Monday, March 28, 2011

Why Women Must Exercise for Mental Health

By Claudia Reardon, M.D.

Exercise has mental health benefits for men and women of all ages.  However, there are unique factors to consider in thinking about the mental health benefits of exercise for women in particular.  Compared to men, women have a two-fold increased prevalence of major depression throughout their reproductive life cycle.  Exercise can be a very useful treatment for depression in women at any of a number of different times in their lives:   

  • During pregnancy and breastfeeding:  Depression is highly prevalent in women of childbearing age.  Medications are often necessary to treat moderate to severe depression.  However, many women wish to avoid treatment with medications during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.  At least one study has shown that women who exercised regularly reported less depression in the first and second trimesters compared with women who did not exercise.  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days.
  • During the postpartum period:  Exercise can also help to treat and prevent postpartum depression.  One study has shown that postpartum women who exercised three times per week had less depression than postpartum women who did not exercise. 
  • During the premenstrual period:  Exercise can be useful to treat physical and emotional premenstrual symptoms.  It is less clear if exercise by itself can treat the most severe of premenstrual syndromes (called “premenstrual dysphoric disorder”), but it is still a first-line treatment strategy that most physicians would recommend. 
  • During menopause:  Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise can improve both depression and insomnia occurring during menopause.  Additionally, lower intensity exercise such as yoga has been shown to improve psychological well-being in menopausal women.
Importantly, women may experience barriers to exercise.  Here are some examples of these barriers, and strategies to help address them:

  • Childcare issues:  Women are often responsible for childcare, which makes it difficult for them to find opportunities to exercise.  Gyms that offer childcare services can be helpful.  Also, partners can share the workload. 
  • Intimidation:  Some women may feel uncomfortable working out in the coed environment of a gym.  Consider taking women-only exercise classes, or walking or doing other exercise with women exercise buddies.
  • Self-consciousness about appearance:  If a woman is already uncomfortable about her appearance, then she might worry that she’s drawing even more attention to her body by exercising, especially if wearing skimpy sports clothes.  One strategy is to try walking, which can be done almost anywhere and in almost any type of clothing.
  • Guilt:  Women, especially those who are family caretakers, sometimes describe feeling guilty about taking time for themselves to exercise.  Remember, it is not a selfish thing to exercise.  You are taking time to improve your physical and emotional health, which will allow you to more effectively be there for others.  Besides, you deserve to experience the benefits of exercise!   

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