Happiness means different things to different people. With International Happiness Day tomorrow, I thought I’d write about how exercise has been vital to my happiness in motherhood. In the early postnatal stages I remember feeling suffocated by the expectation that I should be radiantly happy, when in reality I was really struggling with the realities of coping with a newborn. I was often too proud to admit that being a mum was not the fulfilling, amazing and rewarding experience that everyone else seemed to think it should be. Don’t get me wrong, I did experience peaks of happiness and positivity but it was sporadic. I was often left with the feeling that I was waiting for the right conditions to be happy. Once I got a good night sleep I would be happy. Or maybe once this growth spurt was over. Or when my child had stopped teething. Or when I lost some weight.

After many failed attempts to try and improve my happiness by working on the ‘good nights sleep’ I decided that instead I should maybe focus on losing some weight instead. I felt miserable every time I looked down at my stomach and was nowhere near being able to fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes, and being asked “When’s it due?” every time I ventured out without my children didn’t do too much for my mood either. However, I was aware that I had limited willpower when it came to food so I would have to start doing some exercise instead.

I searched on Facebook and found a postnatal exercise class close by. I can still remember going along to the first session; I was so close to bailing because I couldn’t find any fitness clothes that would actually fit me. It was such a long time since I had done any exercise that I was petrified about whether I would be able to keep up with everyone else and my body felt weak and clumsy after having children. As I drove to the class I had visions of all these superset gym bunny types judging me as I struggled to complete the exercises.

That first session was to completely transform my life. Yes, I couldn’t manage a press up, squats were agony and lets not even start on the burpees….but I was buzzing. Exercising gave me some headspace and for the first time in ages I felt like I had actually achieved something. Even though I really didn’t feel like going beforehand and found every single exercise painful and challenging, when I returned home, I felt so much more energised and positive.

Although I had started exercising with the goal of losing weight, as time went on this became completely irrelevant. I started to feel more like my old self again, less stressed and more confident. I’m not going to lie, there were (and are) still days when I felt overwhelmed, but now I knew that a quick workout would help blast away the negativity. Exercising also gave me a goal outside of just making it through the day without losing it. It was great to a have a personal challenge, an outside focus that gave me some ‘me’ time away from the daily stresses. Rather than fixating on how my body looked I started to focus on how my body felt, becoming firmer and more powerful. When I looked in the mirror, instead of hating my reflection, I was impressed by my body’s new abilities.

More and more research is proving the mental health benefits of exercise. Experts offer multiple reason why exercise positively impacts mental health; most agree it likely a combination of indirect and direct factors. Better circulation and reduced inflammation from exercise are immediate affects. With more oxygen being delivered to the brain, the mind is clearer and less fatigued. With less fatigue and a stronger state of mind we can handle stress more easily. In fact, according to a study at the University of Vermont, as little as twenty minutes of exercise can improve our mood for up to 12 hours.

It is important at this stage to say that at no point was I suffering from postnatal depression. For those of you who are affected by this condition I would recommend reading Laura’s blog about it here.

Lastly, I would like to say a huge thank you to Laura, as it was her class that I was fortunate enough to find on Facebook. She has helped me rebuild my confidence, regain my sense of self and reconnect with my body. Most importantly though, she has helped me discover that exercise makes me happy – and that feeling after a workout of wanting to enjoy every moment of being alive is something I am thankful for every day.