Becoming a mother is an incredible journey, but it undoubtedly brings significant changes to your body. Your priorities shift, and so does your daily routine. Plus, your body can feel so alien, that it can be hard to work out what’s supposed to be normal – and what’s not. For many new mums, returning to exercise after pregnancy, let alone getting back into a regular fitness routine can be challenging, but it’s essential not only for your overall wellbeing, but for your ability to match your baby’s physical requirements. After all, babies just get heavier and more mobile. And let’s not forget all their stuff we have to lift and carry!
Understanding the Impact of Pregnancy and Birth
Pregnancy is a miraculous process, but it can take a toll on your body. Before diving into specific exercises, it’s crucial to lay a strong foundation for rebuilding your strength and fitness. Regardless of your fitness goals, here are some fundamental aspects to consider:
1. Pelvic Floor and Abdominal Muscles
Your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles play a vital role in your body’s stability and overall health. Pregnancy can weaken these muscles, making it essential to engage and release them correctly. Optimal breathing techniques are also crucial, as pregnancy can affect your breathing patterns.
2. Rebuilding Your Core
Think of your core as everything from your nipples down to just above your knees. Pregnancy significantly affects the core, so focusing on rebuilding its strength and function is key. However, core exercises are not limited to those targeting your abdominal muscles.
3. Energy Levels
With all the best will in the world, it’s hard to get motivated about exercise when you’ve been up half the night with a sleep-thieving baby. That’s not to say that the solution is to lounge on the sofa. Exercise, funnily enough, can be energising, as well as being good for your mental health. But take your energy levels into account and optimise sleep and nutrition, and opt for gentle exercise such as walking or stretches on days where you’re feeling super tired.
Pregnancy and after are a total rollercoaster of a ride for your hormones. Hormones can take months, if not years to settle after birth (more so if you breastfeed for a long period of time), and one of them which can affect exercise is relaxin. You needed relaxin during birth to help your body enable a vaginal birth, but it is still present in your body after. It makes your ligaments and tendons stretchier. While this is a necessity for birth, it can decrease your stability and increase your risk of injury.
Taking It Slow and Steady
Returning to exercise after pregnancy and birth isn’t a race, despite what you see on social media. It’s essential to take things gradually and listen to your body. Jumping straight into high-intensity exercises like running is unlikely to be the best approach. Keep in mind that postpartum recovery is a process that can take up to two years. Building up your fitness gradually and making sure you’ve nailed your foundations, such as pelvic floor function, optimal breathing and core engagement will fast-track your return to the exercise you love.
One piece of advice? Leave your ego behind. It can feel like a step backward to dial down our exercise, especially if we were used to being very active prior to pregnancy or birth. Trust me, it’ll serve you in the long run.
Signs to Watch Out For
As a new mom, when returning to exercise after pregnancy, it’s crucial to be aware of signs and symptoms that indicate an exercise may not be suitable for you. Here are some red flags to watch for:
1. Leaking During Exercises
Experiencing urine leakage during exercises is a common issue after childbirth. If this happens, it’s essential to address it and modify your workout routine if necessary. Don’t let this become your norm. Consult with your GP or health professional and ask for a referral to a women’s health physio. You can also book in postnatal check-ups with a women’s health physio directly. If you live in Islington, I recommend Niamh Burn from The Pelvic Academy, or Noëllie Berthelot from My Wellness Centre.
2. Pelvic Floor Discomfort
If you feel a sense of heaviness or something “weird” in your pelvic floor during exercise, it’s a sign that something might be off. Pay attention to these sensations. Again, make getting an appointment with your GP or women’s health physio a priority.
3. Sharp Pain
Any sharp pain during exercise should not be ignored. It’s a signal that your body might not be ready for a particular movement or technique. This doesn’t mean that this exercise will always be off-limits – but you’ve got to work at a level which meets your body where it is currently.
4. Moves That Don’t Feel Right
Trust your intuition. If an exercise doesn’t feel right, it’s better to skip it or seek guidance on proper form and technique.
5. Doming or Coning in the Stomach
Doming or coning down the midline of your stomach can indicate abdominal separation, also known as diastasis recti. Let’s delve deeper into this common postpartum issue.
