Influences on physical activity and screen time among new mums at risk of depression

What stops mums at risk of postnatal depression from being physically active and limiting screen time? IPAN researchers have explored these influences and tell us how new mums can be more active to improve their mental health.

Postnatal depression (PND) affects 1 in 6 women and can impact on the social, emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing of mothers, babies, and families.

Physical activity is well known to be an important contributor to both the physical and mental wellbeing of women in the postpartum period. However, research shows that a large proportion of this group do not meet the physical activity recommendations (150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity physical activity). Many also report high levels of screen time (such as spending more than 8.5 hours per day on screens).

IPAN PhD student Maria Apostolopoulos investigated the factors that may prevent these women from being physically active and limiting screen time.

Her study is the first to explore the individual, social, and physical environmental influences on physical activity and screen time amongst postpartum women experiencing depressive symptoms.

“Our research found that there are actually many things that influence the physical activity and screen time of women at risk of postnatal depression,” she said.

“We know that spending less time on screens and more time being physically active can benefit the mental health of women at risk of PND, but this study has given us an understanding of what can stand in the way of new mums being more active.”

Individual factors that influenced physical activity included sleep quality, being housebound and living on a single income. Social factors included childcare and social support from partner and friends; and physical environmental factors included weather and safety in the local neighbourhood.

In terms of screen use, individual influencing factors included screen use out of habit and addiction, as well as enjoyment; and social factors included positive role modelling and social isolation.    

Ms Apostolopoulos’ study aligns with a broader research program led by her supervisor, Dr Megan Teychenne, including the Mums on the Move trial (an NHMRC funded program*), which aims to improve healthy behaviours among women at risk of PND.

As part of her PhD studies, Ms Apostolopoulos will also focus on promoting healthy behaviours among new fathers at risk of depression.

“We’re hoping to contribute towards new standards and programs that will improve mental health and wellbeing during the postnatal period, and make a difference to new parents at this stage of their lives,” she said.

Suggestions for new mums to be more active:

  • Get active with others: this could involve pram-walking with other mums from mothers group or participating in a mums & bubs exercise class. Social support from others increases motivation to be active while reaping the physical and mental health benefits of being active.
  • Find ways to be active at home: Some days, baby napping/feeding routines are off or poor weather makes it difficult to leave the house. There are some great fitness apps and YouTube exercise classes freely available if that’s your thing. Alternatively, you might like to try a few bodyweight exercises (like squats or chair dips) or gentle stretching while bubs is asleep.
  • Make it a family event: In our busy lives, it can often be hard to “fit in” quality time with the family as well as prioritising our own physical activity. So, make it a family event by taking a stroll with the whole family or kicking the footy together at the local ground.
  • Be kind to your body: Depending on your delivery, be sure to start gradually, gently and listen to your body. Some days, after a rough night’s sleep, physical activity will be the last thing you want to do. But research shows that getting out even for just a short light walk will lift your mood and energy.
  • Limit screen use: Use screen time tracker apps or disable social media accounts regularly to reduce screen time throughout the day.


* Dr Teychenne is supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Emerging Leadership Fellowship (APP1195335).