How your physical health affects your mental health
It’s a proven relationship: taking care of your body helps you take care of your mind, whether you’re 15 or 50. And after you’ve given birth, once you’re ready, exercise can also help you cope with all the demands of your life with a new baby, as well as improving your mental health.This month, for our fitness special, Absolutely Mama spoke to Gemma Guise, a personal trainer and mum about her own experiences, and how she now helps other young mums get their mojo back after giving birth.
Gemma was over the moon when she fell pregnant, and with a busy life combining her work in PR and personal training she didn’t let it slow her down – she exercised right up to the birth, as a good way to relieve the stress of her jobs, and to have some ‘me time.’
Sadly she found things a lot more difficult after her birth. She had a c-section delivery, and then a longer-then average recovery, which left her unable to exercise – when she tried she only hurt herself – and alongside the baby blues we all have, lack of sleep and so on, the therapy which had most worked for her, exercise, was taken away.
It was at this point Gemma says she saw up close the link between physical and mental health – a well-documented phenomenon which has been getting more airtime of late in the mainstream media.
Many mental health organisations, from Mind to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, preach the benefits of exercise for those with mental health problems from depression to anxiety. For new mums, there is the added risk of post-natal depression, and many mums find that exercise can help enormously with this condition in a preventative way, and also for those who are seeking treatment for PND.
In Gemma’s case, her recovery from surgery forced her to take things slowly, but once she started exercising gently, and then later more comprehensively, she found she started feeling more like herself. There were lots of reasons Gemma found exercise helped: she was really keen to lose her baby weight, and start eating healthily again, but it was also about finding time for herself when she wasn’t just being a mum.
Because she had always been a runner, she says her running buggy was instrumental in helping her recovery: “I really only started feeling back to normal once I was able to get out and about with the buggy, and from that point on, local mums would see me running and would ask whether I could train them as well,” she explains. Gemma then decided to build on her love of personal training and got properly trained in pre-and-post natal exercise. Then she decided she would offer classes to mums to help them to stay in shape all the way through their pregnancy, and then also afterwards.
But it was a long road, from chocolate biscuits back to snacking healthily, getting a life balance back, and re-establishing herself in work, and it wasn’t easy. She now has established classes in a number of venues around Kent and Sussex, as well as in London. What she teaches is essentially a modified form of HIIT training, suited to the level of the mums she’s working with. Classes are pay-as-you-go so it doesn’t matter if some days you just can’t get out of the house.
“In the end a lot of what my pupils end up taking away is a form of self-esteem, of confidence,” she says. “So many mums I talk to fall prey to the Instagram hole, where they see really fit mums back in their size six jeans after two weeks, but that’s just not the reality for most of us, and that’s completely fine.”
Because of what she went through personally, Gemma finds it easy to relate to the women she works with, and whether you’re an exercise fiend from the start, or just starting out, she always finds ways to encourage clients, even when it seems hard. Lots of people have times when they feel it’s tough to get motivated to exercise, and when you’ve just had a baby you’re also dealing with sleep deprivation, and getting to know your new arrival.
And of course exercise is the perfect tool to combat many of these challenges. It’s a cycle: if you work out regularly, you sleep better, and then you have more energy for the day. It also builds your mental strength, which helps you to deal with all the different challenges a new baby presents. Plus it provides you with a routine, which helps enormously when you’re trying to make sense of the fug of hours between feeds and sleeps.
Her training also gives clients the confidence to work out at home if they can’t make it to a class: “Even just doing twenty minutes at home, while the baby naps, using some water bottles as weights or your own body strength can make a difference,” she points out. And again, it’s something you’re doing for yourself; you’ll feel enormously better for having done it.
Gemma’s exercise tips for new mums:
Once you’re healthier you have more energy to deal with everything life throws at you
Set yourself small, achievable goals
Put the biscuits away, but don’t beat yourself up if you’ve spent the day on the sofa eating toast
If you take things a day at a time but you will notice a difference, and so will everyone else.
Take people’s Instagram posts with a pinch of salt, and do not compare yourself with other people on there who apparently have perfect lives
Exercise to do at home: water bottles as weights, skipping rope, long walks, moves with the pouch, running buggy.