Researchers have apparently stumbled on a new prescription for postpartum depression (PPD)—one that’s free, easily accessible, and doesn’t involve pharmaceuticals.
It’s well known that working out provides a wide variety of physical health benefits, from protection against heart disease and diabetes to improved sleep and lower blood pressure. But it can also cause physiological changes that counteract mental health conditions like depression—through a release of mood-boosting endorphins during high-intensity exercise, and a release of proteins during sustained low-intensity exercise that causes nerve cells to grow and form new connections.
Those benefits extend to PPD, according to researchers in China. They examined data from 26 studies involving 2,876 women who were pregnant or had recently given birth, in a bid to determine what type of exercise—and how much—is most effective at combating the condition, defined as depression occurring within a year after delivery.
The most effective regimen, they found: three to four sessions a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, with each session lasting 35–45 minutes. Group exercise classes and exercise led by an instructor or trainer appear to provide even greater benefits.
While there is still much to understand regarding the ways in which exercise improves PPD, Columbia University psychologist Catherine Monk told Fortune she was pleased to see new data on the topic.
Many patients with PPD are uncomfortable taking pharmaceuticals and have a hard time fitting therapy into their schedules. While exercise doesn’t solve the problem of PPD and expanded access to mental health care is still needed, she was excited to see increased focus on “behavioral health interventions like exercise that could be really helpful.”
Potential non-drug treatments for PPD
PPD affects roughly 13 million women worldwide annually, making it the most common complication following childbirth. While treatments are available, including therapy and medications, the