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There are 3 things on mental performance consultant Dr. Chantale Lussier’s radar when she thinks about inclusive approaches to mental health: the cultural (individualistic vs. collectivistic), the relational (intrapersonal vs. interpersonal), and the philosophical (secular vs. spiritual). “Mental health is the stuff that happens between us, not just the stuff that happens in us,” says Dr. Lussier.

Father’s Day is this Sunday! Although entering parenthood can be an exciting time, it comes with new challenges and responsibilities. This can often limit the amount of physical activity that fathers partake in. Research shows that fathers who maintain optimal physical activity levels have better physical and mental health, enhanced positive father-child bonding, and are better able to promote positive health for their children.

To improve mental health, teens (13 to 15 years old) need more exercise and less screen time. New research shows that adolescents’ mental wellbeing declines with more than 1 hour of recreational screen time a day. On the other hand, daily exercise has been consistently shown to help improve teens’ mental health and life satisfaction.

For athletes, mental health can be as important as physical health. Australian researchers encourage sport organizations to use a three-pronged approach to supporting high performance athletes by equipping athletes with skills to manage distress, training coaches to recognize mental health concerns, and working with skilled mental health professionals when needed.

As sport professionals, part of our support for military personnel often includes considering types of sport programming that may promote physical and mental recovery following service-related illness and injury. But military families are often overlooked. Integrating military family programming and support into sport program delivery is one way to support the healing and recovery of military families.

Kids don’t have to be the only ones getting active during their organized sport activities. Training sessions provide an ideal time for moms to get active too! Creating opportunities for parents to engage in individual or group exercise during their children’s sport practices is one way sport programs can enhance sport moms’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Self-compassion requires an awareness of personal suffering and a desire to help oneself through an emotionally difficult time. Based on the research, self-compassion has three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Becoming a mother is an exciting milestone in a woman’s life. Once you welcome home a baby, nothing is ever the same again. While the transition to motherhood comes with many ups and downs, engaging in physical activity is a great way for new moms to protect their physical and mental health. For more information, see  Moving women forward, a blog post about becoming active after childbirth.

As a research team, we’ve been exploring postpartum women’s perspectives of physical activity engagement. To fully understand the challenges that new mothers face, we went to the experts: mothers. We asked moms, who were 6 to 12 months postpartum, for advice they would give to other new moms about being physically active.

In this blog, we outline key considerations for new moms based on the advice of the postpartum women in our research. We also offer tips for returning to movement with the aim of optimizing physical and mental health during the postpartum period.

1. Reframe physical activity as something that benefits your mind and body

Small amounts of physical activity, even 10 to 15 minutes worth, can benefit both your physical and mental health (Teychenne et al., 2020). Many women discussed how challenging it is to start being physically active. Yet once they started, physical activity was invaluable to their mental health. They recommended mothers reframe physical activity as something they do for both their minds and bodies. Researchers have found that being active outdoors, and preferably in nature,  can be even more beneficial (Gladwell et al., 2013).

Exercise can also be empowering for mothers. Motherhood comes with many personal and societal expectations that can feel overwhelming (Bean & Wimbs, 2021), and the responsibility of caring for a newborn and other children can be consuming. Making time for oneself through physical activity can calm negative thoughts and provide a break from caregiving responsibilities, giving space for moms to feel accomplished, powerful and connected to their bodies (Lloyd et al., 2016).

Movement tip for new moms:

2. Take it slow when jumping back in

Returning to physical activity postpartum should be a gradual process. Many of the mothers we spoke with shared that they hadn’t returned to their pre-childbirth levels of physical activity. Despite receiving clearance at the standard 6‑week, post-partum check-up, they didn’t feel ready to resume regular physical activity.

The women we spoke to also said they managed expectations of how much physical activity they could do by listening to their bodies. While they were excited to move again, physically overextending themselves led to pain and delays in recovery. Checking in with their healthcare team was also an important part of their return to movement journey.

