In an era when we are surrounded by images of celebrities bouncing back effortlessly after having a baby, it can be difficult to have realistic expectations for your postpartum fitness journey. The focus on returning to your pre-baby body also can take the focus away from the real reasons behind engaging in postpartum fitness: long-term health and happiness for you and your baby. Pursuing postpartum fitness will not only help you achieve certain superficial physical goals, but also provide myriad mental and life benefits, from self-care to an improved ability to care for your baby.
When considering your return to fitness after giving birth, setting yourself up for healthy, realistic expectations should be at the forefront of your mind. It is easy to be convinced by the media and celebrities that achieving that “pre-baby bod” is easy, painless, and should happen extremely quickly. Unfortunately, while many celebrity moms have succeeded in empowering new mothers to pursue body confidence, they have also set new moms up for accomplishing their goals within an abbreviated timeline.
Why are celebrities able to achieve such results in such a short amount of time? The simple answer is a combination of fortunate genetics and even more fortunate circumstances. Remember, celebrities often have a whole staff and team to help them rebound to that amazing body; also, they are PAID to do this, and their careers demand it! Remember that celebrities are, in many ways, professional athletes: they are in exemplary physical condition and have personal trainers, dietitians, and nannies on staff to make sure that they return to that amazing pre-baby body. Furthermore, they are usually blessed with the genetics to help them, and years of maintenance encourage their bodies to rebound to their previous states. Focus on your own journey!
While genetics and circumstances – such as the amount of time and thought that you can devote to returning to fitness – are major elements in your body’s resiliency, so too are level of fitness at time of birth and age. A 40-year-old woman who has maintained a steady fitness regime of workouts and healthy eating for years might recover faster than a new mother who is 30 years old but has always led a sedentary lifestyle. As a general rule, however, one can expect that the more advanced in age and less fit one is, the harder and longer the process will be, and greater care that will need to be taken to ensure a safe and sustainable health and fitness lifestyle postpartum.
So, you have given birth. Congratulations! What can you expect from your fitness journey?
First and foremost, check with your doctor! Depending on the method of delivery and any complications that might have occurred, you may need total rest for your abdomen during the first two months.
The first six weeks after giving birth, expect to be cleared for walking only. With the change in your lifestyle and taking care of a little one on a less-than-optimal sleep schedule, you will likely be grateful to have permission not to work out! Feeling pressure to get back at it or cut calories? Remember that in the weeks following birth, your body is healing from the inside out, not to mention that you may also be producing milk for your child. The physical repairs, changes in lifestyle and hours spent awake, and breastfeeding will actually increase your caloric needs, often by as many as 500 extra calories a day for breastfeeding alone. Talk to your doctor to determine how much weight loss is safe during this time; losing weight too quickly can be a sign that something is wrong.
Many new mothers are surprised to discover that, even without a baby inside, they still have a bump! Don’t worry, the baby-less bump will go down with time; if it does not, you may be dealing with diastasis recti.
Diastasis recti, or separation of the large abdominal muscles, is a condition that affects approximately 1 in 200,000 pregnant women. If you are still not seeing your belly flatten at all in the weeks or months following birth, or if there appears to be a drastic or uneven pooch at any time, talk to your doctor, as you may have diastasis recti. This will impact your return to fitness.
Diastasis recti is more prevalent in women with babies of larger birth weight, women with multiple births, and women over 35. Though rarely painful, it is a relatively serious condition that will impact the way you use your body and, if not treated correctly through physical therapy, can be permanent. Have your doctor examine you during your post-delivery appointments; if diastasis recti is present, consult a physical therapist immediately. Avoid exercises such as planks, situps, and even yoga poses such as downward dog.
During these first six weeks, focus on the joys and trials of new motherhood, as well as your mental and physical health through proper nutrition, sleep, gentle stretching, and, if necessary, counseling.
Six Weeks to Three Months
After your six-week appointment is the time to really start to buckle down on your nutrition. Remember, you are not only fueling your own body’s return to health and fitness, but also feeding that cutie in your arms! All the more reason to fuel for success with a diet full of veggies, whole foods, and quality proteins. Talk to your doctor about the calorie intake necessary for breastfeeding, because while you might have weight loss on the mind, your body needs sufficient fuel for the baby as well. A food journal is a great place to start.
Your doctor will begin to determine if you are fit for exercise at your six-week appointment. If your physician gives you the go-ahead, start to plan a return-to-fitness program. A balanced mix of cardio, strength training, and stability work will help you feel and look your best. But don’t expect to start out where you left off; instead, plan on starting gently and gradually increasing intensity month by month.
You might start with a full week of stroller walking with some bodyweight squats, triceps dips, and baby-weight biceps curls interspersed throughout. The second week might see you engage in some postpartum yoga or Pilates classes (find licensed practitioners!) and light weights at the gym. If you are new to working out with weights, hire a professional who can show you the proper way to work out your new body.
Three to Six Months
Now might be a great time to try running! Aim for a total of 10 minutes of running your first time out, and gradually extend that time by adding in more intervals and more time running. Also, when you are walking, make it a working, not idling, walk. Make sure to hydrate and have a small snack with protein and carbohydrates after, such as a small, low-sugar granola bar (look for one with more protein than sugar, and less than 150 calories), or half an apple with a piece of string cheese.
Expect to be slower when running, to fatigue more easily, and to not to be able to carry the same amount of weight. That’s okay! You are going to set new post-baby personal records every day. Consider every workout a success and treat that time as self-care time, whether you meet up with girlfriends or enjoy the quiet.
During the first six months of your health and fitness journey, you’ll have weeks where you make incredible progress and weeks when you find that you plateau or even slip up. When less-successful weeks occur, remind yourself that this truly is a journey and that everybody is unique. Focus on your successes and what you can do, not what you can’t. Because you may not be able to do that pullup just yet. You might not be cleared for running, but that doesn’t mean that stairs are off-limits. You might have to carry your baby to comfort and get him or her to sleep, but that just means you have a little extra weight for you squats.
Set accessible goals that make sense for you and your lifestyle, above all, and enlist help to achieve those goals. Don’t assume that your body is going to respond the same way that it did before your child – fluctuating hormones, pelvic changes, and more will likely result in a body that seems to have a mind of its own for a little while.
6 Months to 1 Year
Six months after giving birth is a great time to assess your progress and potentially set new goals. If you have been stroller walking for the duration of your postpartum fitness journey, why not try stroller running and even set a goal of running a 5K with your baby in front of you? Maybe try your hand at a new form of exercise, like kickboxing or Zumba!
By the time your baby is about 9 months old, you should find that you are cleared for most all exercise and that you have made substantial progress in working toward your fitness and health goals. If you are no longer breastfeeding, remember that your diet may also require some changes to achieve any weight loss goals. That said, with the increase in fitness and activity as well as lean muscle mass, you might find that you actually need to eat more than before! If you have questions, consult a registered dietitian who can help you maintain your results.
You may have gotten into your postpartum fitness journey as a way to get back to your pre-baby body, but if you go about postpartum fitness correctly, you will likely find that activity is an indispensable part of your daily or weekly life. Keep it up, Mama, and set an amazing example for your kiddo to lead a life of health and happiness!