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HOW (& WHY) TO START A JOURNEY OF SELF CARE IN 2019

HOW (& WHY) TO START A JOURNEY OF SELF CARE IN 2019

What is this mania with “self care”? And what even IS self care??

 

Strangely enough, #selfcare means taking care of yourself!  But what I really mean is truly taking care of yourself with little acts of kindness to YOU. To my mind it is a huge comment on the life we are living that we have to consciously stop & think about engaging in self care: about being kind to ourselves, and giving ourselves a little hug…

That “little hug” can be anything that equates to giving a little special time to yourself. It might be stealing some time in the afternoon to indulge in reading a favourite book, or getting up half an hour earlier to start a practice of mediation in solitude, or treating yourself to a long ramble in the woods once a week. It can be ANYTHING that genuinely feels like a little “me time”. This fact is important: if you don’t actually enjoy reading, then reading a book will NOT constitute me time for you; if the thought of lying in the bath for 20 minutes just makes you feel frustrated and bored then that isn’t self care for you. Choose wisely: select something you will genuinely enjoy, and something which will be a true “switch off”. Time to “park” everything else for a while and simply focus on YOU: on doing something you like whilst not even thinking about anything else…

 

 

In today’s society our day to day lives are such that we are forever being pulled in different directions. We have constant demands on our time, from a work ethic that (largely due to our digital world) often demands 24/7 availability, to children whose clubs and hobbies have become a full time job, to the “MUST DO” habit whereby we MUST fit in exercise/meditation/self development too. It can all seem totally overwhelming, & it can feel nigh on impossible to fit in anything else, but I promise you it is possible to carve out an extra 5 or 10 minutes in your day if you set your mind to it. It is YOUR choice, and it has to be YOUR commitment: if you make that commitment, the benefits to be had are endless…

 

THE BENEFITS OF SELF CARE

Giving a little back to YOU makes you feel less resentful of ‘giving’ to everyone else. If we’re honest, we’ve all been there. That feeling that everyone always wants a piece of us: the kids, your partner, work, neighbours – even the dog! It is impossible to achieve this without some degree of resentment unless we find a way to give a little back to us too.

Breathing space: time to “switch off”. In a society of constant demands – from the “ping” and “woosh” of notifications on our phone, to the endless stream of info for our kids activities – the chance to “switch off” or “unplug” for a while becomes a luxury. It is a NECESSARY luxury: one we need to make time for.

Welcome release from from mind chatter. The idea of “mind chatter” goes back to the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind”. Buddhists observed the never ending restlessness of a monkey and compared this to our own restless minds. Our minds are never still, (it is believed humans have around fifty thousand separate thoughts each day), and when this is added to the stresses of modern day society, we can see how real a NEED we have for this release.

Improved health. Taking time out for ourselves will enhance both physical and mental health. When we are forever “on the run” our bodies and our minds feel the pressure. Both end up “running on empty” and this can lead at best to feeling a little run down, and at worst to burnout.

Lowered stress levels. If we are a little clever about which activities we choose as self care, we can succeed in significantly lowering stress levels (see below).

A chance to be mindful. There is a very good reason why “mindfulness” has become such a buzzword: it is SO very necessary as an antidote to what today’s world throws at us. But how easy is it to be mindful in the midst of our never ending day-to-day? Not at all! Giving yourself a few minutes each day for self care however can double up as an opportunity to be mindful as well.

Feeling better about YOU. Giving yourself a little time, a little kindness, equates to giving value to yourself. If we don’t believe we’re worthy of that, then we are really not respecting “self”: not awarding ourselves enough self worth. Committing to a regular practice of self care gives value to YOU, thus increasing self esteem.

AN EXTRA “PLUS”

An added advantage of elevating self esteem is that feeling better about yourself can be the first step to start to doing other (perhaps more challenging) things to make you feel better still: to make you the best version of you that you can become! So we’re talking the biggies like exercise and nutrition, which are themselves a hugely important aspect of your self care. If you start with simple “me time” activities such as those discussed above, this will get your self esteem back where it belongs. This in turn will do wonders for your ability to tackle the bigger challenges a little further down the line: just think what that might do for your 2019 New Year’s Resolutions, and your ability to stick to them…

 

HOW TO “UP” YOUR SELF CARE TO THE NEXT LEVEL

If you can include some activities that are more specifically related to stress management, then this will enhance ALL of the above even more. Some examples might be:

  • Getting out in nature (scientifically proven to lower stress hormones)
  • Practising “Belly Breathing”
  • Starting a daily practise of Gratitude
  • Starting a daily meditation or mindfulness practise

Once again, ALL the above are pleasant things to do: I’m not asking you to go clean the house, I’m asking you to find the time to do something lovely!

