Bouncing Back after Baby - Post-Natal Fitness Tips

Updated on May 7, 2016
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Erin Nitschke is a health and human performance educator, an NSCA-CPT and ACE Health Coach & Fitness Nutrition Specialist.

The Journey of Pregnancy

Let's face it, the pregnancy journey is a beautiful challenge in every way - emotionally, mentally, intellectually, spiritually, and, the most obvious, physically. When I became pregnant, I was monumentally overwhelmed by the physical changes my body was experiencing. I was tired all the time and constantly ill...All. Day. I know this isn't an unfamiliar story to all of you beautiful moms out there; however, I wanted to share my own experience for two reasons: 1) I can relate as I am a mom and 2) I am also an educated and certified NSCA personal trainer, health education, exercise science professional and community college educator. All this to say, the changes we (those of us in the health business) are no less intense for us than they are for others. In other words, the pros struggle as well!

Understanding Physical Changes During Pregnancy

The physiological changes caused by pregnancy are astounding! There's more than one reason the process is considered a "miracle'. Your body has two major responsibilities during this time: a) support and nurture a growing fetus and b) continue to support your normal physiological functions while adjusting to the systemic physical changes. Why is it important to understand these changes? To illustrate the magnificent, but grueling work the body does during pregnancy. and to cultivate a deeper appreciation for what it must do to recover.

Let's get specific and discuss the physiological changes in pregnancy that relate to exercise. These changes affect the cardiovascular (heart and blood circulation), respiratory (lungs), endocrine (hormonal), and musculoskeletal systems. Refer to the following two tables for a summary.

Summary of Primary Physiological Changes

Cardiovascular/Respiratory
Hormonal/Metabolic
Musculoskeletal
Blood volume & cardiac output increases
Increase in energy demand (calories)
Weight gain
Resting heart rate increases, but breathing capacity is generally maintained
Greater reliance on fat for energy
Shift in postural alignments
Oxygen consumption increases & gas transport improves
Increases in hormone concentration
Muscular imbalances can occur
Ventilation increases
Nausea/Vomiting/Gastrointestinal function
Abdominal wall stretched
This table is a general summary of the physiological changes during pregnancy that relate closely to exercise and does not include all the fine details associated with these changes. Source: ACE Pre- and Post-Natal Fitness by Lenita Anthony (2002)

Considerations for Exercise During Pregnancy

Cardiovascular/Respiratory
Hormonal/Metabolic
Musculoskeletal
Weightbearing exercise requires more oxygen (due to weight gain)
Further increase in energy need in exercising prenatal women
Balance issues require attention
20%-25% lower work capacity (2nd & 3rd trimesters)
Less carbohydrates available for exercise as those resources are directed to the fetus
Growing belly impacts blood flow in supine (flat on back) positions - avoid after 2nd trimester
Unpredictable heart rate response during exercise
Increased chance of hypoglycemic events
Joint instability due to increase in joint laxity
Enhanced ability to deliver oxygen to working muscle cells
Enhanced ability to burn fat during exercise, sparing carbs and stabilizing blood sugar
Exercise can help address joint stability, muscle strength, and endurance concerns
This table summarizes considerations related to exercise as a result of physiological changes associated with pregnancy. Source: ACE Pre- and Post-Natal Fitness by Lenita Anthony (2002).

Postpartum Recovery

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Finding a New Normal

As there are considerations related to exercise during pregnancy, there also are considerations for post-natal care, healing and activity levels. It took 9 months to complete the process; it is reasonable to expect an equal amount of time to recover and find a new state of normal.

The number one focus and priority for at least the first 6-weeks (longer depending on delivery considerations and physician guidelines) is to bond with your new baby and take things moment to moment. You did a significant amount of work to bring that tiny human in to the world, you deserve a rest. Additionally, resting for the first 6 weeks will facilitate healing and provide the body an opportunity to hit the rest button.

Benefits of Postpartum Exercise

Exercise, in general, has many proven positive side-effects: a lower resting heart rate, improved cardiovascular efficiency, favorable body composition improvements, lower blood pressure, etc. Exercise is just as beneficial in the postpartum period as it is for general health and fitness.

Some of the benefits during postpartum recovery include stress relief, improved energy and mood, improved sleep patterns, and increased overall strength and endurance (ACOG, 2016). Although many moms are eager to return to "normal", getting back in shape is a process that will take time and effort. Doing too much too soon may result in setbacks.

