You did it! You made it through the grueling journey of 9 months of pregnancy, hours upon hours of labor and delivery and now you’ve entered the even more challenging postpartum phase.
Doctors often refer to the first 12 weeks after birth as the “fourth trimester,” when new moms adjust to their emotional and physical changes and the baby adapts to life on the outside. Some say this is the hardest of the four trimesters, and the time when many women experience postpartum depression or anxiety.
The sheer exhaustion and hormonal roller coaster during the fourth trimester make it difficult for moms to prioritize their health and self care, and many feel extreme guilt for taking time away from the baby. That’s why postpartum exercises are different than working out during other times in your life.
If this is where you are, exercise is probably the last thing on your mind. However, taking care of your needs is crucial to being able to care for your growing family. How can you give your best if you’re not at your best?
Benefits of Postpartum Exercise
While people often link exercise with weight loss, it actually has many more benefits that can’t be measured on a scale. A consistent fitness routine can boost your energy, improve your mood and confidence, help you get a better night’s sleep, decrease your risk of injury, improve your flexibility and strength, promote heart health and more.
Depending on the circumstances of delivery, most new moms are cleared to return to exercise between 6-8 weeks after birth. While this is a general recommendation, every situation is different and it’s important to listen to your body and ease back into an exercise routine with the blessing of your OB-GYN.
As you navigate your new life with a baby (or multiple children), you’ll notice that making time for yourself will look different. It will require more planning and compromise in order to make it work. Your schedule will constantly change and you’ll need to remain flexible with your exercise routine.
Realistic Exercises and Goals
Start by developing a realistic schedule for your workouts, one that you can actually stay consistent with. For this early season of motherhood, you may only be able to commit to a 30-minute workout two times a week. That’s great! If you set an unrealistic goal of working out seven days a week, you’ll likely get discouraged and give up when you can’t continue with that momentum.
Remember that your health is a journey, it’s not just about the destination. That’s why it’s important to find an exercise routine that you enjoy and will keep you coming back consistently.
Here are a few ways to gently get back into exercise during the early postpartum period.
- Walking. Get back to the basics and go for a walk, either outside or on a treadmill. People often dismiss walking because it’s low-impact and typically doesn’t create much of a sweat. However, it’s a simple but effective cardiovascular workout and it can help improve your stability and balance, which is something that you likely need to regain after pregnancy.
You can start with a leisurely outdoor walk, bringing the baby along in the stroller, and then work your way up to longer distances and quicker speeds. One of the benefits of living in Central Florida is that we have outdoor weather all year long. If you’re using a treadmill, you can slowly increase the speed and incline over time.
- Interval running. If you were a runner before pregnancy or are looking to ease into a more intense cardio workout, you can try a walk/run combination, called interval running. There are a number of apps (like Intervals Pro) that can facilitate this so you don’t have to keep looking at your watch.
You can adjust the sounds and timing for each interval of walking and running. Start slow with a 30-second run, followed by a 60-second walk on a loop until you hit 30 minutes. Over time, you can increase the overall duration of your interval run or change up the walk/run time.
This exercise style can be done outdoors or on a treadmill, and makes running long distances a little easier for those who aren’t experienced runners.
- Postpartum yoga. Yoga is a great way to rebuild strength, flexibility and stability, and now that you don’t have a pregnant belly, you’ll be able to go deeper into certain poses. Yoga is a gentle practice that can be easily modified to meet your needs wherever you are.
If you’re able to find a postpartum yoga class, the instructor can guide you through poses that are specifically designed to help you gain back strength in your core and pelvic floor. If you’re not able to find an in-person class that works for you, there are plenty of free resources on YouTube, like SarahBethYoga.
- Traditional strength training. With the societal and self-imposed pressure to “bounce back” and lose the baby weight quickly, many new moms turn to excessive cardio to burn calories. While cardio is an important part of a balanced exercise routine, lifting weights can also aid with weight loss while helping you rebuild core strength, improve bone strength and brain health.
It’s important to ease into weightlifting gradually, being mindful of your comfort level and pain. Especially for moms who had C-sections, start with standing ab exercises (vs. the floor) and modify movements that involve your pelvic floor. For example, use a chair for support when squatting rather than getting into a deep unassisted squat. With time and consistency, you’ll be able to start lifting heavier and with more endurance.
During a typical weight lifting session, you will isolate muscle groups that are targeted during each exercise (like chest, triceps, biceps or shoulders). If you need guided coaching, try a body works class at your local gym or find an online program, like Workout with Mom, that’s geared towards fitness for new moms.
- Functional strength training. While traditional strength training focuses more on isolated muscle groups with machines or dumbbells, functional strength training is aimed at larger, more complex movements that can improve your body’s ability to perform everyday functions.
For example, performing deep squats would mimic you squatting down to pick up your child or a large trash bag. You may not need any equipment to perform functional body-weight exercises or you can use household items to do moves that work a number of muscle groups at once.
- Swimming. Doing laps or water aerobics is a low-impact workout that can be great for postpartum moms. Make sure that you have clearance from your doctor to go into a swimming pool again because you don’t want to risk infection to any areas that may still be healing.
Swimming uses nearly all of your muscle groups and is a gentle way to tone up without putting too much stress on your joints and ligaments. Many local gyms have indoor pools where you can swim laps on your schedule or participate in a group class.
- Dancing. In addition to being a great cardio workout, dancing provides a distraction as you can easily get lost in the music and focus on having fun. Participating in a dance class, like Zumba or hip hop, works well for new moms as modifications are encouraged.
You can do moves at the intensity level that works for you. In addition to working up a sweat and burning calories, dance classes offer a great workout for your legs, glutes and core due to the types of movements being performed. Local gyms and dance studios offer daily in-person dance classes, and you can also find online options if you’re not comfortable with dancing around other people just yet.
- Pelvic floor exercises. One of the best ways to regain strength in your pelvic floor is to perform daily exercises that target this area. You can do kegel exercises, squats, glute bridges or diaphragm breathing a few times a day. This can help prevent urinary incontinence or other pelvic floor disorders.
No matter what kind of exercise routine you choose, remember to give yourself grace. You grew life in your body and continue to give yourself sacrificially for another human being. Although you may not fully recognize the woman looking back at you in the mirror right now, in time, you will start to feel like yourself again and you will grow to love and appreciate all the things that your body can do!