 

I am well aware that for most of us, the most challenging part of this whole article is actually FINDING THE TIME. I get it: I’ve been there. But I PROMISE you that ANYONE can find five minutes extra in their day. It is about prioritising YOU, and that is the very first step in self care. There is a wonderful Zen saying which states:

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy: then you should sit for an hour”

…no more need be said!

HOW TO PUT ALL THIS INTO ACTION

Your first step has to be believing you are worth it, remembering your own self value, and therefore finding that time. The second step is COMMITMENT: make the decision that 2019 is going to be the year that you give back to YOU – and therefore to everyone around you. Write down your commitment to a self care programme, sign it & place it somewhere you will see it regularly. Tell other people about it: telling others increases accountability. Then jot down a list of activities that you consider to be true self care for YOU.

If you’d like to take it all a step further and to engage in a daily 5 minutes of stress relieving self care, then do grab my FREE download here. This is where the real turnaround happens. The guide will take you through a simple, manageable, step-by-step process to carve out that time and practice self care activities that will truly address your stress levels as well. In the space of just seven days you will start to see the difference, and THAT is the turning point: the point at which you realise that SELF CARE WORKS: that it is oh so very worth putting in that time. And you’re not thinking it because you’ve read my article: you’re BELIEVING it because you’ve tried it yourself, and you’ve seen the results .

 

MOOD FOODS

MOOD FOODS

I am delighted to welcome Lisa Patient as my guest blogger for this week! Lisa works together with my friend and colleague Emily Fawell. Both are registered nutritionists, and you can learn more about their work at Vital Health Nutrition here. I know you will love reading this post about ‘Mood Food’ from the Spring 2017 edition of the #ion_nutrition Optimum Nutrition Magazine. Lisa writes about how different foods affect our mood, and investigates whether swapping comfort foods for healthier choices could make us feel much better in the long run…

 

‘I was feeling low so treated myself to a cake/glass of wine.’ If I had a pound for every time a client has said this, it would amount to a tidy sum. But why do we turn to sugar and alcohol to cheer ourselves up? And are there healthier ‘mood foods’ available? 

 

THE SUGAR HIGH 

Saliva and digestive enzymes rapidly break down sugary foods such as cakes and biscuits so that they quickly enter the blood stream as glucose. But before you’ve even swallowed your first mouthful, the taste of sugar on your tongue has already activated the release of a hormone called dopamine in your brain. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feel-good feelings, particularly those associated with reward, which is why that doughnut may indeed make you feel happy. But it’s not the doughnut itself that cheers us up, more the chemical reaction in our brain. 

The bad news, however, is that over-activating the dopamine reward mechanism with too much of any pleasurable substance can begin to desensitise it, so that we need more to get the same response, in the way that addicts require more of a drug to get the same level of high. Studies have found that switching to a ‘normal’ diet after following a high-fat or high-sugar diet can lead to sugar cravings, feelings of anxiety, and low mood.(1) This may be a biological response to the rapid release of insulin, as a result of the surge of glucose in the bloodstream, which is then followed by a crash in blood sugar levels. Taking all this into account, and the fact that it can contribute to us piling on the weight and rotting our teeth, sugar is not a good mood food after all — long-term. 

In the case of alcohol, we might use it to celebrate or cheer ourselves up, but it is described by the NHS as a ‘depressant drug’.(2) Although alcohol may relax us initially, heavy drinking affects levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, leading to anxiety and depression. Like sugar, it also wreaks havoc with blood sugar control; so an alcohol binge results in low blood sugar, which can lower mood. 

 

 

HEALTHY BOOST 

Most anti-depressants work by altering the balance of serotonin in the brain. If we want to eat foods to naturally improve our mood without the side effects of sugar and alcohol then, ideally, we would look for foods that would boost both dopamine and serotonin. 

