Exercising Postpartum: Can You Do It?

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The postpartum period is a very important time for the mother and infant to adapt and bond. It is also during this period that your body returns to a non-pregnant state. 

The most notable difference between your body while pregnant and your body in the postpartum period is in your hormone levels and volume of blood. It is normal to want to start exercising again, especially if you were not able to work out or train during your pregnancy. But these physical changes must be taken into account before you begin exercising again.

Although it is a common belief that you can return to running and exercise once your baby is six weeks old, it is important to recognize that every woman’s body and their situation is unique. Some women will be able to return to running sooner than six weeks after giving birth, while other women will need up to 40 weeks, especially if you have had a cesarian (C-section).

In order to determine how long your body needs to recover and for your hormones to stabilize, it’s important to understand the basics about the postpartum period.

The Postpartum Period

The postpartum period, which is also referred to as the fourth trimester, is a term used to define the first three months after giving birth. The changes associated with the postpartum period begin hours after giving birth.

Both emotional and physical, these changes typically occur over the course of six weeks and include the gradual return of your reproductive tract to the way it was pre-pregnancy. Keep in mind that your recovery will differ based on whether you had a C-section or natural childbirth. During the postpartum period, you may experience constipation, trouble urinating, hemorrhoids, infections, and other physical issues.

You may experience emotional changes as well, including feeling anxious, irritable, indecisive, and prone to mood swings. Although this is frustrating, it is also normal and should not be cause for concern unless you experience depression that continues and disrupts normal life. If you are experiencing ongoing depression, speak to your doctor as soon as possible as you may be experiencing postpartum depression.

Six weeks seems like an incredible amount of time for your body to return to a non-pregnant state.  Not only may six weeks be too good to be true, but it may also be an unhealthy expectation for many women. You were pregnant for 40 weeks, and it is not uncommon for your body to take that amount of time to recover from the transformation it underwent to grow and birth a baby.

Unlike running, there is no racing through that postpartum period. You may recover faster or slower than other new moms, and it is not beneficial to compare yourself to others regarding recovery. Do not put unrealistic expectations on your fitness routine post-baby by adopting a training plan to soon. Rather than let a plan or even a fitness class that you enjoy dictate whether you will work out from day to day, learn to listen to your body. Recognize that your strength has been depleted and you need to regain your fitness.

Accept the inevitable sleep deprivation, and acknowledge your energy levels (or lack of). If you are delirious and tired from lack of sleep, it’s OK to take a nap rather than go for a run. There’s nothing wrong with resting rather than going to that spin class!

Do not buy into the exercise myths that are out there about your postpartum body and nursing. Research shows that moderate to high-intensity exercise will not affect the quantity or quality of breast milk. Extremely intense workouts may affect the nursing behavior of your infant, however.

Photo by erin_taylor_1 | Oiselle
Doctor Knows Best

If you are recovering from a C-section, postpone any running until after your first post-operative check-up with your doctor. At that time, your doctor can confirm that the skin has healed properly.

Regardless of whether you had a C-section or not, discuss any concerns about achy joints, fatigue, and atrophied muscles with your OB/GYN or family doctor. Do not start a walking or running program until you have received medical clearance.

If you have access to a physical therapist that specializes in women’s health, with an emphasis on pre- and postnatal health, make an appointment to have your stability and posture assessed post-pregnancy. Have the physical therapist or your OB do an internal check of your pelvic floor, which is the integral hammock of muscles that support your bladder, reproductive organs, and more.

Return to Running

During pregnancy, your levels of estrogen and blood volume rose, and you can likely return to running as soon as these levels return to normal. Seek the help of medical and health professionals that will help you determine when your postpartum body will be ready for regular exercise.

Once you get the green light to return to running, be intentional about scheduling time for running, and recruit family and friends to help you commit to your workouts by helping with childcare, or just joining you for a run. It is actually important that you begin getting regular exercise again, since exercising releases beta-endorphins, a natural substance in the body, as well as serotonin, a mood-boosting chemical connected to combating postpartum depression.

