If I were given a fiver every time I was asked this question, I’d be doing pretty well! Many new mums are a little hazy when it comes to knowing the right time for starting up postnatal exercise. This is hardly surprising given the extent of conflicting advice bandied around and these mixed messages frequently start at the 6 week postnatal check-up. Here’s what you really need to know:
- Every one of us has a different pregnancy, labour and birth and this needs to inform when we start exercising postnatally and also what type of exercise we choose to start off with. Just because you’ve had your 6 week check-up (which may have only lasted a matter of minutes) and your GP has told you that you’re fine, it does not mean that you are now ready to take up your pre-pregnancy hockey playing, netball activities, running, Insanity workouts or HIIT training. The 6 week check-up is NOT a green light for full-on, high impact exercise. It’s simply an initial pat on the back telling you that you are doing just fine. Having said this, if you had a straightforward pregnancy, labour and birth, your check-up was fine AND you are generally feeling good, then you CAN start up with tailored postnatal exercise. Just to reiterate: NOT mainstream exercise but postnatal-specific fitness.
- Exercise which is specifically designed for the postnatal period will be:
- Low impact
- Focused on excellent technique
- Will not include inappropriate abdominal work that would exacerbate a separation of the abdominal muscles
- Not all pregnancies, labours and births are easy peasy or go to plan. If you have had to have an episiotomy, have had stitches due to tearing, have had forceps or ventouse, or have had a particularly prolonged and difficult labour, then it is more than likely that you will require significantly longer to recover. See the 6 week check-up as an initial thumbs up that things are moving in the right direction but do NOT see it as the green light to start exercising. Give yourself more time to rest, recover and heal. Your body will thank you for it. Following on from a caesarean section, whether emergency or planned, it is very important that you give yourself a good 8-10 weeks to heal before attempting even gentle exercise, and if the healing has been a little bumpy with infections along the way, then make sure that you give yourself even longer to recover. Please remember that the wound will take longer to heal internally than externally, so whilst everything may look fully healed on the outside that might not be the case inside.
- Swimming is always an excellent first option when it comes to postnatal exercise because it places no strain on your joints or pelvic floor. Having said this, the earliest you can safely start water-based exercise is once all discharge has stopped, otherwise you risk infection.
- Don’t compare yourself with your other friends who have just had a baby: just because someone else you know who had a baby at the same time as you is feeling fighting fit and ready to rock doesn’t mean that you should be too. I always say to mums that we all emerge at different times: some of us take a matter of weeks whilst for others it can quite literally take many months to feel ready for fitness. Both are fine.
At what point do I stop being postnatal when it comes to fitness?
Technically speaking you are postnatal for the first 6 months postpartum and then after that you can start to gradually introduce your pre-pregnancy fitness regime, including higher impact exercise such as running and fitness classes that including jumping movements. Having said that, use your common sense and if you find yourself crossing your legs desperate for a wee then that’s your body saying “help, my pelvic floor can’t cope with what’s being thrown at it”!
Finally, when it comes to abdominal exercises it is not a case of how many months you are into the postnatal period but more a case of what state your tummy muscles are in. If you have an abdominal separation of around 1½ fingers or more – whether you are 1 month, 6 months, a year, or even 10 years postpartum – then you need to exercise the abdominals very carefully, avoiding traditional abs exercises that target the outer abdominals, such as crunches, planks, medicine ball twists, side planks and many other high level abdominal exercises. Instead you will need to carry on working on the abdominal area as if you were postnatal. The good news is that postnatal core stability exercises are great for everyone and are perfect for protecting against back pain so doing them forever after is great for your body!
Written by Joanna Helcke a leading UK specialist in pregnancy and postnatal fitness, and founder of the complete pregnancy fitness kit, the FitBumpBox. Joanna will be talking about this topic further on The Baby Show Stage with MadeForMums. www.fitbumpbox.com