However, we don’t get serotonin itself from food. For our bodies to produce it, we need to consume sufficient amounts of the amino acid tryptophan. Soya-containing foods such as tofu and miso are particularly high in tryptophan, as are eggs, edible seaweed, spirulina, and most seafood. But to get the maximum benefit, think about combining foods: research has shown that ingesting tryptophan with carbohydrates makes the tryptophan more available to the brain. 

 

TYROSINE

Turkey is definitely not just for Christmas. As well as being a lean form of protein, it contains both tryptophan and a high concentration of the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine increases levels of dopamine in the brain, improving mood, and has also been shown to promote deep thinking, which may be particularly beneficial for the creative among us.(3) Other foods high in tyrosine include most fruits (particularly apricots, cranberries and kiwi), soya beans, chicken, cheese and eggs. 

 

ANTIOXIDANTS

Research has linked depression with inflammation in the brain.(4) This has led to interest in the role of antioxidants in the diet, which help protect cells against damage caused by inflammation. For example, a small number of studies found that the antioxidants in a tart cherry juice provided a protection mechanism for tryptophan, ensuring that a greater quantity of tryptophan from food was available for the brain to use.(5) 

Curcumin, a powerful antioxidant in turmeric, also shows the same ’neuroprotectant‘ mechanism, and there is evidence that it also has mood-lifting properties.(6) Turmeric is used extensively in Indian cooking and is now widely available in its root form. It’s becoming increasingly popular to add fresh turmeric to smoothies, while turmeric powder can be sprinkled into soups, stews and curries — although in Indian cooking rarely more than a pinch is used because of its bitter taste. 

Saffron, a fragrant herb derived from the stamens of the flower Crocus sativus, is traditionally used in paella, biryani or cakes, and has been used for centuries in traditional herbal medicine as an anti- depressant. In fact studies have found that saffron extract can be as effective in raising serotonin levels as the anti-depressants imipramine and fluoxetine.(7) 

 

 

MAGNESIUM

Magnesium is nicknamed the calming nutrient, with some studies showing it to be beneficial if you feel tense and anxious. Other research has suggested that low magnesium can be linked with depression.(8) A systematic review of studies into magnesium and depression concluded that magnesium appeared to be effective in easing depression, but that further studies were needed to properly understand the mechanism. It also suggested that oral magnesium supplementation might prevent depression.(9) So to keep calm, add magnesium-rich foods such as pumpkin seeds, nuts, spinach, beans and wholegrains to your daily diet. 

 

VITAMIN D

It is now widely acknowledged that vitamin D deficiency is commonplace in winter when the sun’s UV light is not strong enough to trigger the synthesis of vitamin D by the skin. Studies have linked vitamin D deficiency to depression. While this could be an association, with depression being due to lack of sunny weather rather than vitamin D itself, there is some evidence to show that supplementing vitamin D does improve mood. (10) 

According to the US Department of Agriculture, trout is one of the best food sources of vitamin D, only pipped to first place by wild salmon. Trout contains a whopping 635IU [international units] of vitamin D in a 100g serving,(11) which is considerably more that the recommended daily allowance of 400IU. Vitamin D is also found in other types of oily fish, eggs and tofu, and in mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light or grown in sunshine. Other food sources include processed foods such as bread and cereals, which have been intentionally fortified with vitamin D. 

If in doubt about your vitamin D status, a blood test will help you decide whether you need to take a supplement or to eat more vitamin D-rich foods. 

 

OMEGA-3

Omega-3 fats are critical for the function of the central nervous system, and a diet that is out of balance by containing more omega-6 foods from meat and vegetable oils and less omega-3 from nuts and oily fish has been linked to depression.(12) 

Walnuts, which have the highest amount of omega-3 compared with other nuts, make a terrific snack, and walnut butter can be added to smoothies or rye toast for a delicious breakfast. Flaxseed oil and oily fish are also great sources of omega-3 fats. 

 

B VITAMINS 

The beautiful pink beans called ‘pinto’ (painted) in Spanish are second only to lentils in richness of the B vitamin folate. Folate is essential for the creation and function of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Broccoli, leafy greens and all other beans and lentils are great sources. 