Where to Begin and How to Progress

The first step a new mom can take to start the healing process is performing Kegel exercises (even as early as the first 24 hours) after delivery. These exercises will facilitate the initial healing of the pelvic floor. This type of exercise should be done prior to any attempt to strengthen the abdominal muscles (Anthony, 2002).

Abdominal compression and pelvic tilts are extremely effective to initiate an improvement in pelvic floor functionality. Also, keep in mind the postural implications that stem from holding and nursing/feeding a newborn. To counterbalance these concerns, stretches targeting the upper back and chest are necessary.

Progress to light walking and work towards accumulating 150 minutes of moderate intensity-aerobic activity each week. Add in strength training, yoga, or Pilates. Sit-ups and other strenuous abdominal exercises are discouraged as such exercises can aggravate abdominal weaknesses which resulted from pregnancy.

Refer to the table below for a summary of guidelines and examples as well as the Links & Helpful Resources section for more resources and "how to" topics.

Postpartum Activity Recommendations and Examples

Type of Activity
Progression
Examples
Aerobic
Begin with light walking (5-10 minutes/day). Progress to 150 minutes each week.
Walking, Swimming, Jogging (if tolerable), Biking, Elliptical
Strength/Flexibility
Focus on stretching the back, chest and shoulders. Progress to strength training 2 days each week.
Focus on large muscle groups of the legs, arms, back and hips. Yoga, Pilates, lifting weights, push-ups and sit-ups (after abdominal strength is regained).
Abdominals
Daily Kegel exercises, abdominal compression, pelvic tilts, other isometric transverse abdominal work until diastasi recti (gap) has narrowed to two finger widths or less.
Pelvic tilts and bridges, toe taps, heel slides, pulses
This table summarizes possible activity options. Sources: ACOG.org and ACE Pre- and Post-Natal Fitness (2002).

Postpartum Workout Example

Erica Ziel - Abs Part I

Erica Ziel - Abs Part II

Take Away Points

  • Remember, it took 9 months to create and successfully grow a tiny human from scratch; recovery is going to take some time.
  • Start slow and listen to your body and avoid making the return to exercise all about weight loss.
  • Focus on regaining strength in the pelvic floor and core muscles first.
  • Engage in activity with your baby. Mommy and Me yoga or Pilates are fantastic workouts.
  • Forgive yourself. You have a lot of work to do as a new mom and your recovery is part of that workload. Set realistic goals and forgive yourself when you are overwhelmed.
  • It's OK to prioritize some "you time". Work with your spouse or trusted friend to help create a routine that includes time for you to be active.
  • Enjoy the journey as a parent. It's true - the days are long, but the years are short. Take time to breathe it in and cherish your role as a mom.

General Safety Tips

As always, seek the clearance from a physician before beginning or changing an exercise routine. Keep the following safety points in mind as you start or resume a routine.

  • Wear a quality and supportive sports bra and shoes.
  • Stay hydrated and nourished. Exercise uses energy as does breastfeeding. Make sure you eat enough calories to support those demands. Use a food log app or website to facilitate this process (MyFitness Pal or Foodzy, for example).
  • Stop exercising if you feel any pain or have increased postpartum bleeding.
  • Begin with light activity so as to not create additional fatigue.
  • Gradually increase to higher intensities as your body heals.

Embracing the Journey

Accepting the changes you are experiencing and will experience is a necessary first step. We are unable to control the changes associated with pregnancy - it's a process that takes time. It isn't just the emotional or physical changes that are simply "part of pregnancy"; there's a different level of change - the transition from being a woman to becoming a mother. There's no manual available for us to follow as we navigate the new road before us.

A few of the things I did during my pregnancy, although I felt "undone" in an emotional sense, helped me focus on the true gift of motherhood. I kept a gratitude journal and a "mom's one line a day" diary for my daughter. I would note milestones, moments, inspirational quotes, advice, and random musings. I also opened an email account for her and would periodically send her notes and pictures - simply for her to have in the future. The point in sharing this is to nourish the sense that becoming a mother doesn't begin at birth - it begins in pregnancy. Enjoy it. Cherish it. Capture it.

Comments

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    • BeLiveStayWell profile imageAUTHOR

      Erin Nitschke 

      2 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      Thanks, Anna Marie. I very much appreciate the feedback. :)

    • Anna Marie Bowman profile image

      Anna Marie Bowman 

      2 years ago from Florida

      Excellent article, and it is full of helpful information.

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