As a mother of 2 young children, I have lived through a lot of the changes that occur in our body and the impact it has on fitness both during and after pregnancy. I’ve always been an keen exerciser and enjoyed staying fit and in shape but nothing really prepares you for what having children does to your body – especially when these little humans arrive into our lives, wreaking havoc any fitness routines we may have had previously. We are a nation obsessed with ‘bouncing back after baby’, which quite frankly is ridiculous, unrealistic and something that piles on the pressure for any female wanting her body and fitness levels back.
Last month I was asked by a lovely lady I met on a holiday in Portugal 4 years ago to run some Instagram live workouts for post-natal women. She is a hugely inspiring blogger on miscarriage and fertility (with a lot of followers!) so it was daunting prospect - even when qualified in pre- and post-natal fitness. There are just so many special considerations for post-natal women. The main aim of any good pre- and post-natal trainer is to protect women and their ability to maintain physical activity long term for their overall health and wellbeing. Daunting as it was I took on the challenge and having recently completed this 4-week mini-series it reignited my passion for post-natal fitness again. Add to the fact our very own Editor-In-Chief is due a new arrival imminently I thought it would be an ideal issue to share my 6 top tips for regaining your health, fitness and overall wellbeing in the post-natal period.
1. Sufficient screening for any post-natal women is vital. I’ve heard on so many occasions from new mums that their 6-week GP check did not meet up to their expectations. From my own experience these were very much centred around how my new baby was doing and not much attention given to my own recovery. Being an avid exerciser, I was desperate to regain my fitness after both pregnancies but thankfully I know more than most to just go leaping back in to it too fast. But even if you’re new to exercise making sure you get a proper individual screening from a credible post-natal practitioner is VITAL. During a post-natal screening you should be asked details of your pregnancy, birth and overall health. The practitioner should address all individual issues such as Diastasis Recti, C-Section scars and the possibility of Pelvic Organ Prolapse – all of which impact exercise/movement prescription. You’ll only get one opportunity to build the right foundations to recover well and regain (or gain) your fitness levels post pregnancy so invest in YOU if you can. An individual qualified in fitness may not necessarily be qualified in post-natal fitness. Do you research and find the right person for you.
2. Start by breathing! This might sound crazy as we know that breathing is kind of essential, right? – but do you realise just how important it is in post-natal recovery?
Your whole mid-section is held together like a cylinder type structure. The bottom of this holds up your pelvic muscles, the sides are your deep abdominal muscles and the top is held on tight by your diaphragm. When this mechanism is functioning well it balances inter-abdominal pressure to support your pelvis and lower back. Now, imagine months of this being stretched. It weakens the abdominal muscles and creates downward pressure on your pelvic floor. When you breath out you use your diaphragm muscles to help push the air out of your lungs. When the diaphragm is contracting the pelvic floor is also being contracted and lifting. It’s like a loop system. Unfortunately, the loop sometimes becomes disconnected throughout pregnancy and childbirth so the very first port of call in any postnatal recovery programme is to re-connect this loop – that is, get the pelvic floor muscles working in conjunction with the breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing exercises are something you can teach yourself – but again, getting a professional to help guide you through this is always helpful.
3. Eat REAL food. Optimum nutrition plays a major part in all of the perceived trouble spots for post-natal ladies. In a bid to “lose the baby weight” many women fall victim to under-nourishing their bodies through restricting calorie intake, missing vital nutrients. I’ve always stuck by my motto; eat food, not products and this is particularly important at times in our lives when we have some heeling to do as well. As well as losing weight and eating enough to do sustainably let’s not forget that if you’re breastfeeding what you feed yourself now is what you are nourishing your child with. You mainly need to focus on nutrients that are absolutely vital proper growth and development of the baby, such as carbohydrates, protein, calcium and zinc. Food groups to include are:
Iron-enriched foods promote strength. Leans cuts of red meat, spinach, eggs, pumpkin seeds and legumes
Great grains energize and nourish the body. This is particularly important for breastfeeding mothers who can burn 500 extra calories per day. Wholewheat pasta, wholegrain cereals, wholewheat breads, oats, brown rice and grains such as quinoa, barley and millet.
Healthy fats produce healthy breast milk.
Olive oil, avocado, seeds and fatty fish such as salmon
Fresh fruits and vegetables.
Three of my favourites both during pregnancy and post-natal are;
· Blueberries – among the highest fruits in antioxidants. I remember munching on bowls of these during night feeds!
· Spinach, kale and other dark leafy greens (high in iron, calcium and dietary fibre)
· Sweet potatoes – high in vitamin A and C and beta carotene.
4. Get Stretching (but take care!). Muscle aches and pains in the neck and across the upper and lower back are very common, primarily due to a combination of altered alignment, abdominal weakness and ligament laxity. Pregnancy causes the pelvis to tip, which alters spine alignment and in turn this causes specific muscles to shorten and tighten. A good post-natal trainer can guide you through exactly which stretches to include, factoring in any adaptations needed depending on your individual recovery plan. Due to increased ligament laxity for many weeks after pregnancy (caused by a hormone called relaxin that alters the properties of cartilage and tendon by activating collagonese) do not work on trying to increase your flexibility initially. Keep the stretches short.
5. Take your time! I refer back to my article August article; Slow and Steady Wins the Race.
I was going to share the most recent NHS statistics with you at this point. The ones that tell us what the ‘average weight gain is during pregnancy’ and how long it should take to come off – but I won’t. Why? – it just adds more pressure for us. Why do you need to put a timer on yourself? After all, surely the first few weeks and months with your new baby should be enjoyed, not spent scale-watching or competing with #postpartumbody posts on Instagram. You’ve also got to be mindful that so many factors are involved in regaining your fitness after a baby. Delivery method and any associated complications, stress levels, diet, genetics and whether you’re breastfeeding or not to name just a few. One thing IS certain though, losing weight too quickly after birth can be detrimental. It can reduce the quantity and quality of milk you produce for your baby and it can leave you exhausted at a time when you need energy the most.
6. Watch out for any red flags. It’s great to have a plan to follow and have goals set but always take care. Watch out for any red flags - including abdominal pain, bleeding and pelvic heaviness. Consult yoir GP immediately if you experience any of these.
And so, there it is My top 6 tips for the road back to fitness after pregnancy but the other point to end on is the clarify that any way you chose to get your exercise should of course be something you actually enjoy! The postpartum period is all about rebalancing pregnancy hormones with a new human to care for and often disturbed sleep patterns so we have enough to contend with already! Evidence suggests exercise can help lower postpartum anxiety and depression symptoms in most women so it’s something we should all do wherever possible and in whatever way we want – just lay the right foundations to build from first!