Diastasis Recti: Understanding Abdominal Separation
Diastasis Recti, or stomach muscle separation, is a normal part of pregnancy. Your rectus abdominis (six pack muscles) move away from each other to accommodate your growing baby, connected by a thin band of tissue called the linea alba. After pregnancy, these muscles should gradually return to their pre-pregnancy position, although it may take some time or require a helping hand.
To assess diastasis recti, measurements are taken of the gap between the abdominal muscles above and below the belly button, the depth of the gap, and the tension. A diastasis is typically considered significant when the gap is more than 2 fingers wide or approximately 2.8 cm.
You can improve diastasis recti through exercises that engage your deep abdominal muscles, such as the transverse abdominis (deep abdominal muscle which acts a bit like a corset around your waist), and by practicing optimal breathing techniques. It’s crucial to avoid breath-holding or bearing down during activities such as lifting heavy objects.
Pelvic Organ Prolapse (POP): An Uncommon but Important Concern
Pelvic Organ Prolapse (POP) occurs when pelvic organs, such as the bladder, uterus, or bowel, bulge into the vagina. It can result from factors like a long birth, multiple pregnancies, large babies, weight gain during pregnancy, constipation, or heavy lifting. It is not something which can you be 100% sure you won’t get, especially with a vaginal birth.
Symptoms of POP include a feeling of heaviness in the pelvic floor, a sensation of something coming out, discomfort or pain during sex, or even urinary incontinence. It can also manifest as lower back pain or achiness. However, some women may not experience any symptoms. If you suspect POP, consult with your healthcare provider.
Dealing with Urinary Incontinence
Urinary incontinence is more than just accidental leakage when you cough, sneeze, or exercise. It can also manifest as a feeling of incomplete bladder emptying, a frequent need to urinate, or even bowel incontinence. This can be embarrassing but is not uncommon after childbirth. Remember though – this isn’t normal and much can be done to improve this. Please do seek medical support.
An umbilical hernia is a common type of hernia that can occur after childbirth. It involves a part of the bowel or intestine protruding through the abdominal wall, which can cause a noticeable bulge or discomfort. For some women, this may not be something which requires intervention, for others, it may gradually become less apparent over time (but not entirely disappear) and for others, surgery may be advised.
In all cases, if you experience any of these postpartum issues, it’s crucial to consult with your healthcare provider. Additionally, consider seeing a women’s health physio for conditions like diastasis recti, POP, or incontinence.
Post-Doctor Sign-off: Next Steps for Returning to Exercise
Once your doctor gives you the green light after the initial postpartum recovery period (typically six weeks, or 12 weeks if you’ve had a C-Section), you can gradually reintroduce exercise into your routine. It’s important to look at movement patterns. These are the most critical for mums:
Recommended Motherhood Movement Patterns:
- Squats (including glute bridges)
- Lunges (in all directions)
- Hinges (e.g., deadlifts)
- Pull exercises (e.g., banded rows)
- Push exercises (e.g., wall press-ups)
- Gentle abdominal exercises (e.g., Knee Rolls and Lying Marches)
For C-section recovery, it’s advisable to wait for an 8 or 12-week checkup to ensure your scar has healed adequately. Scar tissue massage can also help mobilise the tissue around your scar. Again, a women’s health physio can help you with this, but there’s also videos you can find on YouTube. Your local sports massage therapist may also be able to help you with abdominal massage and scar tissue massage, and if you work with a qualified, experienced personal trainer, they should also be able to help advise on this.
Exercises to Avoid:
- High-impact exercises such as jumping or running (start with single-leg strengthening exercises and progress gradually if you’re looking to return to running)
- Sit-ups, crunches, and planks (be cautious of doming or coning during these exercises)
- Any exercises that cause unintended urinary leakage
- Exercises that lead to uncontrolled doming or coning along the midline of your abdomen. If you do experience this during an exercise, stop, reset your breathing and core engagement and try again. If it continues to occur, this exercise isn’t quite right for you at this time.
In conclusion, returning to exercise after pregnancy is a unique journey for every mom. The key is to prioritise your health, listen to your body, and seek guidance from professionals when needed. By building a strong foundation for your postpartum fitness journey, you can regain your strength and confidence, ultimately feeling your best in the body that brought your beautiful baby into the world.