by Sinead (@sinead_dineen_pt)
Deciding when and how to exercise after a baby is a very personal decision, which also encompasses lots of health and recovery considerations too. Sinead Dineen is a pre and postnatal personal trainer, in this piece she shares her top ten things to consider when you’re thinking about postpartum fitness.
In the autumn of 2019, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my first baby, and also looked forward to returning to the gym afterwards. I had kept up with exercise throughout my first and second trimester but had struggled beyond that thanks to the blistering heat we experienced that summer. I was confident that I would jump straight back into my cardio routine and weightlifting regime, though. As a PT, I thought could easily navigate the physical postpartum fitness experience. After birth, the realisation of what my body had gone through sunk in. When it came to considering exercise after a baby I just kept exclaiming, “Nobody told me this!”
10 Things You Need to Know About Exercise After a Baby
- When should you exercise after a baby?
The general consensus is that you should refrain from any exercise after a baby (bar walking) before your 6 week check post birth. However, this blanket advice isn’t correct for all mothers and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. You could consider seeing a postnatal physio, such as the Mummy MOT (link) to perform a thorough check of your abs, pelvic floor and scar, if you had a c-section, tear or episiotomy. If your birth was uncomplicated and you feel ready, you can start with some gentle walks and low impact floor-based stretching.
- Be aware of your joints
Throughout pregnancy, your body releases a hormone called relaxin which loosens the ligaments, cartilage, and cervix. It facilitates the expansion of the ribcage for the growing uterus and the pelvic region for childbirth. Relaxin can cause instability in the entire skeleton and continues to be released into the body up to 5 months postnatally, and longer if you breastfeed. To protect your joints, you should avoid high impact and heavy overhead exercises that could put pressure on the skeleton.
- Leaking during exercise is not normal!
Unfortunately, some women will experience leaking (stress incontinence) when exercising after giving birth. The pelvic floor can be placed under a considerable amount of strain from carrying a baby. This is why it is crucial that you perform pelvic floor exercises during and after pregnancy. It’s important that you can identify the symptoms of a weakened pelvic floor:
- You have an urgency to urinate and cannot hold your pee
- You leak when you laugh, cough or sneeze
- You leak when you perform high impact activities such as jumping
- You experience stress incontinence or can feel a bulge in your vagina (prolapse)
If you experience any of the above symptoms, contact your GP and resume pelvic floor exercises to increase strength and assist recovery. A service like The Mummy MOT can assist privately if wait times feel too long or you don’t get adequate support. There is absolutely no harm in performing pelvic floor exercises for the rest of your life, you can only benefit by continuing this activity.
- Why do I still look 6 months pregnant?
If you feel like you still look pregnant and it’s been several months since you gave birth, you could be suffering from diastasis recti (ab separation). During pregnancy, the abdominal muscles stretch to accommodate the expanding uterus. The separation of the abdominal muscles is something that cannot be prevented and the degree of separation will vary in each pregnancy based on the strength of the core muscles and the size of the baby.
Diastasis recti is relatively common, affecting up to 53% of post-natal women. Unfortunately, it’s not often checked for. It’s important that you avoid exercises such as crunches or sit-ups, twists, and heavy weight training to avoid “doming” your abs. To help rehabilitate your abdominal wall you can perform hip bridges, knee raises and pelvic tilts. Before doing any exercise after a baby, you could visit a physio and/or post-natal personal trainer can assist in this recovery.
- Include pelvic floor exercises in your postpartum fitness routine
Pelvic floor exercises are significantly important no matter what stage of pregnancy or recovery you are in. I would even suggest that you do these exercises for the rest of your life, not just after having a baby.
When practiced regularly, pelvic floor exercises can help reduce urinary and anal incontinence. Contract your pelvic floor muscles, as if you’re attempting to prevent wind passing. Hold for up to 10 seconds and release, relaxing for 10 seconds between contractions. Aim for at least three sets of 10 repetitions a day. Avoid conducting pelvic floor exercises when urinating, this can result in urinary tract issues and infections.
The NHS has an app called Squeezey and devices like the Elvie pelvic floor trainer are recommended.
- Introduce core and functional training
Core and functional training will massively benefit your recovery and support the rehabilitation of your overall core strength. It can also help prevent back pain during and after pregnancy. The first step is to introduce strength and endurance exercises into your postpartum fitness plan. Resistance bands are a great and affordable way to work on the areas for core weakness. Great resistance band exercises are: wood chops, chest press, back rows. You can find examples on Youtube!
- Set realistic goals
When you return to exercise after a baby, it is important to set yourself achievable and realistic goals. Your body is healing and will be fatigued from a lack of sleep and feeding. You need to treat yourself with compassion and empathy. A realistic goal would be to aim to move your body for just 10 minutes a day. This could be stretching or a quick march on the spot. Little changes and small commitments can set you on the right path to consistency.
- Sleep deprivation can impact your fitness
I cannot emphasis this enough, but if you are suffering from an extended period of sleep deprivation at any age, you have a valid excuse to sit this one out. Treat yourself with empathy and release yourself from the pressure to work out when you are exhausted.
Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t workout when you are sleep deprived:
- Damage your wellbeing
- Negatively impact progress
- Inhibit recovery
If you’re tired and you do want to move your body, try some light stretching and floor work such as floor bridges, cat/cows, heel slides and basic breath work.
- Will exercise affect my breastmilk?
Throughout history, there has been a lot of contradicting opinions about breastfeeding, exercise and weight. If you are breastfeeding, please put weight loss on the back burner (and try not to feel that pressure, regardless of how you feed). Concentrate on getting your milk supply established, getting a great latch and try to maintain adequate hydration and eat as healthy as you can (though I know only too well how hard that is with a newborn). When you’re breastfeeding, your body needs 500 calories a day more than it needed before you conceived, so eat enough and eat well.
When you exercise as a breastfeeding mother, try and time a feed for before you exercise to increase your comfort. Be sure to invest in a good supportive sports bra and ensure you drink more fluids during and after exercise.
SHOP SPORTS BRAS FOR POSTPARTUM FITNESS
- There is no one size fits all
It’s very easy to compare your pregnancy and post-natal body with other mums online. It is so important to realise that everyone is different; we have different bodies, pregnancies and birth and we recover at our own pace. Our bodies also process energy (calories) very differently and some of us don’t have the same support systems as others.
You need to focus on yourself and the resources you have. Don’t give yourself the goal of exercising every day if you don’t even feel you have the time to shower. Your baby will not be this small or needy forever and as the months pass, you will gradually forge out a routine that will present you with the opportunity to exercise. Your first steps can be incorporating a physical activity that involves your baby – find a local post-natal fitness class, join an online Pilates or yoga program, or take baby swimming or for walks in the pram.
Sinead Dineen works with pre- and post-natal clients, offering online coaching, 1-2-1 personal training and fitness classes based in Hertfordshire and North London. Her ‘Post-natal Return to Fitness’ class begins on the 26th of April in Hatfield; details on Instagram.
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