Mums exercise with their bubs to give postnatal depression the kick

Lucas Jones loves watching and copying his mum Kate doing sit ups with the orange ball

Two-year-old Lucas Jones joins in with his mum Kate at a Shape Up Mums class in Richmond. Photo: Louise Almeida.

Group fitness classes are helping new mothers around Melbourne combat mental illness.

The early light of Caulfield South’s Princes Park is filled with the melodious warbles of toddlers and magpies. A collection of young women in Lycra sportswear weave their way around a set of festive cones, blades of dewy grass pasted to their runners.

Mid-stride each scoops up a giggling child.

The women are taking part in a Shape Up Mums exercise class, one of many helping new mothers to stay both physically and mentally fit.

Participants bring their children along to the classes, and even use their infants as weights during exercise drills.

The sessions, specifically designed for mothers with children aged 6-weeks to school age, are provided in ten different Melbourne locations.

Director, Ms Sally Muir, says she set up the classes to cater for mothers who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to exercise or even get out of the house.

She says the isolation many new mothers face is a major risk factor for postnatal depression.

“You have this beautiful baby, and everyone reminds you of how lucky you are – however all you do every day is feed, change nappies and try and get some rest,” she says.

“The repetition of this can be extremely isolating, particularly if family or friends aren’t around to support you during these times.”

Trainer Jacqui helps Lucas and Kate work on their pelvic floor strength

Trainer Jacqui (right)  helps Lucas and Kate work on their pelvic floor strength. Photo: Louise Almeida.

Post and Ante Natal Depression Association spokeswoman, Ms Lisa Murphy, says one in seven mothers are diagnosed with postnatal depression annually, yet the true figure is much higher.

“Postnatal depression in women has often been reported in a negative and sensational way, resulting in women putting on a brave face and going to extraordinary lengths to hide how they feel,” she says.

Ms Murphy says spending time with other mothers is an important step towards recovery but is not always enough to prevent the illness.

There are a range of biological, psychological and social factors that contribute to the development of postnatal depression.

Ms Murphy says it is important to take a balanced approach in order to minimise all risk factors- keeping physically healthy is just as important as developing a support network.

“Regular exercise increases the serotonin levels in the brain, which helps us to feel good,” she says.

“Joining with other new parents can be a great way to make exercise more enjoyable and help new parents feel supported and motivated.”

Ms Muir says she sees mothers’ wellbeing improve drastically during her Shape Up Mums classes.

“At some sessions mums will turn up on the verge of tears, as it has taken all their effort to get out of the house – once they are at the session their spirits lift immensely,” she says.

“This is a combination of endorphins from exercise, talking to other mums that are experiencing the same concerns and the support provided by our trainers.”

The ten Shape Up Mums class locations. Map: Louise Almeida.

Although experts agree group exercise programs help women recover from postnatal depression, some are more cautious in coming to conclusions than others.

Beyondblue psychiatrist, Prof Bryanne Barnett, says more is required than group exercise to treat the illness.

“Exercise is always part of a treatment plan, but sometimes women are not well enough to participate in a group session at the beginning of treatment,” she says.

But in terms of reducing the risk factors, Prof Barnett says regular exercise and social support are integral.

Many of the mothers participating in the Shape Up Mums sessions agree, including Ms Kate Jones.

Ms Jones regularly attends the sessions with her 2-year-old son Lucas in order to stay fit and socialise.

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Postnatal depression is a highly prevalent illness but experts say it is under diagnosed. Infographic: Louise Almeida.

With her hair pulled back into a pony-tail through her sports cap she smiles proudly down at her son. Today Lucas, wearing his knitted lion hat to class, has decided he is a big cat. He plays at his mother’s feet as she speaks.

It is a shame so many mothers forget to look after themselves, she says, adding that the sessions allow her to exercise while spending time with her son.

“It is really good for him too, he gets to play with the other children.”

Continuing the class with strength exercises, she is warmly encouraged by her trainer, Jacqui. The gentle mid-morning sun turns Ms Jones’ slender arms golden.

With Lucas running in circles around her, she lunges whilst lifting a heavy medicine ball over her head, laughing.

It doesn’t take an expert to recognise the benefits of a Shape Up Mums class- all you have to do is spend a couple of minutes watching a session to gain an understanding.

And what does Lucas think of the Shape Up Mums sessions?

“Play Catch,” he says, copying his mum lifting the weighted ball.

He claps his chubby little fingers together, grinning wildly.

“Mum’s winning,” he shrieks.

“Mum’s winning!”

If you are worried about mental health problems in yourself or a friend, talk to your GP or any other health professional. You can find out more at Beyondblue (1300 224 636) and Post & Antenatal Depression Association, PANDA (1300 726 306). For immediate help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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