Exercise for postpartum anxiety: Try strength training good + good

cPostpartum anxiety has been on the rise since the start of Covid-19. This happens when one experiences severe anxiety after becoming a parent. According to The Cleveland Clinic, “These anxious feelings are often out of control and take over your thoughts.” And while sleep, emotional support, and emotional support are all important interventions for mitigating the effects of postpartum anxiety, new research suggests that strength training may also provide some relief.

Non-randomized study, published Canadian Journal of Health and Fitness, followed 19 women less than nine months postpartum who participated in a biweekly strength-based group exercise program developed by Les Mills for a total of eight weeks. Although it is worth noting that this study is extremely small, and we need more robust research on mental health for postpartum women, the results did Begin to shed light on how effective fitness can be in improving the mental health of new mothers.

At the end of the study, the researchers identified two main outcomes of note through a questionnaire administered to all participants. First, they noted that the exercise regimen reduced “state anxiety” — meaning transient but highly emotional anxiety — before and after each exercise class. Next, they observed “significant improvements in meeting basic psychological needs (competence) and significant improvements in autonomic regulation (intrinsic motivation),” the study authors write.

Interestingly, however, there were no reported improvements in self-efficacy or depression, perceived stress, or “trait anxiety” that is characterized by anxiety in many situations.

Still, the positive results are worth pocketing if you’re a new mom (or soon-to-be), according to Peggy Lu, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist trained with Postpartum Support International. “The results are not surprising to me, especially in the first few months postpartum, when mothers often experience such fundamental life, role and body changes,” she says. “There is a lot of evidence supporting physical activity and exercise as a way to reduce anxiety.”

According to Dr. Lu, there are three aspects of research to understand what kind of support newly-minted mothers really need. “What stood out to me about the study was the group format, that women could bring their babies, and that it took place within the first nine months postpartum,” she says.

“Investing in your body and spending regular time focusing on strengthening it can be very re-empowering and bring back a sense of self-care and identity that is often forgotten in the daily routine of parenting a baby.” -Peggy Lu, Ph.D

Exercise itself is powerful because there is significant research indicating that moving your body can make your mind a safer, happier place. “Investing in your body and spending regular time focusing on strengthening it can be very re-empowering and can bring back a sense of self-care and identity that is often forgotten in the daily grind of raising a child,” she says. Also, with the childcare crisis leaving thousands of women without proper help, the fact that the class has to offer cannot be ignored.

“Ultimately, there’s always something powerful about being around women at the same stage of life and parenting that can reassure you that you’re not alone,” Dr. Lu said

Hopefully, future research will delve deeper into the roots of fatphobia, which may also contribute to postpartum anxiety, adds Inclusive Therapist Linda Baggett, Ph.D. “I think a critically important factor that I haven’t addressed is the issue of weight stigma and fatphobia. Emphasis on weight loss, ‘losing baby weight,’ or other messages about small body size being good, perpetuates weight stigma and fatphobia, both of which are chaotic. Diet contributes to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, and makes exercise spaces hostile rather than supportive environments for a larger body,” says Dr. Baggett.

Dr. Lu says new moms can put this research into action by adding strength training to their daily routine (even if it’s literally just 10 minutes twice a week). “I think post-Covid the advancement of online options for almost everything is something moms can really take advantage of,” she says. “Joining an online streaming exercise class from home is now an option. Even getting a few moms together for a weekly Zoom and sharing a screen to play a short yoga video can creatively mimic the same structure of this study but with more flexibility.”

Get moving with this 10-minute postpartum workout:

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