Exercise after pregnancy: how to get back into a fitness routine

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Today we’ll talk about life after bub has arrived, and the factors for a new mum to consider when resuming pre-pregnancy activity levels or starting something new – and this is relevant whether it’s your first or tenth baby!

Fourth trimester

The fourth trimester – postpartum – is the first three months after baby’s birth. During this time baby makes significant adjustments to ‘life outside the womb’, but this trimester is really about nurturing your child and allowing yourself time to heal from the trauma of birth.

If you were an avid exerciser before pregnancy, it’s likely you’ll want to get back to activity sooner rather than later, but it’s important to consider the type of exercise and how quickly you return to it – especially higher impact sports or activities such as running, bootcamps and crossfit, as some strength deficits can predispose you to injury, and be detrimental in the long run.

Essential considerations during this phase are sleep, appropriate nutrition, and allowing yourself time to bond and fall in love with baby – exercising at this point is not paramount. If you can take this time, it can help ward off or lessen baby blues (the initial drop in mood at day 2-10 post-delivery as your hormones adjust) and/or the development of post-natal depression.

Not every mum falls in love with her baby immediately and this is part of a normal spectrum, but research suggests if new mums take time out and try some of the following things for at least three months, it can lead to a mentally and physically happier and healthier baby and you.

Baby-wearing (e.g. in a sling), skin-to-skin contact, on-demand feeding and caring, and avoidance of highly-structured routines, can all promote a more settled baby, with research indicating less crying, less fussing, better sleep patterns, better feeding/latching and increased thriving/appropriate weight gain.

These of course can impact positively on mum as well – happy baby, happy mum, and vice versa. If you’re less stressed, you’re more likely to be more nurturing which can form a very positive and lasting bond between you and baby.

Balancing rest and activity

There’s no denying your sleep will be affected, with some newborns feeding anywhere between one to three hours, not to mention the dreaded cluster-feeding, which takes a toll on new mums. Rest as much as possible during this period, with short and regular bursts of activity. Pottering is ideal!

Walking should be the only activity other than your pelvic floor exercises in the first few weeks. Until your bleeding (lochia) has stopped, focus on your posture instead; habits formed in the three months post-partum often go on to last a lifetime, and good posture can aid baby latching and feeding.

In the first six-eight weeks it is normal to experience back, neck, shoulder or pelvic pain as your body adjusts to new activities and postures in caring for baby. You may also have difficulty in controlling your bladder and/or bowel and experience leakage, an urge to go to the loo, or gas/bloating. Stretching, heat via a warm bath or hot water bottle/wheat bag, and balancing activity with rest, can all assist. Baby-wearing, as discussed above, can be great for baby, and, by spreading the load, it can also assist your posture.

Increasing activity

From week six you can steadily increase your activity whether you had a vaginal delivery or a c-section. Exercise should still be low-impact and include walking, swimming or water-based exercises (assuming your bleeding has stopped and any wounds healed) and should be pain free. If you are experiencing back or pelvic pain, or a vaginal or back passage heaviness, you should seek help from your GP or Women’s Health Physiotherapist, as this may indicate your pelvic floor strength isn’t able to withstand the activity levels you are undertaking.

Once the fourth trimester has ended when baby is around 16-weeks, you can resume pre-pregnancy activities or start something new, or you might not fancy exercising at all yet. If you have continence problems, a pouchy soft tummy, or pain in your back/pelvis/hips, it’s likely you have some deficits in your core stability, core strength and/or pelvic floor so get it checked. Doing loads of stomach crunches or even Pilates in an attempt to improve your tummy can actually make things worse.

Food and fluids

You need to increase your fluid intake over this period – especially if you are breastfeeding, with recommendations being around three litres per day (that’s 12 glasses of water). Healthy fats (cream, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, nuts and seeds), protein-rich foods (fish and fish oils, dairy, eggs, red-meat in moderation), and avoidance of processed, sugary foods and alcohol foods (including grains) can all lend themselves to aiding healing – an important component in the fourth trimester for all mums with new babies.

You won’t lose weight if you diet – you’ll lose muscle mass, which includes those muscles of your pelvic floor that have just taken a battering during pregnancy and birth. You can lose weight by eating the suggested foods as above and this will also prevent fatigue and stabilise mood – a win-win all round.