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Beat Postnatal Depression with Physical Therapy Exercise


For some women, the joy of having a baby is marred by postnatal depression, a form of clinical depression that can occur immediately after giving birth or even weeks to months later. Researchers have found that the risk of postnatal depression can be reduced in new mothers who participate in group physical therapy exercise.

The National Women’s Health Information Center notes that 13 percent of pregnant women and new mothers experience depression. Although the exact causes are not known, it is generally believed that the significant change in hormone levels (e.g., progesterone, estrogen, thyroid hormones) that occur after delivery play a large role.

Other factors may be involved, including feeling overwhelmed with a new infant, lack of sleep, stress, unrealistic need to be a perfect mother, lack of free time, and feeling less attractive. Women who are also experiencing financial problems, lack of family or other social support, difficulties with their marriage or partner, other health problems, or who have a history of depression are also at risk for postnatal depression.

It is well established that exercise can improve mood and that in new mothers, it can reduce symptoms of postnatal depression. What has not been studied, however, is the impact of group physical therapy exercise on new mothers to both help prevent postnatal depression and improve their ability to care for their new infant.

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This approach was evaluated in a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia. A total of 161 new mothers were randomly assigned to participate in a Mother & Baby (M&B) program, an education only group, or to a control group (no intervention). The intervention part of the study lasted eight weeks.

The 62 women in the M&B group engaged in 1 hour of exercise with their infants once a week. The activity was facilitated by a women’s health physical therapist and was accompanied by 30 minutes of parenting education provided by health care professionals. The education-only group consisted of 73 women, and 26 women were assigned to the control group.

The women were evaluated using two scales: the Positive Affect Balance Scale and the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. They also answered questions about how much exercise they had done each week during the study.

The women in the M&B group had significant improvement in depressive symptoms and well-being scores compared with the women in the education-only group, and these benefits extended for a full month beyond the end of the study. The investigators determined that the risk for postnatal depression by the end of the study was reduced by 50 percent as a result of the physical therapy exercise.

Mary P. Galea, BappSci, BA, PhD, professor of clinical physiotherapy in the School of Physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne, noted that new mothers go through many physical and emotional changes. She and her research team found that participation in a group physical therapy exercise program “can help mothers who may be at risk for PND [postnatal depression] improve their well-being and enable them to better care for their children.”

American Physical Therapy Association
National Women’s Health Information Center