Findings from a 2009 European study are slightly more positive. The researchers based in Copenhagen, Denmark, analyzed figures from 1,462 women with depression in the year after giving birth.
Women who engaged in “vigorous physical activity” during pregnancy had a 19 percent lower risk of requiring antidepressants than women who were not physically active. But physical activity did not affect the risk of depression severe enough to require hospital admission.
They conclude, “Our data are compatible with a protective effect of vigorous physical activity, but not for other measures of physical activity, against postpartum depression requiring antidepressant therapy.”
Jennifer S. Haas, MD, and her team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, looked at the causes of health status among a multi-ethnic group of 1,809 women during and after pregnancy. They say, “Substantial changes in health status occurred over the course of pregnancy. For example, physical function declined during the third trimester and improved during the postpartum period.”
The rate of depressive symptoms rose from 12 percent prior to pregnancy to 25 percent during the third trimester, and then fell to 14 percent postpartum. Women who did not exercise prior to pregnancy were more than twice as likely to report depressive symptoms compared to women who exercised at least two hours per week.
“Lack of exercise was strongly and consistently associated with poor health status before, during, and after pregnancy,” they conclude. Results also indicate that lack of exercise during pregnancy may have been caused by fatigue as well as the depressive symptoms themselves.
Fortunately, home-based exercise may be just as effective as walking, swimming or taking classes. Researchers from McGill University, Canada found that a 12-week individualized home-based exercise intervention was significantly beneficial for women with postpartum depression. Fatigue levels were also lowered, partly due to reductions in perceived stress and increased energy expenditure, say the team.
Melanie S. Poudevigne, PhD, of Clayton State University, Georgia points out that the adverse consequences of inactivity “may be an especially important problem among pregnant women,” as up to 60 percent are inactive during pregnancy. She believes that regular physical activity contributes positively to physical and psychological health. As pregnancy progresses, she reports that leisure time and work-related physical activities decrease, as does the intensity and duration of physical activity overall.
A review of the research, carried out in 2007, focused on the potential role of exercise, particularly baby carriage walking, as an additional treatment for postpartum depression. Several studies supported participation in exercise programs as a useful treatment.
The reviewers, from Birmingham University, UK, write, “There are plausible mechanisms by which exercise could have such an effect.” They add, “Given the reluctance by some women to use antidepressant medication postpartum and the limited availability of psychological therapies, exercise as a therapeutic possibility deserves further exploration.”
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