Babying Your Body: Post-Pregnancy Exercise
Read about what exercises work best for new moms
Anne Stein, M.S. Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
You’ve made it through the nine-month marathon of pregnancy, labor and delivery and welcomed a new baby to the family. Your post-pregnancy body, however, may be providing a lot less joy than the bundle you’ve brought home.
Pelvic, back and abdominal muscles have been stretched, weakened, and /or separated. Your posture has changed and your back is more curved, not to mention achy and sore. Though your focus may be almost entirely on getting through the days and nights with a brand-new baby, post-pregnancy exercise is crucial for your health and should not be neglected. Whether or not you’re an experienced exerciser/athlete who has maintained an exercise routine throughout pregnancy, the key to post-pregnancy exercise is to start slowly. In addition, be aware of pelvic and abdominal muscles that are stretched and weakened because of nine months of heavy duty work, along with labor and delivery. “If a woman hasn’t been an active exerciser during pregnancy, we use the six-week checkup to start exercising,” says Dr. Sheila A. Dugan, a physical medicine and rehab specialist at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “If you’ve stayed active during pregnancy you might feel ready to exercise earlier.” Women who delivered via C-section, considered a major surgery, should also wait for the six-week checkup to start focusing on their core.
What Exercises Should I Do?
Using tubing, stretch your arms out to your sides to lengthen and strengthen tight shoulder muscles and rework your rounded back. Abdominal crunches are too intense at this stage. Work on strengthening your transversus abdominus, which is like a large corset that wraps around your stomach, by gently drawing in your gut as if putting on tight jeans. Once you’ve adapted to that, you can gradually progress with planks and crunches. To strengthen the low back, sit in a chair, roll gently back then round your back gently forward, then come back to a neutral position; hold the position. Do Kegels to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles and to avoid possible incontinence issues. Dugan uses an elevator analogy: lift these internal muscles up, and then let them down slowly. Or imagine a crystal tampon that you want to squeeze but not break. Don’t squeeze the butt muscles. It’s also important to work your diaphragm muscle, at the top of your abdomen, with deep breathing to get full expansion of the lungs. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends walking to get your exercise program started. In addition, ACOG recommends the following floor exercises (with permission from your healthcare provider) to begin a postpartum program: leg slides, head lifts, kneeling pelvic tilt, shoulder lifts and curl ups. Diagrams and explanations of these can be found here.
Post-Pregnancy Back Care?
Your post-pregnancy routine will also bring new challenges to your back. Changing diapers, carrying and putting your baby in her crib, nursing, and other new-baby activities can all contribute to back pain if you’re not careful. One key, says Dr. Dugan, is to consciously maintain a neutral spine. When you bend over to pick things up, whether it’s a baby toy or a car seat, try not to round or curve your back, which is a common maternal posture that can wreak havoc. Straighten the spine and bend down from the knees; pick things up by straightening your knees. If you’re standing to do dishes or change diapers, rest one foot on a stool to help your neutral spine position and avoid the rounded posture. When nursing, pick a firm chair with back support. If you nurse in bed, don’t bend your neck and back to get your baby to the breast – it’s too much rounding. Sit up against the headboard and put the baby on a pillow to come up to your breast. You can also nurse on your side if you have back problems, says Dugan. When placing your baby in her crib to sleep, it’s ideal to put one crib side down first, so you can move from your hips in a neutral spine position to lay her down, rather than round your back over the crib side. If you can’t put the side down, be aware of posture as much as possible – with this activity and every activity you engage in throughout your day. As with all exercise during and after pregnancy, check with your healthcare provider to ensure that you’re on the right track with a safe, effective program.