Chilliwack moms helping moms, through fitness

An exercise class for new mothers is helping one researcher discover what fitness can do for mental health.

Moms are not okay.

That was the title of a University of Alberta study, which found that the number of new mothers experiencing depression and anxiety more than doubled since before the pandemic. Physical activity helped reduce both anxiety and depression, the study found, but COVID also left women less active than they had been before.

Iris Lesser, a kinesiology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and mom herself, read the study. She wondered if group fitness could help. She had done similar studies during the pandemic: including one suggesting pandemic restrictions affected women’s physical activity more than men’s. Starting a study to explore mental health in new moms, months after the birth of her second daughter, just made sense.

“It was something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, looking at postpartum mental health and physical activity,” Lesser said. “I struggled so much [with anxiety] with my first daughter, and really felt like there was no support for the mother. It was all about the baby.”

Lesser’s study took the form of a twice-weekly outdoor fitness group led by fellow UFV researcher Gillian Hatfield in Chilliwack during the spring. Babies were, of course, welcomed so long as they don’t crawl away, but the focus was on getting moms active and connecting with other adults. The goal was to answer some fundamental questions: do women who exercise together feel connected? And will that help them have better mental health in the long run?

A total of 21 women participated in the study. It’s a large group—they had been divided into two classes to help with social distancing—and the high turnout is likely because many of the groups new moms would ordinarily attend were cancelled.

The outdoor fitness part of the study is now over, but half of the women will be participating in interviews six months after the program. The interviews will help Lesser monitor their well-being after the end of classes and learn whether they’ve been able to keep up their activity levels. There won’t be any published results from her study until those interviews are complete, but anecdotally it’s already been a success for at least one mom.

“I never saw myself as a group fitness person, I’m very individual in my exercise. [At first] it was like, ‘Well, I’ll show up just to be a good sport,’” Lesser said about the classes, which she participated in with her infant daughter Kaia. “But I do find the days that I’m really struggling, when I haven’t slept at all and I’m feeling out of it, I do feel immensely better after going.

“It just resets you. It gets you thinking, ‘I’m not the only one feeling this way. I’m not the only one who didn’t sleep last night.’ It just really gives you a better start to your day.”

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