Following childbirth many women struggle with the reality of getting back into exercise and nutrition routines. The birth itself, whether straightforward or complex, creates a huge stress on the body, and this is followed immediately by the fatigue and anxieties of raising a new-born baby. Though undoubtedly a wonderful experience, most women suffer from extreme exhaustion, and some – especially first-time mothers – experience overwhelming degrees of stress & anxiety. The sheer responsibility of raising a new-born can make all other intentions fade into insignificance, so that exercise and nutrition are just not ‘on the radar’. In truth though, a considered exercise plan coupled with good nutrition will promote improved energy & a decrease in stress levels, bringing both health and psychological benefits. In addition, the RCOG (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) and the ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) support the following advantages:
- a quicker post-natal recovery
- improved posture, energy levels, stamina, metabolic rate
- a quicker return to pre-pregnancy weight
- a better body image
- increased self confidence
In my opinion, any new mum planning to exercise in the post natal period should look to work with a personal trainer with experience in this field. The first step should be a detailed consultation which will ensure a programme plan that is specific to YOUR experiences of childbirth and beyond.
Every woman’s experiences of pregnancy and birth are different, so programme design must be unique to the individual, and exercise prescription will be massively different depending on how active the new mum was prior to and during pregnancy, and on the actual birth experience (natural or caesarean, complex or simple). There are however certain generalised rules which will apply across the board:
1. New mums should be very aware not to hurry to start classic abdominal exercises. Regardless of whether diastasis recti abdominis is present (the stretching apart of the vertical muscles down the front of the abdomen, which creates a gap) the abdominals will have been extremely stretched, and it will take time and patience to return to form. It is however vital to start slowly rediscovering abdominal strength in order to support posture and to ensure that when you do start to work out your spine is protected.
2. Very early on it is simply a case of trying to sense the abdominal muscles, together with the pelvic floor. Begin by sitting on a chair, or on the floor if comfortable, or on a yoga block or Pilates ball. Breathe in to prepare, then on the exhalation simply squeeze the belly button back towards the spine and try to sense the two sides of the abdominals drawing together. This can be repeated as many times as is comfortable, (up to 20).
3. Pelvic floor exercises or ‘Kegels’ are essential to rediscover strength in this area (which was also massively stretched during birth), and to ensure a return to healthy bladder functioning. This involves trying to raise the perineal muscles up within the pelvic area: you can imagine the feeling of needing a pee and stopping yourself, or thinking of the base of the pelvis as the floor of a lift which you are trying to slowly raise up within you, floor by floor. These exercises are hard to master at first as there is little feeling in this over-stretched area. (They will be much easier for those who performed them before birth, and therefore have some understanding of the sensation they are trying to feel). It is vital that pelvic floor exercises be done at home as well as during structured exercise sessions. Regularly practising these simple exercises will help to avoid the embarrassment of stress incontinence, as well as being good for general health. In addition, the pelvic floor muscles will ultimately work in integration with the abdominals, and so also help to regain strength and tone here also.
4. Moving forwards, a trainer will explore slowly progressive abdominal exercises as appropriate to your level of post-natal fitness. It must be remembered that you are now working with a “new” and changed body, so you need to work slowly and with focus to ensure that you are listening to your body and developing your fitness sessions according to YOUR body’s limitations.
5. You should be working to re-establish muscle memory in terms of ‘correct’ posture, and this in itself will also slowly help abdominal work. Start by finding neutral spine in the supine position, then explore this in sitting and standing positions: aim to maintain this stance in all subsequent exercises, and in day to day activities. This will take time and practice, as the posture has changed quite considerably over the previous 9 months.
6. The re-training of the abdominals should be done alongside a graduated programme of fitness exercises. Both muscle strengthening and cardio work will be slowly built up again, with constant reminders of abdominal work and core strength throughout.
7. Nutrition remains hugely important in the postnatal period, and it is very easy, due to the stress and tiredness of having a new baby, to forget this. Remaining hydrated is of vital importance, especially if breastfeeding. Breastfeeding also calls on the mother’s calorie intake, (as does exercise), so she must accept that the return to pre-pregnancy weight will be a slow process: the first priority is to feed her body well enough that she and her baby can get through this challenging period in good health. This will be achieved by maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.
8. After the initial post natal period, group exercise can be very incentivising for many women, as the companionship and support of those who may share some of your experiences can be very positive. If there are yoga or Pilates classes specific to the post natal period, it is well worth checking these out.
9. Stress levels can be incredibly high when trying to adjust to life with a newborn. There is obviously undoubted joy at the birth, but this also brings with it sleepless nights, a ‘new’ and unfamiliar body, upside down hormones…and so the list goes on. Appropriate exercise and nutrition will be massively helpful in managing these stress levels, and must be prioritised, however hard that may seem. Additionally, all the usually recommended stress management techniques can be helpful. Perhaps the simplest and most effective in the early days is #breathingexercises, which can be practiced at any time, day or night.
It is so easy – and totally natural – to get caught up in what’s good for the baby at this stage. What we must remember is that THE most important thing for the baby is to have a healthy mum, so we must also prioritise our own health and wellness – both physical and mental. Remember: keeping your own cup topped up with those things that will enhance your health is what will enable your baby to flourish and thrive.