Make a plan to return to running, since doing so can have an instant impact on your well-being, allowing you to get a much-needed break and releasing those beneficial endorphins. But don’t set improbable goals for mileage and pace.

Many OBs recommend easing into exercise by walking or doing gentle yoga, both of which make good fitness foundations to build a running program. Yoga has helped many women smoothly transition back into running, and you can begin by doing some stretching and gentle yoga once you feel up to it. If you had natural childbirth, you can start exercises for pelvic floor strengthening immediately.

In some ways, you will be starting from scratch as a runner. Approach this build back into running much like you did a couch-to-5K training plan when you first got into running. Some new moms will mentally be ready to return to running, but unlike a challenging track workout that you push yourself through, postpartum running is not a case of mind over matter.

Just because your mind is powerful enough to push your body through pain and uncomfortable workouts does not mean you should employ this mental strength! During the postpartum period, transfer your focus to being gentle and accepting of your body, despite being motivated to shed the baby weight.

Weight Gain and Loss

If you let your mind go to that place of comparison where you fixate on the pace you used to be able to run, and the weight you used to be at, it can be toxic! Many women have a goal weight that they hope to reach during the postpartum period. When that doesn’t happen in six weeks, it can be beyond discouraging!

But dietitians like Nancy Clark explain that your body may be hovering at this weight because it requires the additional fuel to get through the postpartum period. And by forcing your body to complete intense workouts or denying it nutrients it needs all in the name of hitting a certain weight, you may actually be making matters worse.

A sudden decrease in caloric consumption and increase in exercise may send the body into a state of stress. The human body does hormonal checks and balances that can react to stress and may promote weight gain, which can stimulate your appetite due to elevated cortisol levels. 

Clark recommends that you should eat if you are hungry, and disregard any restrictions on caloric intake during this period. Just make smart choices about what you eat, choosing nutrient-dense whole foods over processed meals and fast food.

It might be helpful to seek the support of a professional who can help you understand what weight gains are temporary, and what a healthy weight is postpartum. Be open to the possibility that the weight you are at is the weight your body needs to be for the time being to ensure that you are healthy.

Running with Your Baby

Throughout the whole postpartum period, your infant is trusting you to care for them. Assure your body that you can care for it too by listening to it, rather than turning in to what others are running or not running. When your mind and body are on the same page, and your family physician has confirmed that a return to running is appropriate, you may experience feelings of guilt about leaving your baby while you go for a 3-mile run.

Even if your partner, family, or friends are more than responsible enough to watch your infant while you head out for a quick workout, it may be harder than you thought to be apart from your baby. Remind yourself that committing to some time that you invest in your own fitness will actually make you a healthier, stronger parent.

And when your baby is between six to eight months old, you can begin to take them with you on short runs if you have a running stroller. Be aware of strollers with misleading names, however. Not all strollers that are labeled “jogging strollers” are actually designed for jogging or running.

Your baby’s pediatrician will be able to advise you about the best stroller for running, and when your baby will be ready to ride along safely. Consulting a stroller retailer can also help you sort through the wide selection of strollers on the market and determine which is both safe and suitable for your little one, and the workout you have in mind.

The mental and physical benefits of exercise will help you be a happier and healthier parent, but it is a process that requires patience. It also requires the right balance of exercise and rest, which will look different for everyone.

It’s fine if your running takes a backseat now that you have a newborn to care for. During this period of life, give yourself permission to shift your focus onto what really matters … becoming strong and healthy both mentally and physically, so you can have the energy you need for your growing family!

Photo by robinsonk26 : pixabay

Sources

  1. Megan McInturff, Get Your Questions Answered: Practicing Postpartum Yoga, Yoga Blog
  2. Erin Taylor, THE 6 WEEK POSTPARTUM MYTH, Athlete Blog
  3. y Debra Flashenberg, Dr. Laura Riley and Jenn Sinrich , Postpartum Exercise: Easing Into a Fitness Routine After Birth, Parenting Blo
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