Aerobic exercise should be considered as a “management option” for women who have recently given birth and are showing depressive symptoms, researchers said.
Physical activity could be a potential preventive measure among all postpartum women, they added.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham examined data from 13 trials including 1,734 women.
Their study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, concludes that exercise – either in group sessions, individually or when added to other interventions – is effective in reducing postpartum depressive symptoms.
The authors wrote: “UK clinical guidance recommends psychological therapy and antidepressants for postnatal depression. However, women can be reluctant to take antidepressants postnatally and the availability of psychological therapies is often limited.
“Given the high prevalence of postpartum depression and the potential for exercise to be a low-cost, freely available intervention, aerobic exercise should be considered as a management option for postpartum women with depressive symptoms and as a potential preventive measure more generally in postpartum women.”
A separate study published in the same journal examined women’s experiences with seeking help for postnatal depression.
The analysis of 24 UK studies that obtained data through interviews and focus groups found some women did not seek help because of “stigma”.
The authors said women felt under pressure to be “good mothers” and that “failure” impacted negatively on their mental health and their likelihood to seek help.
They said this was consistent with other reports which found the fear of failure may cause women to stay silent on the matter.
“The combined fear of stigma and the high expectations that women have of themselves further undermine their self-worth, increasing distress,” they wrote.
Dr Judy Shakespeare, a spokeswoman for perinatal mental health for the Royal College of GPs and co-author of the study, said: “Attitudes towards mental health do seem to be improving but a terrible stigma still surrounds mothers with mental health problems, not least from the women themselves.
“As this paper shows, many women think that if they disclose their concerns, they will be judged negatively or are frightened that social services might get involved.”