Bouncing Back into Shape after BabyHow and When to Start Exercising after Pregnancy
-- By Cathy Cram, MS, with Nicole Nichols, Prenatal Fitness Specialists
Now that your baby has finally arrived, your life will never be the same. Your body has gone through some major changes, too—and will continue to do so in the coming months.
When you're feeling ready (and after your doctor gives you clearance), resuming or starting an exercise program can help your body heal, become stronger, and get fitter than ever.
Benefits of Exercising after Pregnancy
The advantages of exercise go way beyond simply firming up or losing the "baby" weight. A consistent exercise program can also:
- Prevent the baby blues. Research shows that light activity can help ward off the common feelings of sadness, disappointment, and depression that many women experience after delivery.
- Promote healing. Getting stronger and fitter helps your body recover. Strong muscles and bones tend to bounce back faster.
- Increase energy. You may never have felt as tired as you do right now. Working out can help balance out sleep deprivation and the stress of motherhood, giving you the energy you need to nurture, and play with your little one.
You will need a period of time off to allow your body to rest and heal after giving birth. Don't start your exercise program before your doctor gives you the OK. The most important things you can do during the first weeks postpartum are: care for your baby, rest when possible, and eat a healthy diet. Time for exercise will come soon enough.
Once you're cleared for exercise (usually 6-8 weeks postpartum for an uncomplicated delivery), listen to your body and start slowly. You shouldn't jump back into the same intensity and duration of exercise you were doing before your baby was born. Find an activity (like walking, water exercise or gentle yoga) that feels good—and can even include your baby!
Most women can follow one of the general schedules below to reintroduce exercise, but let your own commonsense and energy levels lead the way. If you aren't feeling up to something, listen to your body and continue to rest longer. Always check with your health care provider before starting or trying any exercises.
If you had a normal vaginal birth:
Most women should wait several weeks before resuming normal exercise, but you can begin some simple movements as early as the day after delivery. This is a good time to try some light exercise while lying in bed, such as kegels, pelvic tilts, and neck & shoulder stretches.
In the following weeks, as you feel able, begin some light walking and strengthening moves for your abs, lower back, and pelvic muscles.
You'll likely have a postpartum checkup around 6-8 weeks postpartum. Ask your doctor about resuming exercise at this time, and if cleared, start with light to moderate exercise, building up to a full training program slowly (and with your doctor's clearance).
If you had a Cesarean birth:
A Cesarean delivery is major surgery, from which you will need extra rest, sleep and good nutrition in order to recover. Along with your doctor's advice, here are a few tips to determine when your body is ready to start exercising after a Cesarean delivery:
- All incisions or tears have healed.
- Your postpartum recovery is progressing normally, and both you and your baby are healthy. (A high-needs baby is more physically and mentally stressful for mom, which can slow down recovery.)
- You feel good after physical activity and don't experience any increase in vaginal bleeding.
- You don't feel excessively fatigued from exercise and you recover within your normal period of time following exercise.
The day after a Cesarean delivery, you can usually begin simple exercises (in bed) like kegels, deep breathing (which engages the diaphragm and your deep transverse abdominal muscles), actively pulling your stomach muscles inward (belly button toward spine), and simple upper body stretches for the neck and shoulders as you feel comfortable. If you experience any pain or discomfort during any of these movements, take it as a sign you are doing too much.
In the following weeks, as you feel able, try light walking and strengthening moves for your lower back and pelvic muscles. Expect to wait about 8-10 weeks (and get a physician's OK) to begin any further activity.
Other Postpartum Fitness Concerns
Breastfeeding: It is perfectly safe and healthy for nursing mothers to exercise. There has been much debate about this subject due to possible lactic acid buildup in breast milk, but regular, moderate exercise will not cause lactic acid to build up in your system. Anaerobic exercise, however, which occurs at a very high intensity (think sprints), does produce lactic acid. Either way, lactic acid isn't harmful to your baby although she may just not like how it temporarily changes the taste of your breast milk. Healthy, breastfeeding women may continue to exercise if they wish and it will not interfere with either the quantity or quality of breast milk as long as you are not drastically cutting calories at the same time.
Vaginal bleeding: Watch for bleeding while exercising and immediately after exercising, no matter what type of birth you experienced. If bleeding starts or increases, stop exercise immediately and call your health care provider.
Pain: Exercise should not hurt. Pain is your body's way of telling you that something's wrong. If you feel pain, stop the workout. This is especially true if you had a traumatic delivery or a surgical delivery. Do not push through any pain at the site or region of any trauma or incision.
Fatigue: Rest is an important but often overlooked component of a sound fitness program. Especially after delivery, your body requires time to return to your pre-pregnancy shape and fitness level. Between exercise sessions, allow your body to recuperate and rebuild by getting plenty of rest—that includes sleep. Listen to your body and take it easy.
Core and pelvic floor issues: Many women want to resume intense exercise before their abdominal muscles or pelvic floors are ready. This may lead to incontinence problems and prolonged back pain, sometimes due to diastasis recti (a stretching of the midline of the abdominal muscles) that was not spontaneously corrected after delivery. With proper training, beginning as early as 24-48 hours after birth, you can avoid many problems and work toward rebuilding and toning your body the right way. If you consistently did abdominal strengthening exercises and worked out throughout your pregnancy, this process will be easier. But even if you were sedentary, you can still achieve good results. There are some specific exercises you can do to bring the abdominal muscles back together and rebuild your core in general, helping you regain that flat tummy.
For detailed descriptions on these and other postpartum core strengthening exercises, read: 6 Exercises to Strengthen Your Core after Pregnancy