By Esther Blaiklock
I don’t know about you, but once I had my first baby, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of information about exercise and what I should or shouldn’t be doing. It felt vague, or general or uninspiring! I really had no idea where to begin.
Exercise is such an important part of our wellbeing, both physical and mental, that it is entirely understandable that once we are postpartum, we want to start doing things that will help us feel like ‘us’ again, give us some endorphins and sweat, help us get strong and of course, help us fit better into some of our clothing! Pregnancy can feel like our bodies don’t belong to us, and we have to surrender to a process that is both incredible but challenging in many ways.
However, it is so important to recognise how pregnancy and childbirth changes and challenges our bodies, and even if we have been exercising throughout pregnancy, we need to give ourselves time to heal well, rehab properly and gradually re-introduce and progress loading and difficulty. This is not to hold us back or limit us, but to emphasise one of the things that most of us struggle with …… there is no rush!
Taking our time at this stage of life will be worth it in the long run, and our bodies will be much better prepared for the kind of exercise we want to do if we build our foundations properly.
We often hear about waiting 6 weeks to start things, which comes from the physiological time required for a soft tissue injury or wound (without infection) to heal. But at that point, though ‘healed’, tissues and muscles are not then ready to start doing everything they did before at the same pace. They don’t have the strength, coordination or elasticity needed to bear high loads or impacts – YET. That is why sports injuries and surgeries will have a period of rest, before a period of rehab, specific exercise, and gradual re-loading. They don’t just hit the 6 week mark and get straight back into full training!
Consider too, what our body stretched to accommodate, how our organs were moved around internally, the extra weight, blood volume and fluid it physically carried around. Then when we deliver our baby, we either go through major abdominal surgery, or have our pelvic floor muscles stretch to almost 250% of their normal length to birth vaginally. If that happened to any other muscle of the body we’d be expecting to take it easy for a while! But the pelvic floor does so much for us without us even noticing, and of course, we can’t SEE it …. So it’s easy to forget that it needs some TLC too! Then we have the postpartum and breastfeeding hormones to consider, which continue to have some degree of a ‘softening’ effect on our bodies.
So what does all this mean in terms of exercise?
In a nutshell? Start slow - slower than you might be used to, and slower than you might want to go ... and build up gradually. Even if you don’t have symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction (incontinence, pain, heaviness/dragging in your vagina, diastasis recti), even if you feel ‘fine’, taking your time is important. As a general guide, current evidence points to waiting at least 3 months to return to higher intensity exercise. This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything before then, but it’s the what and the how that matters.
If you are used to high intensity work, plyometrics, heavy weights, long distance running and physically pushing yourself, this can all feel like a big NO to the fun stuff! We can look back at photos of ourselves or what we ‘used to do’ and feel discouraged and frustrated and just want to get back to things asap.
The key thing to remember is that it isn’t a never or outright no, but instead, not yet!
It is hard to adjust to, but pregnancy and postpartum is not the time to be pushing our physical limits in exercise. Long gone are the days when pregnant women were treated like delicate flowers and thank goodness! It IS important to keep active and strong, and mentally well, but it is also time to surrender to a new process, a new learning. There is no need to prove yourself to anyone.
Those higher intensity exercises and hobbies aren’t going anywhere, and if you rehab well and mindfully in the early postpartum days, you should be able to return to those things sooner and with a greater confidence that your body is ready.
I advise all women, where possible, to get pelvic floor check postpartum (or at any stage if you are experiencing any form of pelvic floor dysfunction) so that you can have an individualised assessment and programme to help you get back to your fitness goals and the things you enjoy.