By Sarah Hughes
Of all the questions I’ve been asked in my years as a trainer, “Will my body ever go back to what it was like pre-baby?” is up there in the top three.
Before I get round to answering that question (it’s complicated), I’d like us all to take a minute to get just a little bit awestruck about what the female body goes through over the course of bringing a baby into the world. Expanding uterus’s, moving organs, loosening of the spinal vertebrae, an influx of hormones… and that’s before the actual birth itself takes place. It’s nothing short of miraculous that we get through pregnancy and labour largely unscathed most of the time.
So before we start asking how we can get the external back to it’s pre-baby appearance, let’s have a round of applause for the internal happenings that have produced our little bundle of joy. Ok? Ok.
Look; it’s normal to feel frustrated looking at our post-partum physique. Once the lovely bump has turned into a bouncing baby, we might lose a bit of love for the old tummy area. Especially for those women who were very body conscious before pregnancy (that’s the vast majority of us by the way), it can be a shock to see the changes to our physical appearance.
While it’s of course important for our general health to return to being physically active, there are lots of points we need to consider before getting started. First and foremost we need to try our best to adopt a healthy mindset towards exercise and why we’re doing it. Focussing on achieving the feel-good factor rather than the quest for a six-pack is a whole lot more realistic and fulfilling.
It’s normal to be nervous even thinking about exercising post pregnancy. Life changes beyond recognition for all new parents and the worst thing you can do is pile on pressure to fit in exercise when you can’t quite manage coordinating getting out of the house or even taking a shower.
Here are my 5 top tips for returning to exercise after pregnancy, with kindness and compassion for yourself.
1 . Lay the foundations in the first eight weeks
Now the fitness fanatics amongst you probably won’t like this tip, but really, you should do very little for the first 6 weeks after a vaginal delivery and for 10 weeks after a c-section. Remember that these week guidelines are just that: guidelines. I’ve had one vaginal delivery and two c-sections. And let me tell you; my c-section recoveries were way smoother!
Treat the first 6-8 weeks as a rehabilitation period; your body has been through a lot of changes and your poor sleep-deprived mind needs to be treated with lots of TLC.
What you can do in these first weeks is lay the foundations for your future exercise sessions. In real terms this means strengthening the pelvic floor and the deep abdominal muscles in a safe, low intensity way.
Check out this post for some basic exercises you can do from just a few days after the birth. Start with a few reps each day and then build up the repetitions as you get stronger.
Within this first month or so try to get out for regular walks pushing your stroller, gradually increasing distance and pace. Not only will this help maintain your cardiovascular health, it will also do wonders for your tired mind!
2 . Be aware of how your body feels
Post pregnancy it can be very tempting to hit it hard in an effort to get back into your skinny jeans. But it’s so much easier to injure yourself at this stage, meaning you’ll be out of action in the longer term.
I cannot recommend enough embarking on a post-natal Pilates program, preferably with an in-person trainer who can correct your form, although there are also some great classes available on YouTube. Pilates is like an insurance policy for your body. It gives you an awareness of how your muscles and joints should feel and how your posture affects the strain on those joints.
Checking in with how your low back and pelvis is doing regularly is so important for injury prevention and progression onto higher impact exercise. Never work through low back pain. Rest, and then return to those most basic exercises until the core gets stronger. It will happen with regular practice!
3 . Build high intensity exercise into your program gradually
That means no heading out for a marathon the second you pass that 6 week or 10 week guideline. Test out your pelvic floor strength with short spurts of light low-impact aerobic exercise first. If the pelvic floor feels secure and the low back doesn’t ache after that session, try a little more speed or impact the next time you work out.
Knees and hips tend to be especially vulnerable to joint inflammation and pain post pregnancy so running on pavements may feel too tough for quite some months. The great news is that you can still really get a sweat on and tone up the body with low impact exercise sessions like boxercise, cycling or low impact circuits sessions.
If you are a keen runner, it’s advised to wait 12 week until you begin running and then of course, go easy on yourself, don’t expect to be racking up a new personal best straight away.
4 . Don’t be afraid to lift weights
We all know the benefits of strength training for women of all ages, and the new Mum is no exception. There’s something very empowering about lifting weights, it can be a great mental health and self esteem boost for a new Mother.
From approximately 12 weeks postpartum you should be fine to commence weight training, although if there are any lingering pelvic floor, hip or lower back issues, it’s important that you work with an experienced pre/post natal instructor, and increase your weights and reps very gradually.
Even if you were lifting pretty heavy pre pregnancy, it’s advisable to start again as if you’re a beginner. You will soon get back to where you were, and you’ll do it safely and sensibly without injuries; always a bonus!
5 . Use exercise as a way to improve mental health
Let’s be honest. When you’re exhausted and flooded with postpartum hormones, exercising might be the last thing you fancy doing. And that, my friend, is absolutely fine! Don’t pile unnecessary pressure on yourself to fit in gym sessions or do full classes. Instead, find ways to integrate activity into your day in small, bitesize nuggets.
Try to see exercise as a way to boost your mood rather than focussing on the size of your jeans. A power walk in the park with a friend, a game of tag with your toddler, frantically cleaning the house before the arrival of your mother-in-law… that all counts as activity.
I’m a big fan of using exercise as both me time and friend time. In these crazy busy lives we all lead, time on our own, or quality time with our friends can easily fall by the wayside. Joining an exercise class or planning a run, either solo or with a pal, can be a great way to ‘kill two birds with one stone’.
So… you have my top 5 tips for returning to exercise after pregnancy. But don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten the all important question: Will my body ever go back to how it was pre baby?
The answer will differ for everyone of course. Lots depends on how much time you have to dedicate to fitness, your body type, and how much weight you gained during the pregnancy. Evidence has shown that even with regular exercise, it can take three years for women to regain their cardiovascular fitness and strength levels . So the process is a slow one, yes. The bigger picture is that women are pretty busy in those three years aren’t they..? You know; raising that kid they just had. But I have trained many, many women over the years who have ended up in better shape in their forties with two or three young kids, than they were in in their child-free twenties. So there’s hope!
Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that this will take time. Avoid comparing yourself to anyone else… especially celebrities on Instagram who will undoubtedly have an army of nannies, chefs and cleaners so they can focus all their energy on regaining their six pack. Pace yourself; the return to fitness is indeed a marathon, not a sprint.