Movement tips for new moms:

3. Be creative: Don’t wait for the “stars to align”

For many mothers, making the time for physical activity after childbirth requires flexibility and creativity. Before having children, the women in our research were accustomed to exercising in structured ways. These mothers had expectations of returning to their pre-baby routines, leading to stress and demotivation when those routines were hard to manage.

When the moms in our research reframed physical activity from structured exercise to “moving your body,” they found it easier to be active. Instead of waiting for the “stars to align,” they integrated movement into their daily routines by napping their infant in the stroller so they could get a walk or run in or through engaging in housework, errands and childcare. Likewise, allowing for flexibility around when, where and how they engaged in movement helped to follow their infant’s unpredictable schedule. Doing so lessened feelings of guilt or stress during times when the moms missed scheduled exercise or when it looked different than originally planned (Dixon, 2009; Lloyd et al., 2016).

Movement tips for new moms:

4. Grant yourself grace: Practise self-compassion

The women in our research described motherhood as a rollercoaster, with many “ups and downs.” It’s important to allow space for patience and grace while returning to movement because postpartum bodies are healing and adjusting to a new routine.

After giving birth, a safe return to physical activity happens slowly and with caution, which requires some patience (Evenson et al., 2014). Mothers often report feeling frustrated, stressed or confused about returning to exercising (Currie, 2004). Part of this process includes replacing the “bouncing back to pre-baby body” mindset with focusing on physical movements that your body is currently capable of.

But remember, you’re not alone on this journey! In addition to consulting with medical professionals about returning to movement, connect with other mothers to hear and share stories. These connections can be critical in combating the guilt and self-doubt that often (and unfortunately) go hand-in-hand with motherhood.

Movement tips for new moms:

5. Leverage support from your loved ones 

The people closest to new mothers, including spouses and family members, see and may also experience the various changes that happen when a new baby arrives. Most moms agree that this support system is critical.

Family and friends are important sources of emotional support. For example, women often need to reconsider what it means to be physically active during and after their pregnancies. This can be as much of a mental shift as a physical one. During this period, loved ones can offer encouragement and compassion as you navigate the transition. They can also help you to be accountable to your physical activity goals (Bean & Wimbs, 2021). Take a read of another blog post to see how team sport can also be a great source of support for postpartum women.

But emotional support only goes so far. Other types of support are needed to minimize the barriers that new moms face to being physically active. Other types may include childcare and household support, such as running errands, doing chores and preparing meals. When family and friends take on childcare and household responsibilities, then the mental (and physical) load for mom is reduced, which allows mom the time and energy to meaningfully engage in movement (McKeown, 2021).

Movement tips for new moms:

From one mom to another…

The return to movement doesn’t need to be a daunting task. When you focus on your well-being, listen to your body, get creative, practice self-compassion and lean on your support system. You might find that moving your body is easier than you think. This way, moms can be happy and healthy, helping their babies be happy and healthy, too.

This article was originally published by The Conversation on March 20, 2022

The Conversation

The birth of a child is a momentous occasion in a woman’s life. It may also be one of the most challenging transitions that women face, requiring adaptation to identity and role while undergoing a unique physiological transformation.

Physical activity after recovery from birth can be helpful. Women who engage in postpartum exercise tend to have better mental and physical health outcomes. Benefits of exercise for new moms include weight loss, improved aerobic fitness, improved mood and increased social connectedness. However, physical activity rates tend to drastically decline after pregnancy.

Despite the potential positive impact that physical activity may have during the postnatal transition, little academic attention has been given to helping women return to exercise after the birth of a child. As an interdisciplinary research team in sport and physical activity, we have been working to address this gap by exploring women’s postnatal physical activity experiences.

Women’s questions about postpartum exercise

Mother with baby on her back as she does a core exerciseWe asked women what questions they had about physical activity engagement within their first three months postpartum. What they shared about their physical activity engagement parallels what has been identified in research: mothers’ physical activity is reduced with the birth of a child, and primary barriers to engagement include a lack of opportunity.

