Knowing when and how to return to exercise after having a baby is a confusing and daunting challenge for many new mums.
On the one hand, studies have shown that postnatal exercise has a positive impact on a new mother’s mental health and can reduce the onset of postnatal depression. However, concerns over pelvic floor health and overall postanal recovery can make new mothers feel anxious and cautious about pushing themselves too far and too soon.
Add to this the challenge of actually finding the time and energy to exercise with a new baby, and you can easily see how popping on the running trainers and heading out for a jog is not the carefree and spontaneous activity it used to be pre-baby!
To help you assess all the factors that should be considered when deciding on the right time to exercise after having a baby, we’ve pulled together some expert advice from our trusted team of Physiotherapists, Nutritionists, Postnatal Fitness Instructors and Pilates Instructors to help you construct a postpartum fitness routine that’s right for you and your body.
When can I exercise again after having a baby?
“Returning to exercise after having a baby has so many benefits for our physical and mental health, however it can be hard to work out where to start, “ says physiotherapist Claire Bourne.
“My advice is to remember that the initial stage of returning to exercise may feel slower and more like rehab than what you are used to, but slow and steady really does win the race.
Though we may hear of needing to wait 6 weeks before restarting exercise, this isn’t a definitive cut off when we are no longer healing or recovering. This is just the timescale of soft tissue healing. I prefer to view it as a continuum from when we birth our babies until we are back to what we love, and this timescale will be different for everyone.”
Rosie Cardale from the Mummy MOT says, “It’s important to remember that no matter how fit you were before the birth of your baby, it is your pelvic floor, back, and pelvis that you are trying to rehabilitate and protect.
A return to exercise too early can cause immediate or long-term problems to these areas that may, in some cases, be irreversible. Common problems that can occur include musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction, urinary incontinence, abdominal separation, and pelvic organ prolapse.”
Creating a gradual fitness plan
“Start with deep breathing and pelvic floor exercises in the early days and weeks, alongside short walks,” advises Claire.
“Then once you reach six weeks, start to think about bodyweight movements, like squats and lunges, postnatal pilates or finding a postnatal exercise programme.
There is no rush and don’t compare yourself to anyone else because everyone has their own experience and story. It is important to listen to our bodies and take note of any symptoms, such as urine leakage, or heaviness in the vagina or joint pain.”
Gentle exercises like yoga and pilates can be a great way to regain strength and build up your confidence again, without pushing yourself too far.
“In a Pilates session we focus on the pelvic floor and any ab separation you might have,” says Nathalie Clough, Pilates Expert.
“If mothers had a C section, the recovery and exercises after can be very different to a vaginal birth. I recommend trying to allocate yourself time without any distractions if you are going to look at moving. This way you can fully focus on yourself and your needs at that time, which is so important for any recovery.
Little and often is my motto. This obviously works well when trying to fit in some exercises in between feeding, sleeping and any other schedule you might have. That way you can monitor what might be too much, or too little and gauge how you want to move next time you exercise.”
Building up to high impact exercise
For many mothers, returning to the exercise routine they loved and thrived on before having a baby is essential for their wellbeing and sense of identity. But when is it safe to embrace high impact exercise again?
“Returning to impact exercise, like running or jumping, is not advised for most until around 12 weeks, and for others it can be past this point,” says Claire.
Zoe, the Founder of Fit Mum Berkshire, wrote a piece for bloss about creating the optimum postnatal timeline in order to build up to high impact exercise like running and jumping. She recommends using the free NHS Couch to 5k programme to start running safely again.
“Adding high impact exercises such as jumps and running is the last thing to add in the postnatal journey. This type of exercise creates the most impact on our pelvic floor, core and joints so we want to ensure we have taken the time to regain strength and stability throughout the body first. When starting running again, even if you ran during your pregnancy, start right from the beginning,”
“The main challenge of running is that it is a single-leg sport,” adds Rosie. “This means that we shift from one leg to the other. The force that travels through each leg can be in excess of three times our body weight. This force therefore also needs to be absorbed by our pelvic structures and pelvic floor.
Over a 5km run, we could take up to 4,000 steps which impact joints, tendons, and muscles. This is why it is so important that we gradually build up strength to cope with this.
Your Mummy MOT practitioner may refer to these guidelines and use some of the single-leg strength tests that they have highlighted as being good indicators of a safe return to running.”
If getting out and about to exercise is proving tricky when it comes to childcare, bring your baby along with you! We road tested the Cybex Zeno 4 in 1 Multisport which is an amazing sports stroller that seamlessly converts with various attachments allowing you to run, cycle (and even ski!) hands free with your little one in tow. The Zeno Multisport was a breeze to assemble and to use its comfortable to manoeuvre whilst looking sleek and stylish. We loved using it as a bike trailer too - the outer mesh is breathable but its full coverage and 3 point harness allows your child to stay secure - and on cooler mornings, our official 10 month old tester was snuggled up in her Cybex Snogga 2 footmuff. This fits all Cybex stroller models and rolls up conveniently into a little bag which is fab for storage. A sports pushchair is a brilliant addition to your postnatal exercise regime as it offers both freedom and flexibility on those days you just need a little nudge of motivation. Fresh air is also always a winner for both you and your little one!
