Some new mums can’t wait to get back to the gym after having their baby, to others just the thought of breaking a sweat fills them with dread. Whichever camp you fall into, gentle exercise will not only help to strengthen and tone muscles, it’ll also help to raise your energy levels, with an added bonus of shifting some of that extra baby weight if you feel the urge. Just remember that your body has just made a human, so go easy on it…
When can I start?
If you had a straightforward birth you can start doing gentle exercise as soon as you feel up to it. And the good news is that you don’t even have to get changed out of your PJs! Things like doing your pelvic floor exercises – aka kegels – can be done just days after giving birth. Your pelvic floor muscles are put under a lot of strain during pregnancy and if they’re weak afterwards it can result in stress incontinence – little leaks of wee when you cough, sneeze, jump etc. It’s very common and can usually be helped by doing simple exercises whilst sitting watching TV or around the house (if not though, and symptoms persist, see your doctor). If you’re not sure how to do your pelvic floor muscles, an online search will yield lots of step-by-step explanations and there are even apps available to keep reminding you. If you’re ready to face the world, a gentle walk is another good way of getting the body moving and the endorphins kicking in.
The six-week wait
For more strenuous exercise most post-natal exercise groups won’t let you start until you’ve had your six-week check with your GP. During the check your GP will usually make sure any stitches are healed and that you’re ready to return to exercise. Doing so before then can put you at risk of injury or infection. A lot of guidance suggests that it’s safer to wait 12 weeks before returning to strenuous high-impact exercise like running. And if you’ve had a caesarean or difficult labour, recovery times can be longer.
Is my stomach ready?
If you’re still having to tuck your tummy into your maternity leggings, don’t panic! The two abdominal muscles (rectus abdominals) often separate during pregnancy because of your growing baby pushing them apart. The size of separation varies between all women and usually the muscles knit back together by about eight weeks after birth. However, if this gap is still obvious it means that your muscles are still longer and weaker and therefore aren’t supporting your back properly. So doing things like sit-ups or other exercises that put strain on your back are not advised. Check with your GP or health visitor if you’re worried about yours.
Bring out your bikini
If your body doesn’t feel ready for something as intense as a cardio class or run, going for a swim is a great way of achieving an all-over workout that’s low impact, burns calories, and tones muscles too. It’s commonly advised to wait 4-6 weeks after delivery, so that your cervix has closed, vaginal bleeding has stopped, and the so the risk of infection decreases.
Exercising doesn’t have to mean going for a 10k run or sweating buckets at the gym, there lots of alternatives that can be worked into your daily routine that don’t even really feel like exercise – for example pushing the buggy around the park whilst talking to friends – there are even special groups in most towns for doing this, with the bonus factor of meeting new people – doing your pelvic floor exercises while you’re watching TV, or doing a gentle pilates or yoga DVD on the floor next to your baby. The key is finding something that works for you, and fits into your new routine.
Listen to your body
While there is lots of expert advice out there, all women’s bodies are different as are all births. So it goes without saying that the recovery times vary hugely. It’s vital that you listen to your body and if something doesn’t feel right, stop, or if you’re worried see your GP or health visitor. Exercising when your stitches haven’t healed or your stomach muscles aren’t knitted back together properly can put you at risk of severe injury. Yes it might be frustrating, but a few more weeks in the grand scheme of things won’t make a huge difference. And you can always get walking in the meantime!
When to stop
There are a few signs to look out for which might suggest you’re overdoing it. These include if your post-natal bleeding gets heavier or changes colour, if you’re feeling overly tired (what new mum isn’t?!), or if you’re feeling pain or developing injuries. These are all ways that your body is telling you to slow down. So listen to them and tone down the intensity a bit to avoid injury or exhaustion. And remember that you will get back to full-fitness again eventually.