Women planning pregnancy should supplement this vitamin, as deficiency can lead to problems with the development of the baby’s nervous system. 

Hand in hand with folate is vitamin B12, a B vitamin that, along with vitamin B6, is used to create serotonin. One serving of lamb, sardines, salmon, tuna, cod, or scallops provides your daily allowance of vitamin B12, but a sufficient intake of vitamin B12 can be harder to achieve for vegetarians and vegans. 

So although it might be tempting to reach for fast, comforting food, in the long-term, adding healthy, natural foods to our diet is more likely to keep us feeling good in ourselves and about ourselves. Add that to exercise, which is shown time and again to improve mood, and who needs that doughnut? 

 

  1. Singh M (2014). Mood, food, and obesity. www. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4150387/ 
  2. www.nhs.uk/Change4Life/Pages/alcohol-and- health.aspx 
  3. Colzato, L. S., de Haan, A. M., & Hommel, B. (2015). Food for creativity: tyrosine promotes deep thinking. Psychological research, 79(5), 709-714. 
  4. Setiawan, E., Wilson, A. A., Mizrahi, R., Rusjan, P. M., Miler, L., Rajkowska, G., … & Meyer, J. H. (2015). Role of translocator protein density, a marker of neuroinflammation, in the brain during major depressive episodes. JAMA psychiatry, 72(3), 268-275.
  5. Liu, A., Tipton, R., Pan, W., Finley, J., Prudente, A., Karki, N., … & Greenway, F. (2014). Tart cherry juice increases sleep time in older adults with insomnia (830.9). The FASEB Journal, 28(1 Supplement), 830-9.
  6. Tizabi, Y., Hurley, L. L., Qualls, Z., & Akinfiresoye, L. (2014). Relevance of the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin in neurodegenerative diseases and depression. Molecules, 19(12), 20864-20879.
  7. Hausenblas, H. A., Saha, D., Dubyak, P. J., & Anton, S. D. (2013). Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Journal of integrative medicine, 11(6), 377-383.
  8. Eby, G. A., & Eby, K. L. (2006). Rapid recovery from major depression using magnesium treatment. Medical hypotheses, 67(2), 362-370.
  9. Derom ML, Sayón-Orea C, Martínez-Ortega JM et al (2013). Magnesium and depression: a systematic review. Nutr Neuro, 16(5), 191-206. 
  10. 10.Lansdowne, A. T., & Provost, S. C. (1998). Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter. Psychopharmacology, 135(4), 319-323.
  11. 11.ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/
  12. 12.Deacon, G., Kettle, C., Hayes, D., Dennis, C., & Tucci, J. (2015). Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the treatment of depression. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, (just-accepted), 00-00.
HOW TO RID YOURSELF OF SLEEP PROBLEMS…

HOW TO RID YOURSELF OF SLEEP PROBLEMS…

There are two distinct phases of my life that I remember as being ruled by sleep – or a lack of it! The first was with my first born: he didn’t actually sleep through the night until the age of 22 months, and there were plenty of nights when he woke 3 or 4 times through the night. By the end of it all I was run ragged & I felt permanently drunk on lack of sleep…but it surely taught me not to make the same mistakes when number two came along! So the second time around, a combination of far more sensible parenting (e.g. NOT running to check on him every time he moved or murmured) plus a little luck along the way meant I had a much easier journey (he slept through the night from 4 months!!).

The other time that the Sleep Curse hit me was shortly after I returned to live in the UK, and it was – very definitely – 100% stress related. For the first 6 months or so I would go to bed and simply toss & turn trying to get to sleep (& as anyone who has suffered from sleep issues will tell you, the more you “try” the more difficult – & utterly frustrating – it becomes). I would usually finally drop off at around 4 or 5 in the morning, only to be greeted by a bouncing 4 year old leaping on my bed at 6am. Weeks turned into months, and the exhaustion was becoming unbearable. Then something changed: for some reason, I suddenly found myself quite able to drop off…but then I would wake at around 3 or 4, and would be totally unable to get back to sleep again. I couldn’t believe that my original problem had totally disappeared – only to be replaced by another! I tried everything, from counting sheep to visualising relaxing golden beaches and warm sunshine, but I could never maintain my focus on those thoughts – my mind just kept getting dragged back to the same utter frustration of not being able to sleep. So there I would lie til 5 or 6, wide awake and “wired” – and good for nothing when the Bouncing Boy bounded in shortly afterwards.