How might my pelvic floor be affected after having a baby and what signs should I look out for before returning to exercise?
If you’ve had a baby, your pelvic floor muscles may not function at full capacity for a while after your baby’s birth. Pelvic health experts, Leto, have outlined the following symptoms as key indicators of pelvic floor dysfunction, which might also being affected by the menopause, chronic constipation, high impact exercise, smoking or being overweight.
Symptoms of Pelvic Floor Dysfunction:
- Leakage of the bladder or bowel during impact exercises or when coughing, laughing, and sneezing.
- Urge incontinence: when you feel the sudden and urgent need to pass urine or stools, and may or may not be able to ‘hold on’.
- Needing to go to the toilet more often than what’s normal for you.
- Vaginal dryness.
- A dragging or heavy feeling in the vagina.
- Reduced sensation or pleasure from sex.
- Painful sex.
“As you can imagine, any of the symptoms above can have a significant impact on your quality of life. Pelvic floor dysfunction can limit what you do or what you feel confident doing, including exercise, intimacy with a partner, even wearing certain clothes.”
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should seek the help of a specialist pelvic health physiotherapist, and this is especially important if you are planning to return to exercise after having a baby.
Leto recommend all new mothers book in for a postnatal check at around 6-8 weeks postpartum. You can book in for your Leto postnatal check here.
Pelvic floor exercises before and after birth
If you're looking for a physio-recommended piece of tech that gives kegel exercises a whole new perspective - Bloss recommends the Elvie Trainer. This clever device connects to an app via bluetooth - visualising your pelvic floor movements in real time using biofeedback.
It's common to incorrectly 'push down' during pelvic floor exercises and the Elvie Trainer is able to recognise this and guide you through the exercises correctly, keeping your technique in check. There are varying levels depending on your pelvic prowess, but even a short 5 minutes per day, three + times per week yields great results in just 4 weeks.
You can even use it when you're pregnant (just wait until after your postnatal check before you start using post-baby!). We loved the fact it's simple, easy and comfortable to use, as well as 'distracting' you into a game-like experience on your app (which is actually good fun!).
Diastasis Recti after birth
Diastasis Recti, or divarication, is the term used to describe the separation of the two muscles that run down the middle of your stomach during pregnancy.
This is really common and occurs because your growing womb pushes the muscles apart, stretching and weakening them.
The amount of separation varies from mother to mother but it will usually go back to normal by the time your baby is 8 weeks old. However, the severity of your muscle separation may have an impact on what feels comfortable when exercising and what is safe, so it’s important to have your stomach muscles assessed by a GP, midwife or physiotherapist.
Can I exercise whilst breastfeeding?
Exercise is widely accepted as being safe for breastfeeding mothers, and light to moderate exercise does not affect the taste, amount, quality or composition of breastmilk.
However, if you are exercising to lose weight after having a baby, and are still breastfeeding, fitness instructor Mari-Carmen has some advice on how to ensure your exercise regime does not affect your milk supply.
“For breast-feeding mummies, you are still nourishing your baby just like in pregnancy, so it is important to eat enough calories. You do have to take into consideration that your body is burning more calories to provide your milk supply. Producing breast milk can burn between 300-500 calories.”
She recommends that eating enough, drinking 2-3 litres of water a day and setting realistic goals are key to ensure your milk supply is not affected by postnatal exercise. For more information, read her full article here.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to do too much too soon
Whatever your motivation for returning to exercise after having a baby - mental health, personal fitness, weight loss, or something else - it’s important to remember that it’s your own personal journey and external pressures are something to be avoided.
“It can be incredibly difficult to find the time to exercise with a baby and/or young children. If you do find the time, remember that your return to exercise needs to be respectful of your body with a focus on rebuilding your core before returning to more strenuous exercise, however frustrating that is for some, “ advises nutritionist, Rebecca Stevens in her article ‘Why is my postpartum body not bouncing back?’
“Try to remember that your recovery journey is a very personal and unique experience and while it can be easy to compare yourself to others on the same journey, try to avoid this.
Just think about all the different factors that influence your recovery e.g. size of your baby, position of your baby in the womb, the amount of weight gained in pregnancy, how well your baby does or doesn’t sleep, how much help you have at home, the number of children you have, the natural elasticity of the skin – this is down to genetics and not the cream you did or didn’t have time to rub on your expanding bump.”
“There is so much information and advice when it comes to returning to exercise after having a baby. The biggest and most obvious piece that I give to any mother, is to listen to your body,” says Nathalie Clough.
“All of the advice can be overwhelming, but you are so supported now more than ever, so if unsure don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional and have a little chat.”
You can book appointments with all of the experts mentioned in this article, either to ask questions, book 1:1 consultations or sign up to their postpartum fitness plans.
Bloss has a wealth of resources for ensuring a safe return to exercise after having a baby, and personalised, tailored advice from our trusted team of experts is only ever a click away.
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