Beth Lewis, Ph.D., has a busy, active life. An associate professor in Kinesiology, she teaches, serves as the director of undergraduate studies for the School, and has a prolific research agenda. She is also a mom on a mission.
“I made a New Year’s resolution when I was in graduate school,” she said. “Exercise five times a week.” Lewis had always been active in sports and physical activity, but she had little time back then for a regular exercise routine. She realized how much better she felt when she was exercising regularly.
“The hardest time for me to maintain an exercise program was postpartum,” the mother of three says, “but I needed it more than any other time in my life.” After the birth of her first child, she became interested in how exercise helps women generally, and how postpartum women might especially benefit from incorporating exercise into their lives. Lewis was recently awarded her third grant related to this research topic, this time from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Bureau.
The three-year $900,000 grant, “Exercise Intervention for Preventing Perinatal Depression Among Low-Income Women,” will study 200 low-income pregnant women who have a personal history of depression and who are not taking antidepressants. Study participants will engage in moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking to exercise DVDs, yoga, or low-impact aerobics classes, beginning in their pregnancy and continuing to three months postpartum. Researchers will conduct telephone interviews to provide ongoing support and to assess the impact of the exercise intervention. Lewis recognizes the importance of having such direct contact with pregnant women and new mothers. “It is sometimes challenging for new moms to keep up with emails and texts and consequently, we use the phone to deliver our program. For some postpartum mothers, we might be the only person they talk to all day and this personal connection can be a helpful motivator.”
Lewis’s previous Healthy Mom studies examined depression in only postpartum women who had a history of depression or whose mother had a history of depression; however, unlike her previous studies, this intervention will start during pregnancy and continue into postpartum. The study will measure the effects of exercise vs. “usual care,” which does not necessarily include regular physical activity. Lewis’s previous studies revealed that higher levels of physical activity were related to fewer depressive symptoms, which makes the new grant an important next step. Co-Investigators on this study include Dr. Jamie Stang, Dr. Melissa Laska and Dr. Darin Erickson from the School of Public Health, and the head of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health at the U of M, Dr. Carrie Terrell. Postgraduate fellow, Katie Schuver, Ph.D. (Kinesiology, 2014), serves as the project coordinator.
“The question we’re asking people is, ‘How do you motivate yourself to exercise during the day?’ We need to figure out a way of intrinsically motivating our participants to exercise,” says Lewis. “People will see results, they’ll sleep better, they’ll feel better. But personal motivation is a real challenge.” She notes that depression affects approximately 14-25 percent of pregnant and postpartum women and she hopes her program could eventually be disseminated into clinical practice.