 

WHY?

In my case, this was all about “mind chatter”. I would go to bed thinking of something – absolutely anything – & I simply would not be able to get it out of my head. I would lie there “spinning” on things: what I’d watched on TV, what I had to do the next day, even what football kit the kids would need next season! Nothing I could do seemed to make any difference, and every night felt like an endless battle.

I will NEVER forget what that utter exhaustion felt like, nor the sheer frustration of lying awake, trying to sleep, and feeling totally out of control of the whole situation. It was quite literally horrible – as was my level of patience with my boys as a result. I would spend my day times feeling I could literally fall asleep on my feet – and the whole thing felt pretty desperate.

 

 

There ARE ways out of this place: for me, the turning point was a meditation course which helped me with my mind chatter. I don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ solution, so I can’t promise that meditation will be your Golden Secret to sleep. Since my own issues, I have had endless clients asking me for help with sleep, so have researched (& tried out!) many different possibilities. My hope is that one – or maybe some – of those shown below will resonate with you. I honestly know the misery of sleepless nights, and I also know that it literally turned my life around the day I conquered the Sleep Curse…

 

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS…

 

The first, simple suggestion here is creating and maintaining an evening routine. As parents we surely know that developing regular bedtime habits helps our kids to sleep, (and we also know it is oh so wonderful to see them sleeping peacefully…)

 

 

So why shouldn’t a regular routine help us too? Once again, we are all different so we don’t need to be rigid: instead we need to experiment with what works best for us. There are however a few things that should be absolutes…

[You will see that several of the suggestions below are based in facts surrounding circadian rhythms, melatonin & serotonin. It is therefore worthwhile gaining a (very basic) understanding of these 3 concepts:

  1. Circadian rhythms are essentially our internal body clock, which runs 24/7 in the background of our brain (otherwise referred to as our sleep/wake cycle). These rhythms are basically the reason why at some times we feel drowsy, whereas at other times we are wide awake & raring to go. They are controlled by a part of the brain (the hypothalamus), but external factors such as lightness and darkness can also impact them.
  2. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland. The gland is automatically ‘switched on’ when darkness falls, and this causes the hormone to be released into the blood stream, which in turn makes us feel less alert and more inclined to sleep. Conversely, during the day melatonin levels are hardly noticeable.
  3. Serotonin is a “happy hormone”. High levels of serotonin are associated with wakefulness; lower levels with sleep. The key here is that this hormone is synthesised by the pineal gland to make melatonin – hence both hormones are directly connected to good sleep.]

 

THE “DONT’S”

  1. Don’t drink caffeine for at least 4-6 hours before bedtime (caffeine suppresses melatonin production). Don’t forget this doesn’t just mean tea & coffee: think fizzy drinks & chocolate too, and do check food labels for caffeine content.
  2. Avoid alcohol (which disrupts sleep patterns – especially during the second half of the night when you would usually be sleeping more deeply) & nicotine (smokers’ sleep will be disrupted throughout the night by their cravings for nicotine).
  3. Don’t eat too heavily before bed, and be mindful of what foods you do eat. Eating some carbohydrates may induce sleepiness, but eating too heavily may lead to poor sleep. Foods rich in magnesium will relax muscles, foods which boost serotonin and/or melatonin levels will help encourage sleep.
  4. Avoid “screen time” before bed. Electronics & /or TV contain so many graphics that they will over stimulate you at bedtime. Electronic devices also contain a blue light which “suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths, and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree”. It is hugely important to turn off all such devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime (and 2 hours would be better still!). DO NOT use mobile phones, tablets etc in bed.
  5. Aim for a regular bed time & wake up time.  Resist the temptation to change this, even at weekends.
  6. Think of keeping your bedroom fairly cool at bedtime. Your body naturally cools down before sleep to encourage sleep: by keeping your bedroom cooler you will enhance this (ideally between 18-22 degrees).
  7. Do keep your room dark, either with curtains or black out blinds, or alternatively with an eye mask. Again, this is all about enhancing melatonin production. If you enjoy reading in bed, do so with a soft light.
  8. Try to keep clutter OUT of the bedroom. This will enhance your sense of relaxation, whereas clutter will do the opposite…

