Starting a postpartum exercise routine can be very beneficial in helping you recover after childbirth. In addition to addressing the strength and stability changes that occurred during pregnancy, exercise can also help decrease pain, improve energy levels and aid in the prevention of postpartum depression.
If you’re ready to build back up to a strong, stable body, here are answers to a few basic questions you may have prior to getting started.
How does my body change after childbirth?
Though you may be eager to get started with an exercise program, it’s important to first understand how your body may have changed over the last year.
The following is a list of typical body changes that are common to experience after childbirth:
By the end of your pregnancy, your body may have adapted to your growing belly by adopting a slightly forward tilt to the hips. This position typically results in tightness of the hip flexors and low back muscles and can make it challenging to properly activate the core and glutes.
As your baby grows, your abdominal muscles begin to stretch. This can sometimes create a separation down the front of the belly called diastasis recti. Typically the body will self-correct this after birth, but it’s possible that the muscles could remain separated unless given a little TLC. It’s important to know which exercises are beneficial for bringing these back together and which ones could further this separation.
If you’ve had a caesarean section, you’ll also be working with scar tissue and therefore will need additional healing time. Think of the first 6 weeks postpartum as a major time for your body to recover.
Your pelvic floor is made up of the muscles and ligaments that run along the base of the pelvis to support your low internal organs (including your uterus). After childbirth, these muscles can become weak and may lead to stress incontinence with high impact activities.
During pregnancy, your body produces a substance called relaxin in preparation for labour. This hormone increases mobility in the joints and ligaments and can remain in your body for up to 6 months to a year following childbirth. Because of its function in the body, your balance and stability might be lower than you’re used to during that time.
When can I start a postpartum exercise routine?
Every woman’s experience with childbirth is unique and recovery can look different from one person to the next and from one pregnancy to the next. This means that the best time to get started with a post-pregnancy exercise routine is going to depend on you and your body. Work closely with your doctor to determine the best timeline for you and listen to your body as you go.
Unless otherwise indicated by your doctor, you can typically ease into some very light exercise within the first couple of days following childbirth. During this time your body is still recovering (especially if you’ve had a caesarean) so it’s best to limit yourself to gentle walking and light pelvic floor and core activation work. Slowly build upon each of these as you feel your energy and body connection improve.
After 6-8 weeks, you’ll likely have your first postpartum check-up. Use this opportunity to work with your physician to create a timeline for progressing to regular exercise. How quickly you’re able to get started can vary based on how active you were prior to having your baby, whether you had a caesarean or a vaginal birth and how well your body has been recovering up to this point.
What type of exercise is safe after childbirth?
As long as your doctor has cleared you to exercise and you’re not experiencing postnatal bleeding, discharge or pain with activity, the following progression should be followed to create an effective postpartum exercise program:
1. Start with activation and consistent movement
In this first stage, keep it gentle. The goal here is to re-activate the muscles that have atrophied over time and get back into a light routine of movement.
2. Progress to stability work and low-impact activity
In the second stage, it’s all about stabilizing the core, shoulders and hips to improve your posture and prep your body for strength training.
- Core stability (ie. heel slides, dead-bugs)*
- Scapular setting
- Glute stability
- Low impact aerobic activity (ie. walking, yoga, pilates or cycling)**
*Avoid forward-flexion exercises, isolated oblique exercises and planking positions at this stage (ie. sit-ups, crunches, side twists, etc.). These movements can cause doming in the core and may increase separation from diastasis recti. Focus instead on your transverse abdominals and bracing techniques.
**Wait to go swimming until after you’ve seen your doctor for your check-up. You may need to wait longer if you’ve had a caesarean, stitches or are still experiencing postpartum bleeding.
3. Progress to controlled movement and light strength work
Focus your efforts here on controlling your body throughout basic movement patterns and slowly adding light resistance to simple exercises.
- Bodyweight exercises (ie. squats, lunges, planks)
- Balance work
- General strength with light weights or resistance bands
- Low impact aerobic activity
4. Progress to compound movement and moderate strength work
It’s important to wait at least 12 weeks before moving into this stage to allow your pelvic floor and joints to recover.* Slowly build on the foundations created in the previous stages to progress into more advanced strength work with moderate weight and compound movements.
- General strength with moderate weights or resistance bands
- Low to moderate impact aerobic activity
*Lifting moderate-to-heavy weights or engaging in overly strenuous or high-impact activities too soon may prolong the healing process and could increase your chance of incontinence, prolapse or injury.
Though your post-pregnancy body may feel a little foreign and less like the strong, feminine form it once did, this is the perfect time to regroup and start down the road of building up an even stronger connection within yourself. Listen to your body and your physician throughout this stage and don’t be afraid to ask the appropriate resources for help to ensure a healthy recovery.