E tūtaki ana ngā kapua o te rangi, kei runga, kei runga te Mangoroa e kōpae pū ana | The clouds in the sky close over, but above them spreads the milky way

Guest post from She Moves Fitness Collective

Exercise and your mental health postpartum

Postpartum women and people are at increased risk of developing depression, which can contribute to the ill health of the mother and her family. Research indicates that mothers who are physically active experience lower levels of depression or anxiety symptoms than inactive mothers. Many mothers can also avoid commencing any exercise as they are concerned about doing it safely.

Have you heard the saying “move your body, move your mindset”? It is something we hold close to our hearts and a philosophy we live by at She Moves. We know that exercise is vital for a healthy body, but there is increasing evidence that even moderate physical activity can improve mood, decrease anxiety and plays a role in preventing and managing depression. Today we will be covering the science and physiological reasons behind how exercise boosts your mood, statistics around exercise and mental health here in New Zealand, tips on getting started in your exercise journey and how to stay motivated.

1. The Science

Right, let’s get into the nitty gritty about how regular physical activity has been consistently shown to improve physical health, life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, and psychological well-being and of course it’s associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety – physical activity and exercise, it’s worth doing!

When we exercise there are chemical reactions that occur in our brain, such as the release of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These are those feel good hormone reactions you get after exercise, the ones that make you want to come back for more! These feel-good reactions occur when polypeptides (proteins) bind with neurotransmitters (send signals, they are like the postman of our body) from the body to the brain. How clever are our bodies!

Numerous studies have found that exercise is shown to boost your mood, lowers stress levels and even improves cognitive functions like attention, memory and problem solving – sounds good to us! Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (postman, sends signals to the body from the brain) that’s critical in regulating our motivation, memory, and that satisfaction feeling, while serotonin’s role (released during exercise) affects our mood, emotions, sleep and appetite all of which are essential for both our mental and physical wellbeing.

2. The role of exercise, sleep and our mental health

We never know how amazing sleep is until we don’t get it or we have a bad night’s rest right? As noted above, the hormone serotonin that is released when we exercise not only helps to boost our mood but can also assist with having a good night’s sleep.

So how can regular exercise help with sleep and therefore improve our mental health? It has been shown that moderate exercise can help to stabilise your mood and decompress the mind, a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep.

When we have a good night’s rest we have improved cognitive performance (brain clarity), mood, glucose metabolism, appetite regulation, and immune function.

During deep sleep, that sleep that when you wake in the morning, feel well rested and ready to go, your pituitary gland produces hormones that help your body rest and repair. Additionally when we get into that deep sleep your brain can “switch off” and replenish which we know is important to be able to do when we are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. So hands up who’s ready to move their body to have a better night’s rest!?

3. How exercise can boost your self esteem

When we exercise moderately on a regular basis (3- 4 times per week) it helps to release those feel good chemicals in the brain which in turn gives us that positive sense of achievement, boosting our mood, making you feel good and in charge of your own life.

Exercise can also benefit our social skills, it can offer an opportunity to socialise with others and also to get social support and encouragement if you are exercising with others, part of a team or an online community. The social relationships that are essential with physical activity, as well as the mutual support that occurs among individuals involved in exercise also play an important role in the effects of exercise on mental health.

For even greater benefits try exercising outdoors. Not only is the fresh air good for you, you will also be helping to boost your Vitamin D levels which contributes greatly to mood and depression through its role in the production of serotonin.

4. The statistics behind exercise and mental health

Research from Sport New Zealand shows that physically active Kiwis are more likely to have good mental health.

  • Those who do at least 2.5 hours of recreational physical activity each week have 51% higher odds of reporting good mental wellbeing.
  • Participation in at least 4.5 hours of exercise per week increases the odds to 65%, how incredible is that!

Exercise doesn’t need to be structured, any movement is better than none! Try and replace some sitting time with getting up and moving around simple things such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work, biking or walking to get your kids from school, mowing the lawns or dancing while doing the vacuuming incidental movement over the day all adds up, our bodies were designed to move, exercise has amazing benefits for both your mental and physical wellbeing.

5. So where do I begin?

It can be intimidating to start exercising if you have never done it before or haven’t done it in a long time! The key is to keep it simple and not place too much pressure on yourself, that way you are more likely to stick with it and not become overwhelmed.

  • Enjoyment – Firstly and most importantly choose an activity that you like, if you enjoy something you are more likely to do it! Whether that be walking, swimming, cycling, yoga, pilates, weight training, choose something you enjoy, start slow and slowly build up your intensity over time.
  • Accountability – Maybe you need a little motivation to help get you started? Message a friend who is starting out on their exercise journey too, hold each other accountable by messaging to meet for a workout or to check in and see how they are going. If you are not enjoying what you are doing, mixing it up variety is the spice of life!

6. What happens when the motivation goes?

The reality is we cannot rely solely on motivation when it comes to achieving a healthy and balanced lifestyle or a long term goal. It’s easy to be excited and motivated about a new exercise routine when you have some new workout gear or a new goal you are working towards but what happens when that initial motivation and excitement wears off

Motivation generally runs low after a few weeks, you have to rely on something else, something you can cultivate within yourself, self discipline and commitment. Self discipline is what needs to kick you in the butt when motivation checks out.

When we get busy (let’s face it life is busy) and that initial motivation has worn off what is going to drive you to get up that bit earlier and get your workout in?

You need to create your own self discipline, your why, like anything we need to train our bodies/ ourselves to become self disciplined, it won’t happen overnight, but small actions consistently over time will create that self discipline, exercise, and nourishing your mind and body will become a habit, something that you do for you and is part of your lifestyle.

In summary, exercise is pretty amazing right? There are so many benefits for both our physical and mental health. Just by moving your body a little bit each day you are improving your overall well being, so what are you waiting for get our there and move a little today!

This blog was written by She Moves Trainer Nicole Harris. She Moves is an online award winning pre- and postpartum exercise programme for busy mums. To learn more please visit www.she-moves.co.nz.

See here for information on doing physical activity during pregnancy.