 

 

 

THE “DO’S”

  1. DO exercise during the day. Getting active will lift your mood & relieve stress – both of which are likely connected to your sleep patterns. It is also believed that exercise improves circadian rhythms “promoting daytime alertness and helping bring on sleepiness at night”.
  2. Doing vigorous exercise close to bedtime may be too arousing, but yoga and/or deep breathing exercises are definitely sleep inducing. Gentle mobilisation exercises are also helpful, as they will encourage muscular relaxation to combat the tensions of the day.
  3. If mind chatter is an issue for you, try journaling, or at least writing a ‘To Do List’ before bed to get these things out of your mind & on to paper.
  4. Consider the bed you’re lying on. Is the mattress good? Is the pillow right for you or do you wake with a stiff neck? Even the fabrics & colours you use on your bed may either enhance or deter sleep.
  5. Try drinking herbal tea before bed (chamomile is especially good for inducing sleep). Some say that milky drinks can help too, though there are mixed views on this one… It’s always worth trying it out to see what works for you.
  6. Consider any products you are using directly before bedtime. Many cosmetic companies offer a range of products which will help encourage sleep using things such as lavender essential oil, which is a relaxant. There are increasing numbers of companies that produce natural face and body creams, shower & bath products & pillow mists, all of which can genuinely enhance sleep if carefully chosen. It is vitally important to do the research and always read labels carefully.
  7. A warm bath can be incredibly relaxing, or for some a shower may have the same effect (make sure you do it mindfully!) Again, be careful which products you use: the wrong (chemically laden) cosmetics can load you up with toxins and make sleep ever more elusive. Alternatively, using products containing appropriate essential oils can enhance the sense of relaxation much further.
  8. Diffusing essential oils can be extremely calming – & will enhance your health on so many levels too. Lavender, frankincense, geranium are examples of oils to induce relaxation during the evening before bed. Lavender or chamomile are perhaps the best choices to have actually in the bedroom. [For more about which essential oils may enhance the mood you wish to create, click here].
  9. Establishing a regular mindfulness or meditation practice can help to calm “mind chatter”.

 

 

This was definitely what did it for me! I was so lucky in that I had the fabulous Mita to teach me on my 6 week Meditation Course, where I learnt to quieten my mind chatter by focusing on my breath. My main “take away” from the course was that when your mind wanders from the focus of your breath this is entirely natural. When I had spent hours lying in bed trying to do my own relaxation techniques, I had become sooo frustrated because I never seemed to be able to maintain my focus on relaxing – my mind was always grasshopper-ing off to something else. To this day I can hear my teacher saying “if the mind wanders this is totally natural: the mind is made this way. When it happens, you simply gently draw your thoughts back to your breath, back to the sensation of your breath within your body.” This for me was key: it was the thing that turned me away from frustration, and towards a true solution for my spinning mind…and sleep. On those rare occasions when sleep escapes me these days, I still hear Mita’s voice, and I know that softly focusing on my breath is my secret weapon to return me to the land of dreams.

 

Whether it’s you that is having problems with sleep, or someone you know, the above techniques genuinely work – and they are actually pleasant things to do. So if your body is crying out for a little more sleep – or for a little less stress & anxiety, as the two often go hand in hand – then please do try out these suggestions. We cannot over estimate the importance of sleep to both our physical and our mental health, and yet sadly this is so often overlooked…

 

 

If you do intend to try out some of these methods, it is a good idea to keep a diary of how your sleep patterns alter / progress as time goes on, so that you can then check back & see what might have worked best. If you would like a little more support or guidance with any of the above, do check out my “Notes for a Shaw Lifestyle” and my “Shaw Lifestyle Video & Audio Tips”, accessible here. There are various tools which you may find helpful, such as a Sleep Diary, a video of Mobilisation Exercises and an audio aid for Relaxation Techniques…

VITAL ELEMENTS OF POST NATAL FITNESS

VITAL ELEMENTS OF POST NATAL FITNESS

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.

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