Once you're a mom, you'll probably find that you have a lot less time to exercise than you did in your pre-kid life -- plus you may be low on energy and motivation. You want to lose some weight and get back into shape, but the very idea of putting on exercise clothes may seem overwhelming. Believe it or not, there is some good news about your body's out-of-shape condition: At this point, a little bit of sweating will go a long way. "If you haven't been active, you'll initially see significant changes in your weight and shape with workouts as short as 20 minutes, because there's so much room for improvement," says C.C. Cunningham, a personal trainer in Chicago and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). But if you worked out during pregnancy and are in pretty good shape, you may need to put in 30 minutes to get results.
Of course, once you start becoming fitter, you'll have to increase your workout intensity to continue to see improvements. But by then, you'll have more energy and motivation as you see that your pants are getting looser and your efforts are paying off. Here's how to create a routine that works for you.
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.
What specific routine you choose depends on your preferences and babysitting options.
For a cardiovascular workout, an aerobic class, a session on the StairMaster or elliptical trainer, or following a video in the comfort of your living room while your baby naps are all good choices. Whatever aerobic exercise you choose, start slowly. For example, if you're using a machine, work at a low level until you're feeling comfortable with the movement or exercise, suggests Cunningham. Then gradually step it up.
If you can't find an uninterrupted 20- or 30-minute stretch in your day, don't give up; just shoot for two or three shorter sessions. Research shows that you'll burn the same amount of calories whether you work out for 30 minutes continuously or in three segments of 10 minutes each, says Carla Sottovia, assistant fitness trainer of the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas. However, you won't get the same cardiovascular benefit if you don't exercise continuously. During the course of a day, you should be able to find a few opportunities to walk around the block, march in place, jump rope, or complete a short segment of an exercise video.
You can accomplish a top-to-bottom muscle workout in 10 to 15 minutes if you focus on multijoint moves that work more muscles, such as lunges, squats, pushups, and biceps curls. One set of about 12 to 15 repetitions should do it, as long as you work your muscles to fatigue -- meaning you can barely squeeze out the last rep or two. When you're really pressed for time, you can combine two moves in one exercise, such as doing biceps curls while you lower yourself into a squat. Just be aware that dividing your attention may make that workout less effective, says Neporent, because you may not focus on one form as well.
As your body adapts to activity, the routine will become easier for you to finish. This is great news -- you're becoming fitter! But it also means that you've got to ratchet up your efforts a notch if you want to continue to get results. To keep your body challenged, try to add another 10 percent to your cardio time every week or so -- for example, two more minutes if you've been working out for 20 minutes, and use the next weight or resistance level on your weight-lifting machine.
If you feel time-crunched or you've reached a reasonable limit (say, about 45 minutes), pick up the pace with interval training. After two to five minutes of easy exercise, go harder for a minute or two (or as long as you can), ease up for a minute or two, and repeat as many times as possible. If you're exercising for a short time, you might only get a couple of intervals in, but it's worth it, says Cunningham. The beauty is that the quick burst takes the calorie burn way up, even though you come down to a more comfortable pace again.
If you want to step up your gym workout, try dividing your time between at least two gym machines; exercise bike, treadmill, rowing machine, stair stepper, or elliptical climber. Hop from one machine to the next with no break. Mixing it up gives you better across-the-board usage of muscle groups, says Neporent. Plus, it's less boring so you might work out longer. You can also try alternating between upper- and lower-body moves to avoid muscle fatigue and keep it interesting by shuffling the order of exercises. You can also try new moves that work the same body parts, such as another variation of a biceps curl or squat, says Neporent.
If you find that you've hit a plateau in terms of weight loss or fitness level, here are some more ideas to try:
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your won health or the health of others.