Postpartum exercise: Where & when to start?

“Hey! You made a baby. Nice one. Now if you could kindly just resume working out ASAP and squeeze back into your pre-pregnancy clothes, that’d be great.”

– Societal expectations 

(and to some extent, our own expectations)

Now, that’s pretty ridiculous, right? The idea that your body should just resume its normal shape, proportions, and physical activities straight after giving birth? So why do so many women search high and low for exercises to lose their postpartum belly? As if that beautiful belly isn’t a precious symbol of the magic that just took place inside it! 

F*ck those expectations about postpartum weight loss, I say.

Let’s remember: During your nine months of pregnancy, your belly was stretched, your organs were squished, your boobs trebled in size – and let’s not even mention how your vagina fared. That incredible body of yours deserves a chance to recover. And as much as you may be itching to get moving again, it’s important that you don’t rush into postpartum exercise. Even if you’re keen as.

That said, getting back into physical activity at an appropriate pace is great for your postpartum recovery and mental health. It is possible to find a postpartum exercise program that eases you safely back into movement. The trick is to feel it out, forgive your body for needing time, and take it one step at a time. Literally!

Read on to get the scoop on how and when to start exercising postpartum, from women’s and pelvic health physio Caitlin Dunsford of The Hills Physio (aka @pelvicfloorwithcaitlin).

Real talk: When can I start exercising postpartum?

This depends on what you mean by ‘exercising’ (walking vs. crossfit?), and how your birth and delivery went down.

Caitlin notes a few factors that will affect the advice you’re given on postpartum exercise:

1. The type of delivery, and events leading up to or after delivery. (We’re talking vaginal, assisted vaginal, C-section, emergency C-section, postpartum haemorrhage, long second stage, anal sphincter injury, etc.)

2. How much exercise you did during pregnancy, and how your body coped with the pregnancy in general. (Some considerations include pelvic girdle pain, severe vomiting, illness, or if you required bed rest.)

3. What types of exercise you want to get back to. (i.e. Are you planning to ease in with gentle postpartum pelvic floor exercises, or launch full-pelt into postpartum ab exercises?)

In general, Caitlin believes that most women can reasonably expect to achieve the following:

  • 1 Day Postpartum Exercise: Walking short distances.

  • 1 Week Postpartum Exercises: Gentle stretching, light yoga positions, and postpartum pelvic floor exercises.

  • 6 Week Postpartum Exercises: Postnatal pilates, gentle cycling, swimming, and low impact bodyweight exercises.

  • 12 Week Postpartum Exercises: Running, jumping and increased weighted exercise.

But with this disclaimer: Always follow your body’s signals. You might not be up for these things at these times, and that’s okay. We’re all different!

How to know when you’re overdoing it

Just as every pregnancy is as unique as a snowflake, so is postpartum recovery. Watch out for indications that you’re pushing your body too hard.

“These are some common signs that you may not be ready physically for returning to high impact exercise and running,” Caitlin says:

  • Leaking urine or poo unexpectedly. 
  • Sudden, unexpected urge to wee or poo – and finding it hard to hold off.
  • Heaviness or dragging feeling in the vaginal area.
  • Regular pain during sex.
  • Difficulty fully emptying your bladder or bowels.
  • Pain in your pubic bone or tailbone, that isn’t improving. 

If your body is giving you these signals, listen to it! This is its way of saying, “Nope! That’s too much! Let’s slow down.” So, step it back a notch and give it some time. 

Simple postpartum exercises to start with

We asked Caitlin for her go-to postpartum exercise recommendations for women getting back into it. Here’s what she suggests for the early weeks:

  • Belly breathing – This is where you breathe deeply so that your belly expands, rather than your chest. It’s also called ‘diaphragmatic breathing’.

  • Pelvic floor exercises – Check out Caitlin’s Instagram page for heaps of useful exercises to strengthen pelvic floor postpartum.

  • Cat/cow – Commonly used in yoga practices, this involves kneeling on all fours and arching your back like a ‘cat’ as you breathe out, then tilting your pelvis up like a ‘cow’ as you breathe in. (It makes more sense when you watch a video of someone doing it.)

  • Child’s pose – This is great for stretching out your back and hip muscles, relieving pain and improving your mobility. Sit your butt on your heels, and stretch your arms out in front of you till your forehead touches the floor. Then just breathe. (Again, a video may help you get the gist.)

  • Thread the needle – Caitlin says, “This is a great one for all those mamas with neck and shoulder pain from feeding.” Kneeling on all fours, lift one arm up to the sky, then ‘thread’ it under your body, reaching to the other side so your shoulder touches the floor. (Class Pass offers a handy visual demonstration of this.)

  • Walking – We presume you know how to do this.