Women’s questions were fuelled by feelings of uncertainty and confusion about their return to physical activity, asking: How much physical activity should I do? What intensity of exercise is safe for me? What type of physical activity should I engage in? How do I engage in physical activity with my newborn? How will I know if I’ve pushed my body too hard?

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology states that women should slowly return to physical activity after giving birth and work their way up to the general physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity per week. If women have had a surgical birth or tearing during a vaginal birth which required stitches, it may take longer to become active.

Most women were curious about strategies and recommendations for physical activity after the birth of a child, including finding the time, energy and motivation to exercise.

Based on these frequently asked questions, we provide recommendations for supporting women in engaging in postpartum physical activity for two relevant groups:

Since both groups are actively invested in improving community health and well-being, we hope to outline how they can work together to provide accessible, equitable and meaningful physical activity opportunities for postnatal women.

Physicians and health-care workers

Young Mother doing Yoga at HomeIn Canada, the most common health-care experience for new mothers is a six-week followup with their physician or midwife. At this point mothers are told they can return to physical activity if their body has healed appropriately. Unfortunately, most women feel this support is inadequate, stating a need for more information from health-care professionals about guidelines for returning to physical activity.

So, how can physicians and health-care workers better assist these women? Women outlined how best to help them return to physical activity. Since all women do not experience childbirth and recovery the same way, opportunities for equitable and individualized care for postpartum women are essential. This means offering not only extended care beyond the six-week mark, but tailoring care for each woman’s recovery process and physical activity engagement.

Specifically, there is a need for physical activity education by midwives, physical activity counsellors or physicians. Women also recommended that access to a pelvic physiotherapist be a standard part of postnatal care.

It’s important to assess the pelvic floor after childbirth. It is a crucial group of muscles that helps maintain bladder and bowel control, supports internal organs and co-ordinates with the deep core, diaphragm and deep back muscles. These muscles do a lot of the heavy lifting during pregnancy and can be strained during childbirth, requiring rehabilitation.

Additional resources would be valuable to give women tools to develop confidence to return to physical activity. These include safe exercise choices and progressions during the postpartum period; nutrition, hydration and sleep guidelines; exercises that can be done with an infant; and information about child-friendly exercise spaces.

Such information could be packaged in multiple formats — such as pamphlet, website and phone app — and offered as part of the standard package when women are discharged from the hospital following delivery, or at a six-week physician follow-up.

Community leisure service providers

Women in our studies also desired more informational support to join local fitness and community centres. Such involvement meant the chance to meet other mothers and learn more about safe physical activity engagement postpartum. Yet, accessing these programs was often fraught with barriers.

In a study to be published in Health and Fitness Journal of Canada, we found postnatal women wished for individualized and affordable community programming, given the high costs of caring for a newborn. In interviews with mothers after a group exercise program, we found this form of programming to increase community connection, motivation and accountability.

Mothers also said that flexible childcare and attendance options — such as a combination of daycare facilities, classes that accommodate infants and online fitness classes — would support engagement.

Lastly, women spoke about how mothering social groups, resource-sharing between programmers and health-care providers, and maternity consultants for staff can help increase postnatal programming quality, and in turn, participation.

As a society, we can do better to support postpartum women’s physical activity engagement. When women are physically active, they feel physically and mentally well, enabling them to better handle the challenges of motherhood and be positive health role models for their children.

If you are interested in participating in a research study to better understand the experiences of mothers postpartum, please visit this page.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Disclosure statement

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Taking time to reflect on growth experienced during a sport season is a great way for student-athletes to reinvest in their mental health. In addition to setting goals for the future, athletes should take time to think about and celebrate how they’ve improved or what they’ve achieved. Coaches can help athletes reflect on their growth by hosting exit meetings with each athlete at the end of a season.