Till I experienced the birth of my two children, I used to always marvel at the speed with which a new actor mum from Hollywood would bounce back into shape. At a discussion table with friends we always attributed the comeback of these stars to some form of intervention and extra help. Through my pregnancy, I realized that anyone can do it, if you stick to a good exercise plan. I swam, lifted weights and did pilates. My pregnancies were uncomplicated and I was toned even after giving birth.
As a new mother you are put through a whirlwind of physiological and psychological stresses, and I was eager to get back to exercise as soon as possible. An average post-partum period lasts anywhere from four-eight months post delivery, when the body is slowly coming back into equilibrium. Whether or not you have had a normal childbirth or C-section, your body still needs rest for at least the first two weeks.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, you can safely start an exercise programme four weeks after a normal delivery and six weeks after a C-section (assuming that you have no other complications). This recovery period is essential to ensure that the uterus has retracted back into the pelvis, bleeding and discharge have ceased, and the stitches have healed. It may also take some time after birth to feel ready to exercise again as you will feel the need to rest and be with your newborn. If you were exercising before and through your pregnancy you would have a reasonable bank of conditioned muscles to help you kickstart your routine.
If exercising is the last thing on your mind with the sudden loss of “me time”, try this trick which worked for me. I split my workout into three shifts of 15 minutes each spread through the day—15 minutes of cardio, where I basically walked around the house briskly, 15 minutes of strength (body-weight exercises and light weights) and 15 minutes of core and flexibility. The intensity depends on whether or not you were exercising through your pregnancy and how conditioned you were before childbirth. Getting out into the open, or starting with gentle exercises, will help you feel better and more in control of the situation. Exercise helps fight/prevent post-partum depression. Endorphins, the happy hormones that are released during a workout, help relieve stress and make you feel more energetic.
The exercise routine should focus on rebuilding core strength, strengthening the lower back, and regaining strength of the pelvic floor muscles and upper back to prevent bad posture due to breastfeeding. Start with walks and strengthening exercises for the core.
You can start with the kegels (pelvic floor exercises), isometric core exercise and pelvic tilts, and supine toe taps within the first 24 hours of childbirth. These exercises are important to help you reconnect with your core and bring back muscle tone to the pelvic floor.
Keep it gentle
Relaxin, the hormone that is responsible for softening the ligaments and joints during pregnancy and childbirth, can stay in the body for up to six months post-partum. This can lead to wobbly, unstable joints and a loose pelvis. So don’t start with high-impact workouts (protect your knees and lower back). Don’t run on hard surfaces; avoid jumps and racquet sports in the first three months post-partum. One of the more common complaints I see post-pregnancy is a weak lower back and/or knees. Due to breastfeeding, calcium levels are commonly challenged and since bone density can get affected during pregnancy, it’s always safe not to rush into high-impact sports.
Carrying your baby nine months prenatal and many months post-natal makes you lift an average of 5-6kg more than your body weight. During pregnancy you might have developed a swayback position, with your back arched, belly out and shoulders forward. The growing belly would have put pressure on your lower back. To regain neutral alignment and stronger back muscles, pay close attention to your posture when you are exercising and add exercises like the cross crawl and hip bridge (www.livemint.com/prenatalfitness).
Learn to train your body to constantly tuck the belly button towards the spine during all forms of exercise, and even when you are just walking around. You will automatically feel straighter and less hunched; and you will look slimmer as you prevent your stomach from protruding.
You might start to notice a bulge in your belly that won’t go away no matter how much you exercise and watch your diet. That protruding belly could be caused by a Diastasis recti, a separation of the rectus abdominis (the surface abdominal muscles split to make way for the uterus). The separation could take anywhere between two-nine months to close. At this point you should be doing isometric core exercises which target not only the rectus muscle but also muscles of the transverse abdominis, or the deep muscles of the core. Include exercises like the plank and side planks. The transverse abdominis is the innermost muscle that wraps around your abdomen and back like a corset. Strengthening the transverse protects your back and gives your belly a flatter appearance. At this point you should avoid doing too many crunches, as this will prevent the rectus muscle from closing fully. Getting back your abdominal strength is crucial—those muscles support your back and help you avoid the aches and pains of the daily activities that come with motherhood.
Does milk supply get affected if you exercise? That’s a very common question that people ask me. Milk supply largely depends on hormones, nutrition and fluid intake. If you sweat a lot, rehydrate, as milk supply needs fluids. Eat well-balanced, high-protein, high-fibre meals. Drink plenty of fluids—not just water but coconut water, soups, juices, etc. The only thing you might want to do is feed before you head into a training session, so you don’t feel heavy.
Each pregnancy is an individual experience and you as a post-natal mum will have specific requirements. Training, therefore, cannot be generic. Each exercise prescription needs to be tailored to each new mum in order to ensure the safety of her baby and her at all times.
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Strengthen your core
These exercises are only to be performed after your six-week post-natal check-up, in consultation with your doctor
Start on your fours—hands and knees, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips, the back kept neutral (in its natural position, with a slight ‘s’ curve).
Allow your belly to hang towards the floor, then breathe out and draw your belly button up towards your spine. Hold for 2-5 seconds, release and repeat 10-20 times.
Avoid moving your back while you pull your belly button in. This is a great exercise to help tone your stomach without doing crunches
Lie on your back with knees raised to 90 degrees.
Press your back into the floor, avoiding your belly bulging by drawing the belly button towards the spine.
Breathe out as you lower your leg to the floor, tap and return to starting position.
Repeat five times on each leg and build up to 10 on each leg.
Kneeling alternate leg raises
Start on your fours—hands and knees, draw in belly button and hold, then slide out the right leg along the floor, while taking the left arm forward.
Then slowly lift the arm and leg without moving the pelvis or compressing the lower back.
Do this 10 times and repeat on the other side.
Doing this in front of a mirror is helpful as you can keep an eye on your back and pelvis.
It’s great for strengthening the butt and back, which will help to get you back to your regular running or training regimen.
Lying supine, pelvic neutral and feet hip-width apart, place a block, ball or pillow between your legs and squeeze gently. Press feet into the floor and begin to squeeze the butt, then slowly extend the spine up till you are in one line with the shoulders, hips and knees.
Hold for 30 seconds, then slowly go back down to your starting position. Repeat this eight times.
This is the second in a two-part series on fitness during and after pregnancy. The first part, “For you And the baby”, was published last week.
Sumaya Dalmia is a wellness consultant, fitness expert and owner of Sumaya, a personal training studio in New Delhi.