First, you need your doctor to give you the green light for exercise after pregnancy. After that, here are the three types of exercise that can get you into shape.
As you probably know, heart-pumping cardiovascular exercise is key for burning calories. Even if you don't need to lose weight, getting some aerobic exercise will make you feel more energetic and less stressed.
One of the best cardio workouts is walking. "More and more studies point to walking as the number-one weight-loss strategy," says Liz Neporent, author of The Ultimate Body (Ballantine Books). "It's an easy, low-stress activity and the great thing is that you can take your baby. Pushing a stroller or strapping on a baby carrier actually adds a strength component." For fitness' sake, it's best to walk at a fast-paced, arm-swinging pace. But if you only feel up to a stroll, take it. Something is better than nothing, and just being up and moving can go a long way toward getting you in shape.
Too often, experts say, women concentrate on cardio workouts for weight loss -- but it's strength training that boosts metabolism for long-lasting calorie burn. If you want to lose weight, you need both cardio and weight work; you can't do one and not the other, says Neporent.
Resistance training with dumbbells, weight machines, rubberized tubing, or even your own body weight blasts fat in two ways, says Cunningham: It burns calories and it builds lean muscle mass. Muscle requires more calories to stay alive than fat cells do, even when you're sitting, which increases your resting metabolism by 1 or 2 percent, she explains. That's fairly imperceptible from day-to-day, but it makes a big difference over the course of a year.
Parenting requires flexibility -- and not just in attitude. Exercises such as hamstring stretches and chest stretches help protect your ligaments, tendons, and muscles as they're called on to bend, lift, stoop, and cradle over and over again. About five minutes of stretching two or three times a week should do it, says ACE spokesperson Gregory Florez, a personal trainer in Salt Lake City. Don't waste time stretching before you start a workout -- save it for afterward. A study in the British Medical Journal reviewed the research on flexibility and concluded that stretching before further exercise doesn't protect against soreness or injury; it'll do the most good when the muscles are already warmed up and ready to be lengthened.