She does NOT recommend the following in the first few weeks (i.e two weeks postpartum). Exercises like:

  • Running
  • Jumping, skipping, and other high impact exercises
  • Weightlifting.

Obviously as time goes on and your body gets onboard with movement, you can start to introduce more intense exercises like these. 

If you’re a keen bean (a gym junkie from way back) you may be able to get there faster. Working with a women’s health physio during pregnancy and your postpartum recovery period can help fast-track your journey with postpartum exercise.

Exercises to speed up postpartum recovery

Caitlin offers some great advice on how to speed up your postpartum exercise journey. But she says this: “Don’t overdo it! The body is incredible and dictates its own healing process, allowing the rest and gentle movement it needs in the first 3-6 weeks.” 

A 6-week postpartum physio checkup is a great time to create a plan of attack for postpartum exercise. But before this point, here are some sneaky strategies to help your body recover faster:

  • Rest lying down at least once per day for 10 minutes. 
  • Wear a postpartum compression garment that covers the belly and pelvis/groin area. 
  • Keep walking short distances. (Don’t bust an hour-long hike in those first few weeks!) 
  • If you’re babywearing, ensure you have the garment fitted properly.
  • Learn how to take a belly breath (diaphragmatic breathing) and how to squeeze and relax your pelvic floor – then start to build these into your daily routines.
  • Hydrate yo’self and eat a diet high in fruit, veg and protein. (Nutrition can legit speed up your postpartum recovery.)

Some things to keep in mind about postpartum exercise

It might feel different for a while

“For many women that loved exercise pre-pregnancy, and even during pregnancy, postpartum exercise might feel no different (minus the fact you’re running on no sleep and get tired way faster!),” Caitlin says. “For other women, walking to the letter box in the first few weeks can feel overwhelming. It’s different for everyone.” 

Feeling blood exhausted, and feeling like you have no time, can add to the frustration of limited mobility in your postpartum. Don’t let it overwhelm you, though, mama. Start small, and find ways to build some light movement into your day. For example, you can take a walk with a friend, or pop your baby on the floor for tummy time while you do your postpartum pelvic floor exercises.

Breastfeeding might change the game

“The energy needs of a breastfeeding mum are higher,” Caitlin says. “They require an increase in caloric intake, and bone mineral density may be affected.”

For this reason, over-exercising and undereating can affect your breast milk supply.

“For any postpartum mum, exercise needs to be a fine balance between the needs of their body and the desire to be active,” she adds. “Stress fractures, joint pain and RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) can be common amongst breastfeeding mums returning to exercise and sport.” 

Oh and another handy tip from Caitlin for breastfeeding mamas – “Don’t forget to invest in a good, supportive sports bra!”

You CAN reach pre-pregnancy fitness levels again

Don’t expect exercise at 4 weeks postpartum to be the same as it was before you fell pregnant. Caitlin estimates that it takes more like 12 to 18 months to reach that fitness level again. “Shorter if you aren’t breastfeeding, had a relatively simple birth and are sleeping well. Longer if you are breastfeeding, had a traumatic birth or are sleeping poorly,” she adds.

Your postpartum exercise program may start out with simple Kegel exercises for postpartum pelvic floor recovery, but Caitlin indicates that you can probably resume high-intensity workouts after “3 months – if you’re feeling well, have done your pelvic floor exercises, have been walking for at least 4 weeks, and have done some postpartum core exercises.”

Exercise isn’t the only way to lose baby weight

Caitlin notes that countless numbers of women walk into her clinic asking about the best exercises for postpartum weight loss. But she says, “unfortunately there are no specific exercises that will directly lead to better postpartum weight loss”. 

“Postpartum weight loss is holistic,” she explains. “It happens as a result of diet, sleep, hormones, and exercise.”

So ignore those targeted click-bait ads about ‘exercises for postpartum belly fat’ – they’re not going to provide the quick fix they promise. And will probably only download a virus onto your computer.

Caitlin does share this nugget, however:

“Low intensity steady state exercise (LISS) in the form of walking or body weight exercise for 30 minutes, plus resistance training two days a week (when you’re ready for it) are evidence-based ways to lose extra weight and improve cardiovascular health.”

If your core reason for wanting to exercise postpartum is to lose weight, we just want to remind you how utterly perfect your body is as it is. If you can shift your mindset, and instead focus on moving your body to feel good, you’re going to get soooo much more benefit out of postpartum exercise. And you’re probably less likely to hurt yourself and slow your recovery.

Read next: The postpartum check up every woman needs

Better Health Channel, Postnatal exercise – sample workout

Mayo Clinic, Exercise after pregnancy

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Exercise After Pregnancy

Harvard Medical School, Learn diaphragmatic breathing

Mayo Clinic, Stress management: Cat cow pose

Mayo Clinic, Stress management: Child’s pose

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