You may be eager to head back into the gym to get rid of some of those pregnancy pounds, but exercising after giving birth isn’t just about achieving that post-baby body.
In addition to helping you get your core back in shape, a postpartum exercise routine can provide plenty of other health benefits including boosting your energy, helping you sleep better, decreasing aches and pains, and aiding in the prevention of postpartum depression.
But, understandably, you may have a few questions before diving into this new stage. To help you get started, here are answers to some of the most common question we hear from new moms wanted to get back in shape.
1. How does my body change after childbirth?
During pregnancy, your body undergoes a lot of changes to help you adapt to your growing baby. While the size of your belly is the most obvious, other elements like the way you stand, the length of certain muscles, and the mobility in your joints can also get a major overhaul. And not all of them spring right back after you give birth.
Some of the most common things you can expect to see postpartum include:
When you’re in your third trimester, the growing weight of your belly pushes your centre of gravity up and out, adding a lot of forward pressure to your midsection. This often leads to an exaggerated arch in your low back and causes your hip flexors and lumbar spine to shorten, which can be a major contributor of low back pain after you give birth.
Additionally, as your breasts increase in size, they place more weight on your chest and tend to pull the shoulders forward. This, combined with all the new positions you find yourself in as a new mom – breastfeeding, changing diapers, playing with your little one on the floor – encourages a forward rounding in the upper back and can lead to tension through the neck, shoulders and upper spine if not addressed with exercise.
As you progress throughout your pregnancy, your body needs to create more and more space for baby to grow. To accommodate, the tummy’s connective tissue begins to stretch and the rectus abdominis (the muscles that run vertically down the front of your abdomen) get pulled apart and separate down the middle. This is known as diastasis recti, and most pregnant women will experience it. For some, the gap will close up relatively quickly, while others may see this separation remain for months or even years postpartum without a little TLC.
Pelvic floor weakness
Just like the deep core muscles, your pelvic floor – the muscles and ligaments that run along the base of your pelvis – undergoes a lot of strain during pregnancy and childbirth. As this is the area that dictates when you go to the bathroom, a weak pelvic floor is often the culprit behind any stress incontinence you may experience when you laugh, cough or jump.
And it’s not just those who give birth vaginally that may find these muscles weak; even women who undergo a cesarean section can experience postpartum incontinence if they don’t learn to re-engage these muscles properly.
If you think about the size of your pelvis vs. the size of a newborn’s head, you may have figured out that something special has to happen in order for baby to make it’s way through the birthing canal. This is where a substance called relaxin comes into play – a hormone that gets excreted in preparation for childbirth to allow the joints and ligaments of the pelvis to stretch during labour.
The only issue? Your body can’t direct this hormone to only affect the pelvis, and therefore all the joints in your body end up with more mobility because of this. And as relaxin can remain in your body well after childbirth, you might find that you’re a little wobblier and experience more aches and pains in your joints for up to a year postpartum.
2. How do I get my body back after pregnancy?
While all these changes may seem a little scary, most of them can be corrected or reduced over time by learning to strengthen and stabilize certain muscle groups, and by working to relieve tension in others.
Those postural changes? It’s about opening up through the hip flexors, low back and chest, and building up engagement and strength in the upper back, glutes and core. Diastasis and incontinence? That’s where strengthening the pelvic floor and deep core muscles come in. And lax joints? It’s all about gradually building up your full-body stability and strength.
But as important as it is to get back into a progressive exercise regimen, it’s also essential to have realistic expectations as you go through this process. The postpartum period is a time of tremendous physical and emotional change as your body goes through the work of returning to its non-pregnant state – which can often take 6 to 12 months for a full physical recovery; which is nearly as long as pregnancy itself. So be patient with yourself and be prepared that certain parts of your body may not entirely return to their pre-pregnancy state, and that these changes shouldn’t be viewed negatively, but as part of a natural transition.
3. 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 postpartum exercise routine is going to depend on a couple factors, including: how much you exercised prior to and during pregnancy, what kind of delivery you had, and whether you experienced any complications during childbirth. This ambiguity is why it’s so important to not judge yourself against those around you and to, instead, work closely with your doctor to determine the best timeline for you.
Unless otherwise indicated by your physician, most women can typically ease back into some light exercise as soon as they feel ready, which could be as early as the first week following a vaginal delivery. If you’ve had a cesarean birth or other complications, this time may be extended to four-six weeks. And if exercise is causing pain, it may be best to wait another week or two prior to starting again.
In any case, remember that your body is still recovering during this time so it’s important to start slow and gradually build up once you feel your energy and body connection begin to improve.
4. How much should I exercise?
While it’s recommended that most adults fit in at least 150 minutes of exercise per week (around 30 minutes a day, five days a week), this can certainly be a challenge to complete with a new baby in tow.
If you’ve just had a baby, the most important thing is to check in with yourself to see what’s right for you at this time. If you feel like your recovery is slow, you’re dealing with some complications from delivery or you’re overly fatigued, err on the lighter side until you feel like you’re in a better position to add more. If you feel like you’re in a good state, aim for 3-5 days per week of a gradually progressing program to ease back into activity.
Wherever you’re at at this time, find a way to bring exercise into your day that doesn’t create a lot of added stress or take away from your sleep. Look for easy ways to incorporate activity into your day, like taking walks with your baby in the stroller or doing 10 minutes of light exercise when you put them down for a nap. Another option could be organizing childcare once a week to attend a postnatal yoga class or book in with a personal trainer who can help you return to exercise safely. Use this time to focus on yourself and tie in a little self-care when you can.
Though your post-pregnancy body may feel a little foreign, 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.