“How, when and what for exactly” does returning to exercise look like for most women after having a baby? The lovely Clare Maddalena from Lushtums shares her views and advice for postnatal exercise and caring for your pelvic floor
The usual recommendation for postnatal exercise is to wait for 6 weeks post birth if you had a vaginal birth and a whopping 8 weeks if you had a caesarian, but what if you reach these milestones and you’re still not ready?
Let’s face it. There’s a LOT of social pressure out there to be an idealistic super mum. How we look, our attributes, personality, career, how we birth our babies, feed them and then how quickly we get back in shape. It’s LOT to get right – and for most of us simply impossible.
Ok, stop!! Let’s go back to our original question around post birth exercise …that is “how, when and what for exactly” Let’s start with the easiest bit to answer.
Whilst the standard recommendation to safely return to postnatal exercise is around 6 to 8 weeks, the true answer is if you don’t feel ready, give yourself a break! Managing your baby, lifting, stretching …all use up energy and burns up your calories. For many new mums, what’s needed is REST. Pop in moments each day to recharge. Make it part of your routine. Feeding for example should be a chance to sit quietly. Breathe deeply. Ground into wherever you are sitting in the moment (literally become aware of your feet on the ground and your back resting again the chair) and enjoy a very yogic practice of becoming present, becoming mindful. Just BE there. No phones, no distraction. Feeding your baby is the perfect time to develop an inner mindfulness practice, reducing stress and anxiety and helping towards your overall sense of well-being. Slow down and enjoy these moments.
Some of us however will want to return to exercise soon after we’ve had our babies. If you enjoy it, do it! Exercise releases endorphins and that lovely after-glow high, so if this contributes to your overall mental and emotional health (as well as of course physical fitness), go for it! Just be mindful of what we mention next…
So the early days of having a baby is a massive adjustment. But when you are ready, start your postnatal exercise routine by building your foundations first – especially those muscles that have taken most of the load of pregnancy. Yes! We’re talking pelvic floor muscles!
These are part of a group of muscles that provide our deepest core support. And when these are engaged and functioning we feel supported inside and out, helping us physically and contributing to a greater sense of general grounding and wellbeing.
Even just a week after giving birth, you should start finding these muscles again with some super gentle pelvic floor exercises.
Give this a go in a seated position (perhaps while feeding) or when you are resting. Start by exhaling (imagine you are blowing out a candle) and, after a couple of seconds, gently lift your pelvic floor in and up. It feels as if you are trying not to wee or break wind, and ideally you can also feel the walls of the vagina drawing together. Once you get to the end of the exhalation, and you’ve drawn these muscles in and up gently (only using about 3 out of 10 strength wise), then release, relax completely and inhale into a nice soft belly. Repeat. Be cautious, don’t rush to 10 out 10 strength wise, as you’ll actually by-pass the all important pelvic floor and go straight to your 6 pack. In the early stages, until you get this right, less is actually more.
Include several rounds of repetitions into your day. Working well? Now practice doing this breath and holding your pelvic floor to gently brace your core BEFORE you lift anything – whether it’s your baby or a bag of shopping. Remember this helpful mantra, “Lift on the inside first, then lift on the outside”. You can even start to maintain your ‘exhale – and squeeze’ while pushing the buggy out on a walk. Just build it into your normal day and rhythm.
Regular practice before lifting anything or when out walking, will help restore your pelvic floor and your inner core (transverse abs too, so you may feel your tummy gently drawing in) and help prevent much more serious issues such as incontinence and even prolapse.
You should be 100% sure you have regained connection, control and then automatic function of your deep core (including your pelvic floor and transverse abs) and probably worked a bit on your glutes too), before returning to your regular pre-birth activities.
Some of us will get there sooner than others and if you did lots of activity before, your recovery is likely to be quicker. But I truly believe you need to spend the time doing this inner practice to lay the correct foundations.
Well simply put, I have worked with so many women who launched back into their old fitness routine and, while they are fit and strong on the ‘outside’ of their bodies, have totally missed the ‘inner’ work.
I often see fit, active women who, instead of building the foundations first, have gone straight for the walls and the roof: with no supportive foundations to take their load and hold their bodies up, they struggle with incontinence or still have separated tummy muscles long after they’ve given birth.
Running, jumping, sit ups, crunches, planks or squats – all create extra load and extra pressure downward. Only once your deep inner muscles are working appropriately to take that weight and support is it advisable to start a stronger form of exercise.
So the mantra is return to exercise as soon as you feel you comfortably can – the earlier you do, the better it is but get this ground work in first. Then progress with caution, back to a more regular exercise routine.
And lastly, we answer the WHAT FOR EXACTLY part of the question. You are doing this for YOU! No one else. Not for the comparison with celebrities, or even your former pre-baby self. But for YOU. The bit of you that knows deep down she needs to honour herself and her body.
Eat well, MOVE WELL and remember to REST well. It all goes into the mix of helping us feel more whole and complete.
And one final note:
If you’re struggling with prolapse or incontinence, persisting beyond working on your core with these exercises or from attending specialist classes such as postnatal yoga, exercise or Pilates then consult your local Women’s Health experts/physiotherapists/osteopaths. It’s not taboo – loads of women suffer with this – so speak out and go get help!