Returning to exercise safely after baby
Whether you were a frequent exerciser throughout your pregnancy or you’re looking to start a brand new routine now that baby has arrived, there are some things to consider for safe postnatal fitness training. The fitness industry is generally geared towards encouraging you to ‘bounce back’ after baby as soon as possible, but it’s important to remember that fit or unfit, C-section or vaginal birth, breastfeeding or bottle feeding, your body has gone through changes and heading into certain types of training too soon may put your health at risk in potentially big ways.
Unfortunately, many women either don’t know about these risks or choose to ignore them until damage has already been done by training in mainstream fitness classes or bootcamps, or with trainers who don’t have specialised understanding of postnatal issues. You don’t need to be scared about exercising after baby, but it’s wise to learn how to do it safely.
Unless you are working with a personal trainer or exercise professional who has undergone a prenatal/postnatal certification or a qualification specialising in women’s health that covers these topics, mainstream trainers or instructors may be unintentionally providing you with unsafe exercise guidelines. It’s important to note that this can even be in mums and bubs classes or baby bootcamps. A truly safe postnatal fitness class for new mums will rarely include jumping, situps/crunches, running or encourage you to push yourself to your absolute limits.
Getting your medical clearance
Your LMC, GP or other professional caring for your postnatal health should give you clearance prior to beginning or returning exercise after giving birth. For an uncomplicated vaginal birth this typically is at around six weeks postpartum and for complicated deliveries or C-sections you’ll be looking at around 10-12 weeks+.
Medical clearance to return to exercise doesn’t mean you can head straight back to bootcamp! It generally means to gradually increase from light or gentle exercise over a number of weeks or months starting with walking, gentle stretches and pelvic floor exercises.
Pelvic floor and Diastasis Recti checks
These should be mainstream checks for every woman postpartum, but they are frequently skipped. It’s important to understand that just because everything ‘feels right’ down there doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good to start running and jumping. Even if you’ve had a C-section, during pregnancy as baby grows there is a lot of downward pressure on your pelvic floor muscles that can stretch and weaken them, so it’s important to do your pelvic floor exercises to strengthen them.
Diastasis Recti is the separation down the front of the abdominal muscles during pregnancy. It happens to as many as 66% to 100% of all pregnant women – and is often not checked for. In many cases this separation will close on its own over time, but sometimes it needs a little extra help. It’s important to find out whether you have it before you return to exercise as crunches/situps or similar movements, as well as planks performed incorrectly or deep yoga back bends may worsen the issue.
Either of these conditions can lead to reduced core strength which may put your lower back at risk of injury.
If you’re an Online Squad member, you can learn more about pelvic floor exercises and checking for Diastasis Recti in the linked articles. In all instances your first port of call for a proper check should be a physiotherapist well versed in women’s postnatal care.
Relaxin and joint care
During pregnancy, your body has increased production of the hormone relaxin which helps loosen your joints to prepare your pelvis for childbirth. The thing is, your body can’t differentiate between your pelvis or your wrists or ankles, so ALL of your joints can be affected. Many women hear this during pregnancy and know to be careful with balance and agility movements, but did you know you can have increased relaxin in your body up to six months after breastfeeding stops?
This means that even if you are formula feeding right from the start, your joints may still be a bit loosey goosey until bubs is six months old, so deep twists and bends in yoga may put your sacroiliac joints in your lower back/pelvis at risk of injury, and high intensity workouts like boxing could do the same for your wrists while plyometrics/jumping or running may affect your ankles, knees and hips.
The effect on your hormones
Getting your body moving in a purposeful way can be great for mood, self confidence, hormone regulation and a range of other great reasons. However, it’s important to take into consideration that when you’re looking after a young baby your body may be on high alert in stress response a lot of the time.
If you are breastfeeding, high intensity exercise performed frequently enough can potentially affect your milk production. Your sleep quality (when you do manage to get it!) may be affected. If your nervous system is in fight or flight and you add intense workouts to this, it may affect your ability to cope or deal with life stress. Having said that, you might find your milk supply unaffected, that you sleep better and that it helps you to deal better with stress.
The point of this is to keep an open mind when you do begin training and try to check in with yourself and listen to your body. If the exercise isn’t right for you at this time, your body will let you know!
Getting into intense exercise too early
We see this all the time in the fitness industry from new mums either striving to lose the baby weight or fit mamas who just want to get back into their old routine as soon as possible.
While it is important to be able to find your ‘me’ time and get your body moving in a way that feels good, remember that this is a small period of your life and you have plenty of time to do intense workouts later on. Returning to high intensity exercise too early can put you at risk of organ prolapse (if your pelvic floor muscles aren’t strong enough to hold your uterus and other internal organs up and in your body). Types of exercise that can exacerbate this include running, deep squats, jumping and movements that require a lot of intra-abdominal pressure such as planks, heavy lifting or crunches.
And that’s not just about right now. If you don’t deal with pelvic floor issues properly, your risk of organ prolapse is higher YEARS down the track – even during menopause. For the sake of waiting a few extra months to gradually build your strength and exercise intensity, see a specialist and ensure your body is truly ready to return to exercise, it’s better to ease yourself into things.
- Efficacy of deep core stability exercise program in postpartum women with diastasis recti abdominis: a randomised controlled trial – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6454249