About a month before my due date, I remember chatting with a friend about my postpartum exercise routine. At that time, I was an avid morning gym goer — 6:30 am spin classes. I was under the great delusion that I would miss a couple of weeks and then be right back into my fitness regimen.
Reality struck me rather quickly after giving birth, and I realized that it would take more time to ease back into physical shape than I had estimated. My pelvic floor needed work, I was hopelessly looking for any sign that I still had core muscles, and I was downright tired and delirious from sleep deprivation. Many of the mothers I talked to experienced a similar awakening. We all had been somewhat surprised by the postpartum body compared to that of pregnancy. (Full disclosure: these women had been steady prenatal yoga students and were in very good shape during pregnancy.) The shared experience was atrophied muscles, bad posture, an achy body, and general fatigue.
To get back into a postpartum exercise routine, new mothers should always be realistic and patient. It took around 40 weeks to form the pregnant body, and it could take nearly as long to fully return to your pre-pregnancy self. No matter if your labor is quick, long, or surgical, the body undergoes a huge transformation to expel a baby.
Though you'll need to wait until your doctor gives you the OK to start postpartum exercise, you can brainstorm your post-pregnancy workout plan now, following these nine important steps.
Jumping back into your workout regimen so soon after birth is not a great idea, even for ultra-fit mamas. “[I] would recommend that new moms not try to exert themselves before two weeks,” says OB/GYN Kameelah Phillips, MD. “If you are recovering from a C-section, I would defer a routine until after your first post-operative check. Confirm with your doctor that the skin is properly closed, and that you are cleared for a walking routine. I usually recommend you take an ibuprofen prior to any return to activity because the uterus is still healing and can cause discomfort. Give your body a little time to heal and enjoy a leisurely walk."
If you push yourself too hard in the beginning, then you can actually be setting yourself back from real recovery. That, of course, does not mean you need to be held hostage in your house for 6 weeks. A walk can be considered a good start to your road back! Take a 5-minute walk and then come home and see how you feel. If nothing bleeds, pulls, or aches, take a 6-minute walk tomorrow and a 7-minute walk the next day. During these first few forays out into the world, don't carry your baby in a frontpack or push him in a stroller because the strain may be too much. After you've walked comfortably and safely for a week or two, build up from there, adding some gentle upper-body stretching or a postpartum exercise class.
Once you do embark on some heavier activities, pay attention to signs from your body. Some women find that their bleeding that had tapered down starts to get heavier again, which is a sign that the body needs more time to heal before a post-pregnancy workout plan.
If you're breastfeeding, forget about weight loss until a couple of weeks postpartum when your milk supply is firmly established. Some weight will come off automatically during the first few days as your body relinquishes the stored fluids it needed during pregnancy. The rest will come off gradually as you become more active. If you're nursing, your body needs 500 calories a day more than it needed before you conceived, so eat enough and eat healthfully.
Also, if the pelvic floor is weak, putting intra-abdominal pressure (like crunches, pilates, or general ab work) can put too much pressure on the pelvic floor and inhibit healing or even lead to a chance of organ prolapse. One of the first forms of postpartum exercise you can start to incorporate daily can be a kegel routine, restrengthening or even re-familiarizing yourself with your pelvic floor muscles.
It is very common that women experience a separation of the abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominals (aka the six-pack muscles), known as diastasis. Your care provider can check this for you when you return for your six week check up. If it is severe enough, you may need to work with a physical therapist to help draw the muscles back together. So, when easing back to an abdominal postpartum workout, be mindful not to overdo it.
Relaxin, the hormone responsible for softening the ligaments and joints during pregnancy and childbirth, can stay in the body for up to six months postpartum. This can lead to wobbly, unstable joints and a loose pelvis. Again, just be mindful that the postpartum workout you choose is not too jerky in movement.
You do not need to attend a scheduled class to start to return to a general fitness routine. Don't discount walking as a gentle cardiovascular exercise! At one point, I was told to avoid higher impact cardio since I was healing from some pretty severe pelvic floor issues and was instructed to try swimming. Fortunately, I have been an avid swimmer for years, so it felt like a nice welcome back to exercise and rediscovering my body. The nice thing about swimming is that it is gentle on the joints and pelvic floor, and is great for strengthening the core and back muscles.
Once you do ease into a postpartum exercise, please remember to hydrate well, especially if you are breastfeeding. If you are out for a stroll with your baby, put your water bottle in the cup holder as a reminder to drink often.
Even though many new moms hear the old saying, sleep when your baby sleeps, very few (I believe) adhere to these wise words. So, including a few moments to simply relax post-workout can really help replenish you. If you are feeling rested and restored, you will have so much more to offer to those that need you.