Date of Award

January 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Kinesiology & Public Health Education

First Advisor

Tanis Walch


In the United States, approximately 20 percent of all children have a special health care need. Additionally, mothers of a child with a special health care need have worse overall well-being, mental and physical health compared to mothers of typically developing children. Physical activity may improve depressive symptoms and overall health in these mothers; however, little is known about the acceptability of physical activity interventions for mothers of a child with a special health care need. Therefore, the primary aim of this study was to understand more about mother’s desire to use physical activity to improve depressive symptoms after having a child diagnosed with a special health care need. The secondary aim was to investigate their experience with physical activity from before pregnancy, to following their child’s diagnosis. Methods: Participants were recruited locally and nationally through collaboration with advocacy organizations, email list-serves, and social media (e.g., Facebook). Mothers completed an electronic survey (n =348; age = 39.3  7.3 years; White = 92%; Midwest = 80.1%; employed = 59.2%; prenatal or at birth diagnosis = 51.7%) that assessed physical activity participation before pregnancy, during pregnancy, during postpartum, and currently. Additionally, type of physical activity used to cope with depressive symptoms, as well as interest in using physical activity to cope were assessed. Last, depressive symptomology and how mothers were currently coping were measured. Descriptive data (e.g., means, frequencies, percentages) were calculated. Qualitative responses were summed and categorized. Physical activity and depressive symptoms were analyzed with Pearson correlations (SPSS v26). Results: Mothers reported participating in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (at least 150 minutes per week) before their pregnancy (50.9%), during their pregnancy (30.7%), postpartum (30.2%), as well as currently (39.1%). A majority (59.8%) of mothers reported possible depression, and only 17 percent were coping very well raising a child with a special health care need. When asked how they cope with depressive symptoms, talking/engaging with friends or family (74%), physical activity (37%), and with a support group (28%) were reported most frequently. Of those that reported using physical activity to cope with depressive symptoms, they did so to have better quality of life (77%), better overall physical health (76%), weight loss (57%), to help with depressive symptoms (37%), or other (10%). Physical activity to cope with depressive symptoms included walking (66%), house cleaning (56%), yoga (40%), strength training (38%), jogging or running (33%), or other (23%). Participation in any physical activity (r = -0.178, p < 0.001), and moderate to vigorous physical activity (150 min/week) (r = -0.108, p = 0.044), were negatively associated with depressive symptoms. Discussion: Increasing physical activity in mothers who have a child with a special health care need is an important public health concern, and targeting maternal health may be one way to improve quality of life in these families. This study illuminates an opportunity to improve depressive symptoms in mothers of a child with a special health care need through physical activity following their child’s diagnosis. Future research should utilize randomized controlled trials to examine ways to increase physical activity in mothers of a child with a special health care need to improve overall quality of life.