on the quality of life of both the mother and the baby.

“The negative consequences of these symptoms affect not only the mother, but also the child, who may suffer poorer emotional and cognitive development,” explained Álvarez-Bueno, who added that “Although the study could not exactly quantify the number of gestational depression episodes that could be prevented by the physical activity, it confirmed a positive and direct relationship between exercise and prevention of postpartum depression.”

Based on the overall findings, she concluded that “each woman should strive to find a type of physical activity that is suitable for her fitness level and particular circumstances.” 

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Poyatos-León R, García-Hermoso A, Sanabria-Martínez G, et al. Effects of exercise-based interventions on postpartum depression: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials [published online June 7, 2017]. Birth. doi:10.1111/birt.12294