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Exercising during and after pregnancy reduces the risk of getting the baby blues, according to researchers.

Simply walking with a pram protects against postnatal depression in new mothers, a 2017 study published in the journal Birth found.

The authors tracked the mental health of almost 1,000 mothers who were offered exercise interventions during and after pregnancy as part of a new study.

Compared to women who didn’t exercise, the researchers found those who did displayed fewer signs of depression following the birth of a child.

An estimated 140,000 women suffer from mental health problems during pregnancy or in the months after their baby is born each year in the UK.

‘The negative consequences of postpartum depression not only affect the mother but also the child, who can suffer poor emotional and cognitive development,’ said researcher Celia Alvarez-Bueno, a PhD student at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain.

Symptoms of postpartum depression can include anxiety attacks, insecurity, irritability, fatigue, guilt, fear of harming the baby and a reluctance to breastfeed.

The symptoms start within four weeks of delivery and are considered severe when they last for more than two weeks, according to the researchers.

‘That’s why it’s important to test the most effective strategies to prevent this disorder or mitigate the consequences,’ Ms Alvarez-Bueno said.

Researchers analysed data from 12 trials of exercise interventions during or after pregnancy between 1990 and 2016.

The studies included a total of 932 women and all examined them for their severity of postpartum depression.  

The exercises used in the various studies included stretching and breathing, walking programs, aerobic activity, Pilates and yoga. 

Compared to women who didn’t exercise, the researchers found those who did had fewer depression symptom during the postpartum period.

The benefit of having fewer symptoms was seen even among women who did not meet the cutoff for a depression diagnosis.

‘We expected that physical activity could reduce postpartum depressive symptoms,’ Ms Alvarez-Bueno said.

‘However, we were pleasantly surprised when we found that exercise after pregnancy also reduced depression among the women who didn’t have diagnosable symptoms.’

The current study did not investigate how much exercise new mothers need to do to stave off symptoms of depression.

But The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommended in 2009 that pregnant and postpartum women engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. 

‘We know that exercise is just as effective as anti-depressants for adults. The trick is to get them to do the physical activity,’ said Beth Lewis of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who wasn’t involved with the study. 

‘With postpartum depression, it’s even more complicated due to the increased stress and sleep deprivation after having a baby.

‘We’re starting to learn more about exercise and how it helps.’

Future studies should include more data about the types of physical activity programmes that could reduce depression, the researchers said.

Health providers should know more about the duration, intensity and frequency of exercise to recommend to new mothers, they added.

‘It remains unanswered how these characteristics improve postpartum depression prevention,’ said Ms Alvarez-Bueno.

‘More research addressing this issue is urgently necessary because of the influence on both the mother and child.’