Returning to Exercise After the Birth - The Danger Zone

How long can you plank for?

How many sit-ups can you do?

How far do you run?

How much can you lift?

Regardless of what each body has been through, these questions are how we determine fitness and health today. Would you ever imagine, that exercise could be doing more harm than good? I definitely didn’t…

As a mum I strive to do my very best for everyone in my family (including myself) but let’s face it, when everyone else requires your time, you tend to leave yourself ‘till last. And once you finally have that moment ‘alone’, you find yourself sleeping, catching up on work or shaving your legs! Exercise is often the last thing on your mind. It seems that the hardest part about exercise after birth is simply finding time. If you just had half an hour all your problems would be solved - right?... Wrong!

After meeting countless busy mums who have made the commitment to get back into shape, it is clear that the hardest part about exercise after birth is actually finding the right type of exercise. The type that isn’t going to open your already stretched and recovering abdominal muscles or your weakened pelvic floor!

The truth is, your body changes after birth. Most of the time things return to how they were - but not always. It greatly depends on how you treat your body after the most shocking and stressful time in its existence – pregnancy and birth. It doesn’t matter what type of birth you had, or how many babies you carried – post birth, all mums need to consider these common body changes:

  1. Weakened pelvic floor from carrying baby on the inside for 9 months; and

  2. Separated abdominal muscles and damaged inner tissues from accommodating that growing bump.

A mother’s body, (and the absolute miracles it performs during pregnancy and birth) is a strong and resilient machine. We are designed to develop and sustain life and we do it well. But not one aspect of a woman’s body is left untouched during pregnancy, and the aftermath is enduring – even if you don’t notice it.

Sadly, the postnatal period is often seen as the least important time. While baby is on the inside, we focus on development week to week, we plan for the type of birth we would like, we take vitamins and do gentle exercise. But once the baby is born we seem to forget about the incubator, and focus on the little bundle of joy. Most baby books give you a final chapter called ‘the first eight weeks’ or ‘bringing baby home’ which covers settling baby and introducing them to siblings.

Mums’ fitness seems to be forgotten – and that’s fair enough – since immediately after birth you shouldn’t be doing much anyway! But a couple of months down the track you start to feel alright, and those ‘mother and child’ magazines are filled with good looking mothers - you probably feel like you are ready to hit the gym. But the aftermath is still occurring - you are now in the danger zone. This is where many mums make the pivotal decision to start pushing their postnatal bodies back into mainstream exercise, rather than gently easing themselves into postnatal appropriate activities. Your body needs to heal from the inside first - that means your core strength must be your focus. 

Like most new mums, I had no idea that after birth some exercises could actually damage my body. I always believed it was better to push myself further. But in truth, up to 12 months after birth pushing yourself further is probably the worst thing you could do! This is a shocking reality for many women who are keen to get back into their old fitness regime after having a baby. Some only realise the damage that generic exercises can do when further damage is already done. Others, are lucky to have been set on the right path to fitness following pregnancy – usually by a woman’s physio or caring postnatal fitness professionals.

I luckily learned at 3 months post birth from my local Kanga Trainer (postnatal baby wearing fitness) that jumping, crunching, lifting and running were absolutely not allowed. I was shocked to hear that some Physio’s even recommend avoiding these types of exercise up to 12 months after birth (the time when the aftermath is finally coming to an end)! After further research and a few visits to my local Women’s Physio, I decided to start and exciting and life changing fitness adventure in Melbourne with my little one at my side every step of the way. I took 10 years of experience teaching Classical Ballet and traded it in for Kangatraining! Why? Because there are not enough safe exercise options out there for postnatal mums and their babies.

After becoming a Kanga Trainer and opening one of the first franchises in Western Australia I have been incredibly honoured to be part of so many personal journeys towards postnatal fitness (with the babies present too!). Every week I train with amazingly motivated ‘Kanga Mummas’ who enjoy the specifically designed program for the postnatal body – healing and strengthening the core first.

Now when I meet new mums who have started light walking with the pram or baby carrier, rather than attending pump class and doing 50 sit-ups a day, I am thrilled and excited for their future fitness journey.

But it still saddens me  that some fitness experts are taking new mums through bootcamp style fitness journeys that aren’t specifically tailored for the postnatal body, and may be doing more harm than good.

Often it is through lack of knowledge or lack of experience. After all, I would argue that you only truly understand how your body can change after going through pregnancy yourself. The same can be said for mums all around the world – if no one tells you how to be careful, you will probably go back to what you know – what you did before birth.

As a mum myself, Ballet Instructor and Postnatal Fitness Trainer, these are my suggestions post birth

  1. See a woman’s physio to check the state of your pelvic floor and get more information about the right type of exercise you can do.

  2. Begin light walking to get moving, nothing more for at least 8 weeks (apart from early postnatal abdominal bracing, gentle back stretches and pelvic floor exercises)

  3. Once you decide to get back into something a bit more intense, ASK your fitness / gym instructor what modifications they make to their normal program especially for postnatal mums. If there are no modifications, you may risk injuring yourself in this delicate postnatal period and I would seek training elsewhere.

  4. Consider the level of the core strength exercises in classes such as Pilates.

  5. Check your abdominal separation monthly (ask your woman’s Physio to show you how) to ensure the exercise you are doing isn’t causing the gap to increase.

  6. I would personally recommend finding your local Kangatraining class, which has been specifically designed by a team including Midwives, Physios and Obstetricians for postnatal mums and their babies.

…and once you start an exercise program again after at least a couple of months, avoid the danger zone:

  • Cut out the strain: If you are straining, you are probably damaging or stressing something. The aftermath doesn’t need more stress!

  • You are only as strong as your weakest side: Treat your body as a package. If one side is weak (e.g. pelvic floor or abdominal muscles), don’t ramp up the workout until everything is stronger.

  • Core first: The workout you can hardly see is usually the most beneficial. Learn the steps involved with progressing your postnatal core strength and control and then add some of the tests in to see how well you are going. For example - Draw in your pelvic floor and lower abdominals, then lift one foot off the ground and balance for a 30 seconds. How well did you go? A strong and well working core is the basis of your future strength.

And please enjoy what you do, and why not include your baby? "All they want is you, and all you need is them".

About the author:
Ferne Gray is a Kanga Trainer and mother, with a background of teaching Classical Ballet for 10 years.

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