Exercise in the postpartum period can be incredibly beneficial. Besides the obvious benefit of helping you return to your pre-pregnancy fitness level faster, it also helps you to better carry out the physical demands of early motherhood with less risk of injury. In addition, exercise helps to improve your mood by providing an important mental break and triggering the release of endorphins – your body’s “feel-good” chemicals. In fact, exercise is associated with mitigating instances of postpartum depression.
In order to reap these great benefits, however, it’s important to return to exercise safely and properly. Follow these 10 tips to ensure your return to exercise is as effective as possible:
1. Make sure you have clearance from your doctor: You should not resume exercise until you are officially cleared by your doctor at your postpartum check-up. The average recovery time is 4-6 weeks for a vaginal birth, and 6-8 weeks for a C-section. If you are eager to resume exercise, you can speak with your doctor about scheduling a checkup 2-3 weeks after delivery. If you had a relatively uncomplicated vaginal delivery, your doctor may clear you to do some forms of exercise at this early checkup.
2. You CAN begin rebuilding your core immediately! Pregnancy and childbirth obviously take quite the toll on your core. However, the good news is you can begin the process of rebuilding your core almost immediately after delivery (provided you feel ok) with these two great exercises for your innermost core muscles: Kegels for your pelvic floor muscles (the floor of your core) and TVA Holds for your transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle (the walls of your core, or your body’s “inner girdle”). These exercises are great to perform throughout your day, and can go a long way in helping you rebuild your core faster.
3. Get checked for Diastasis Recti and pelvic floor problems: Doctors are supposed to check for these common complications at your postpartum checkup, but unfortunately many doctors do not. So, be sure to ask your doctor to check you!
Diastasis Recti is a separation of the rectus abdominis muscle that occurs in about 30% of pregnancies. Pelvic floor problems can come in the form of incontinence (accidental leakage during movements like coughing, sneezing, laughing, or any sort of impact exercise) or prolapse (where the bladder or rectal organs descend down through the vaginal or rectal openings).
Both Diastasis Recti and Pelvic Floor problems pose significant restrictions on exercise and can lead to pain and further complications down the road if not corrected. If you do have one of these conditions, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist. PROnatal Fitness also offers an Ab-Rehab program focused on correcting Diastasis Recti.
4. AVOID Sit-ups!!! Once cleared to exercise, you may be tempted to crank out those sit-ups as a way to start rebuilding your abdominal muscles, but this will actually have the OPPOSITE effect! Crunching or twisting movements like sit-ups, crunches, bicycles, and oblique curls work the outermost layers of your abdominal muscles. If you perform these moves with weak inner core muscles (especially a weak TVA), you risk further damaging your core.
Focus first on building strong inner core muscles before attempting any sort of crunch-like movement by following the exercise progression in these 7 moves for a stronger core. Once your inner core is fully strengthened, you can progress to moves like sit-ups. One way to test if your inner core is strong enough is to perform a sit-up and look at your belly. Your belly should form a concave curve (like a valley) when you sit up. If it curves the other way (and looks more like a mountain or protrusion), your inner core muscles are still too weak, and performing a sit-up will do more damage than good.
5. Don’t be so quick to resume those planks either: While planks can be a great way to strengthen your entire core, and avoid the damaging crunch-like action of sit-ups, planks are quite advanced moves that require a good deal of foundational core strength to perform correctly.
You will need to work your way up to performing a full plank by starting first with basic Kegel and TVA Hold exercises in a seated and standing position. Then progress onto exercises in the “all 4s” hands and knees position before a modified plank (with knees on the ground). Finally – once sufficient strength is built – a full plank. This could take some time. Follow the progression in these 7 moves for a stronger core, and make sure you can always feel your belly button engaging when performing the exercise. If you are performing a plank, and feel it more in your back than in your abdominal muscles, this is a sign that your abdominal muscles are too weak, so dial it back to place your knees on the ground, or go into all 4s.
6. Hydrate! Hydrate! Hydrate! This is important for every new mom, but especially nursing moms. If you are nursing, you’ll need at least 12 glasses of water per day – more if you are exercising. Water also helps to cleanse your system! Drink water before, during, and after exercise. One way to check if you are getting enough water is to monitor the color of your urine. It should be pale yellow (straw colored) to clear. If it is darker or yellower, this is a sign of dehydration.
7. Wear proper breast support. Proper breast support is so important, as the breasts are larger and more sensitive after pregnancy. Wear a supportive, and well-fitted bra. Bras that compress are better than those that lift. However, it is also important to make sure the bra is not too small or too tight, as this can cause pain and impede milk production. If you are nursing, put on the bra just before exercising, and change it immediately afterward to avoid discomfort or inhibition of milk production.
8. Start back SLOWLY. While you may be eager to lose that baby weight, going back too fast and too hard will likely backfire on you – causing pain, extreme muscle soreness, or even injuries that may force you to take a temporary break from exercise. A good rule of thumb is to think about the level you were working at during your third trimester, and take it down one more notch from there. Then, gradually work your way back up as you feel comfortable.
9. Remember you may still be a little unstable in your hips: After delivery, the effects of relaxin (the hormone that basically “loosens you up” in your pelvic hip area during pregnancy) remain in your body for several months, longer if you are nursing. This means you may still be a little unstable in your pelvic hip area. Be very careful with moves like deep lunges and quick side-to-side moves when first starting back. Start by doing these moves, slower, more controlled, and with a smaller range of motion to rebuild stability and foundational strength.
10. Consider taking a postpartum-specific exercise class: Taking a class specially geared toward postpartum women helps to ensure your workout is safe and effective – focusing on the things your body needs, and avoiding those moves that may cause damage. The other benefit is that often these classes are a great way to meet other moms and find a new community of friends! Many also offer the added benefit of allowing you to bring your baby so you don’t need a babysitter. PROnatal Fitness offers a stroller workout that is modifiable for all stages of motherhood, and allows you to bring your baby (or toddler!).