“Exercise helps fight postpartum depression” according to this latest study from Finland. Seeing as we have known for some time that exercise helps improve mood in everyone (whether depressed or not), it’s not going to make headline news.
But what this seeming statement of the obvious hides is that exercise benefits women suffering from PND (and all new mothers to some degree) above and beyond the action of the endorphins. Because what usually accompanies exercise is space. Whether you leave the house or simply go for a solitary walk, you gain a bit of distance from your children and your thoughts. When you’re feeling low and the children are demanding all of you, it can be very difficult to gain any sense of perspective. Knowing you’ve got an hour (or however long you have) of time, where you set the pace, you control what you do and how, can be enormously liberating. And if you can build it into your weekly schedule, you can also enjoy the anticipation (“I just have to get through this truly terrible day and I’ll be out”).
Exercise also literally helps you to feel like yourself again. As mothers of babies and small children, it’s so easy to spend all our time meeting the needs of other people. Sometimes it can feel like we’re having an out of body experience. When I was in the depths of my depression and you’d asked me how I was feeling, I’d have looked at you in astonishment. How on earth would I know? I had outsourced my feeling to another being.
But whether you’re doing pilates or yoga (great for stretching out shoulders and backs tight from feeding and carrying babies) or dancing the zumba, moving your body helps you become more aware of your own feelings. And once we start looking after ourselves, everything else starts working better too. Our relationships with our children and partners improve. We feel a bit calmer. There’s a bit more of a sense of a world outside of the feelings of insanity and pain.
It’s not a magic bullet. Exercise was just a part of my recovery, which included taking antidepressants, learning mindfulness, blogging and work. But it was (and remains) an important part. Over Christmas and New Year when I wasn’t able to get out and exercise because of looking after sick children, I felt trapped and exhausted. Some of the old feelings came flooding back. Because, at its core, choosing to use your body in a way that makes you feel good is a way of taking back a little bit of control. And when you’re struggling with PND or just finding motherhood tougher than you thought, that can mean the difference between keeping your head above the water or sinking.