Combatting depression and anxiety with exercise
Staying active during the pandemic has mental health benefits for pregnant and postpartum women
New moms and pregnant mothers-to-be who were physically active in the early days of the pandemic had a 30 per cent less chance of experiencing depression, according to a University of Alberta study that also shows this already vulnerable group continues to bear the brunt of the isolation measures.
“It’s not like it was a big shock that we recovered from or got used to—levels of depression went up and are staying up,” said Margie Davenport, a pregnancy researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation and a WCHRI member.
“However, 30 per cent is a pretty great reduction for something that is accessible and essentially free.
Between April 14 and May 8, Davenport and her Program for Pregnancy and Postpartum Health team recruited 900 women who were pregnant or within the first year after delivery to participate in an online survey. Among the questions, respondents were asked to self-report levels of depression/depressive symptoms, anxiety and physical activity.
The results showed 40.7 per cent of respondents had survey scores indicative of depression, compared with 15 per cent pre-pandemic, while moderate to high anxiety was identified in 72 per cent of women versus 29 per cent pre-pandemic.
And while the uncertainties behind the pandemic would drive some of the anxiety, the survey showed that women who met or exceeded the 2019 Canadian Guideline for Physical Activity Throughout Pregnancy of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity weekly reduced the odds experiencing depression or depression-related symptoms by 30 per cent.
Still, almost two-thirds of the women in the study reported reduced physical activity as the lockdowns were implemented, while 15 per cent increased and 21 per cent had no change to their physical activity.
“It looks like exercise is actually really important for mental health which fits in with the province’s public health messaging that we’ve been getting, which says even when we are in lockdown or avoiding other activities, we should still be exercising.”
Davenport, who also holds the Christenson Professorship in Active Healthy Living, said examples of ways to get 150 minutes of physical activity per week can be as easy as going for going for a half-hour walk five days per week, or a 10-minute walk after lunch and dinner every day.
And while this longitudinal study doesn’t wrap up until April, Davenport said from what she can see, the pandemic isn’t getting any easier for pregnant and postpartum women.
“When the results started to come in, I was actually quite shocked at the magnitude of the rates of depression and anxiety women were self-reporting compared to before the pandemic, and it appears to be continuing.”
Davenport added it is important to get the information out to the public as dips in mental health during pregnancy is associated with a risk of a host of complications, including preterm delivery.
“And when we talk about the postpartum period, we know that depression can lead to a reduction in the bonding between a mother and her infant, which can potentially lead to a reduction in infant care.”
Davenport noted there have been some longer-term studies that suggest that in such cases, newborns can have delays in their development, whether it’s social, cognitive or emotional, and that this can actually persist into childhood.
As well, she said women who develop depression and anxiety during pregnancy are at an increased risk for developing it again later in life.
“Awareness is one of the most important things that we wanted to come from this study,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that women were aware how common depression and anxiety are for pregnant and postpartum women, especially during the pandemic.”
Of course, two easy ways to reduce the adverse impact of social isolation are exercise and staying connected.
“We do need to find ways to stay connected because even if we’re not in a pandemic, many women, especially in the early postpartum period, do feel quite isolated.”
She added, “It’s heartbreaking, you have a brand new baby, or you’re pregnant, and your family doesn’t ever get to see you.”
Margie Davenport received support for this project from the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.