7 Quick Tips for Postpartum Exercise

I’ve run for almost as long as I can remember.  Most teenagers I knew back in the day turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with teenage challenges.  I turned to exercise.  For years it’s been my go-to coping mechanism of choice, so I had my heart set on running a half marathon when Elias turned six months old.  Much of my pregnancy was infused with well, sleep, so I knew I’d be ready to get back into the swing of things once Elias made his debut.  I told people while I was pregnant that I’d take 3 months to recover from the physical demands of giving birth, adjust to my new life as a mom, and then spend three months training for a 13.1 mile endurance run across the middle of Oregon.  This seemed realistic in my mind especially considering that while I was still pregnant I read about a woman who delivered her baby the same day she completed a marathon.  Fast forward 8 months.  Elias has been around since October of last year and I’ve spent roughly 17 minutes, total, running.  I missed that half marathon back in April.  Whoops!  It turns out I should’ve been a bit more conservative in my postpartum ambitions.    

Although my mind is ready, my body keeps saying STOP.  Like many of the physical effects of pregnancy that I wasn’t expecting, 9 months of puking my guts out for example, I wasn’t expecting the postpartum months to physically kick my butt.  Even though I’m lifting weights three times a week and incorporating core strength into my routine, my body still isn’t ready for the impact of running.  I’ve learned that the hormone relaxin, which loosens ligaments and prepares the body for birth, stays present in a woman’s body until she stops breastfeeding.  Some reading I’ve done would indicate that relaxin is present for up to six months after breastfeeding ceases.  Much of the fitness information for postpartum women doesn’t take this into account.  In fact the general recommendations now state that if you were active during your pregnancy you can begin a postpartum exercise routine right away if you feel ready.   The six to eight week wait window has been retired.  The problem with this recommendation however is that without the awkwardness of carrying the baby bump a woman may be tempted to jump into things more quickly than she should.  Breastfeeding women in particular should be cautious about the types of physical activity they incorporate.  Pay attention to the following tips when beginning an exercise program postpartum:

1)      Remember your mind may be ready before your body.  Evaluate how you feel each step of the way when you’re exercising and refrain from any activities that cause you pain or discomfort.

2)      Start with low-impact activities such as walking, biking, and swimming.  It may be months or even years before high impact activities feel good again. 

3)      Yoga is an excellent activity if you are doing a postpartum specific class.  Your main focus should be on increasing joint stability and increasing muscle strength, not on flexibility.

4)      Incorporate strength training as this too will help to increase stability in the joints. 

5)      Use a foam roller to gently massage the glutes, hamstrings, IT band, etc after workouts.

6)      Incorporate a stability ball into your workouts for the purpose of rebuilding core strength. 

7)      Exercise with your baby and other new moms to build or retain social connections in this transitional time. 

I’ve never met a woman postpartum who wasn’t ready to have her pre-pregnancy body back, but patience will insure that you avoid injury and frustration on the way back to your vibrant physical self.

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A NOT so obvious exercise motivator for new moms

Exercise is one of the most important predictors for good health and well-being yet so many women find exercise about as enticing as a trip to the gynecologist.  This is particularly true for new moms, because of the laundry list of responsibilities that taking care of a baby entails. Some big motivators for encouraging exercise are new music, a strong community, and updated goals but another less tangible motivator exists as well. 

Let me ask you a question.  How many things do you take care of that you don’t like?  I like my husband so despite a long day on the job I do a little healthy cooking for him now and then.  I like my dogs so despite the comfort of a warm bed on a rainy Portland Saturday I am up and walking them.  I like my child too!  That’s why I feed him, change him, dress him, bathe him, etc.  We take care of the things we like in innumerable ways.  I can think of only one thing women perpetually don’t like, berate incessantly, and spend countless hours trying to get the motivation to take care of — their bodies. 

There’s a lot of self-loathing out there.  We live in a culture that blasts us with image after image of youthful, svelte physiques and the message is loud and clear that happiness equals looking like an airbrushed toothpick with female parts.  However, most females over the age of twelve and most females with beautiful new babies at home have dimples, fat rolls, and stretch marks.  If we reframe how we think about our bodies and talk to them though, the taking care of part, flows more naturally.  How about trying to shift the self-loathing to self-love? 

Instead of “is that seriously another stretch mark on my hip” wouldn’t it be nice if it was “stretch mark? Cool! a reminder of the baby my body made and birthed”.   This isn’t an easy shift to make though.  It’s only me, myself, and I inside my head and I’ve been having many of the same thoughts since I was oh I don’t know, two?  It’s hard to shift them.  When I reach for the ice cream container more than once my husband witnesses the account and reminds me that I bitterly complain about a stomachache every time I eat two bowls of the stuff.   I often have accountability with the actions I take in the world, but with my thoughts it’s different.

What to do about it?  I like the exercise of wearing a rubber band for a week.  Each time you notice the rubber band find something about your body you can be grateful for.  Each time you catch yourself criticizing your body, pop the rubber band gently.  You’re not trying to hurt yourself with this exercise, but merely give yourself a gentle reminder that the body you’re in may not look like the cover of Sports Illustrated, but it created a life and birthed it.  You’re beautiful and capable and you want to take care of it because you like it!