Getting back to regular exercise after birth is a challenge but it’s beneficial on so many fronts that it is well worth making it a priority.
Exercise post-birth will strengthen and tone your muscles, increase your energy, and help your body return to its old self after labour. It may even help you get fitter and lose weight but if you have a new born, then improved resilience to stress and better sleep are probably top of your wish list, and exercise can help with that too!
No matter how simple or complicated your birth experience was, you need time to recover from a challenging physical, mental and emotional event. You need to adjust your expectations of your body accordingly – There will be no f45 or HIIT training for a little while!
Caring for a newborn is really hard work and finding time for you can seem impossible so you probably won’t be out on any long runs either, but even 10 minutes of physical activity a day can help improve your health and post-birth recovery. And they don’t even have to be consecutive minutes… so just do the best you can with what you have!
How soon after birth should you be starting exercise?
Your midwife or doctor will likely have given you some information on exercise to help you recover post-birth. They’ll have encouraged you to start moving about as soon as you’re able to tolerate it. Gentle walking will help manage post-birth pain or discomfort whether it was by caesarean or a vaginal delivery.
If you’ve had a normal vaginal delivery there is almost no such thing as too soon to start pelvic floor and abdominal exercises, just take it easy and keep it comfortable.
If you’ve had a particularly difficult birth or a caesarean section, then it’s probably best you take your lead from the doctors and therapists overseeing your care. If you’re not currently in anyone’s care and you might benefit from seeing an allied health practitioner who can help you plan an appropriate return to exercise. This might be an osteopath, a physiotherapist or an exercise physiologist.
Step 1 – Pelvic Floor Exercises are the best place to start
The pelvic floor muscles form a sling between the tailbone (coccyx) and the pubic bone, and support the pelvic organs including your bladder, bowel, uterus and vagina.
Pregnancy and childbirth can damage and weaken these muscles, and this can contribute to incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. Returning to other exercise without a well-functioning pelvic floor can further exacerbate these issues.
To exercise the pelvic floor muscles, you need to start by tuning in to them. There are lots of complicated explanations for how to do this but to keep it simple – the pelvic floor muscles are the ones you use to stop you weeing and farting, so simply practicing these two functions will suffice.
These pelvic floor exercises can be performed lying down, sitting or standing but are probably best done in all three positions. Whatever position you’re in, try to relax your yummy and don’t hold your breath.
- Gradually squeeze the pelvic floor to about 75% maximal tension. Hold for 5-10 seconds and release gradually. Repeat 10 times.
- Perform shorter, stronger squeezes – aim for 100% tension for just a split second. Repeat 10 times.
- Squeeze to about 75% maximal tension and then cough lightly. Repeat 3 times.
Aim to do 5-6 sets per day – the easiest way to remember this is to do a set after each visit to the loo.
Step 2 – Abdominal Exercises
You can start to exercise your abdominal muscles as soon as you feel reasonably comfortable to. If you feel any significant pain just stop, give yourself a few more days to recover and then try again.
Strengthening the muscles of your abdomen will promote recovery and aid return of full spinal mobility and strength. It will also help return your posture and gait to something more akin to your pre-pregnancy state.
Avoid sit ups, crunches and abdominal curls initially, these can put too much pressure on the abdomen and pelvic floor. Start with simple static contractions before adding any loaded movements of the trunk or lifting any heavy weights.
- Lie on your side your knees bent up.
- Relax your abdominal muscles and breathe in gently.
- As you breathe out, gently tense both your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles.
- Hold this for 10 seconds and gently release.
- Repeat 10 times.
Aim to do 3 sets per day.
Step 3 – Returning to your pre-pregnancy exercise
Getting out of the house and walking as much as you feel you can is a great start to getting your body back in shape, but returning to any more vigorous exercise is probably best left until you’ve had your 6-8 week postnatal check with your GP or obstetrician.
Once you’ve been given the all clear to get started, plan to build back up to your previous exercise levels gradually over a 3-6 months. It is usually best to start with low-impact exercises, such as swimming, pilates, yoga, cycling and a low load weights program. Aim to build some condition doing these things consistently for at least a couple of months before moving on to high-impact and higher load exercises, such as aerobics, running and heavier weight training.
The cardinal rules for keeping it safe
- Give yourself appropriate time to recover from birth – particularly if you’ve had a caesarean section or a complicated pregnancy/delivery.
- Consult with your GP or Osteopath before starting any postnatal exercise – you may need to wait or adjust the program to suit your condition.
- Pay attention to your body. If you’re uncomfortable or in pain, try a less intense exercise, and give it couple of weeks before you try increasing the intensity again.
- Remember that it will take you several months to return to your pre-pregnancy shape and weight, so don’t be discouraged by slow progress. It took your body almost a year to prepare itself for the demands of birth, it’s going to take almost as long to undo it all.
- If you continue to experience pain or can’t do things you think you ought to be able to, check in with your GP and consider working with an Osteopath or an Exercise Physiologist.