Resuming my fitness training after giving birth has been frustrating to say the least thanks to a series of setbacks. I took longer than average to heal (having to go back on repeat courses of antibiotics), and ended up having mastitis twice within the first few months. Despite gym training and keeping up with yoga classes practically right up until giving birth, my health problems combined with the steep learning curve of having my first child saw my fitness and flexibility dwindle away with each day that passed.
Now that my daughter is six months old and I’ve been back working out for three months, here are some of the issues that I came across; if you’re in the same boat as I was, I hope this helps!
Weak and wibbly core muscles
Babies grow a lot while we’re pregnant, and our bodies are clever at making enough room for them. Our abdominal muscles stretch and expand, leaving them weaker which requires a bit of gentle rehabilitation after giving birth. I experienced a moderate case of diastasis recti, where the abdominal muscles that run down the front of your belly separate at the center leaving a ‘hole’ in the muscle wall down the middle of your stomach.
This is a very common condition and one that many mums don’t know about, so I have plans to write about this in more detail in the near future. Following childbirth, diastasis recti can take time to ‘re-stitch’ back together. If you perform certain exercises which place strain on the area – such as crunches/situps – too soon before it has healed, you can make the problem worse which could result in ongoing problems with your belly muscles and the appearance of them. There are rehab exercises you can do to help close the gap, so if you suspect you have diastasis recti it’s good to see a personal trainer or physiotherapist who can help.
Relaxin and loose joints
To help prep our body to give birth, it begins pumping out increased quantities of a hormone called relaxin which helps loosen our pelvis for the baby to be born. Unfortunately our body can’t differentiate between joints, so it loosens all the other ones as well. For this reason, you need to be more careful of sprains and strains.
I expected this to only affect me during pregnancy, but it continued after I’d given birth and still today I have some problems. I developed Mummy’s Thumb, or De Quervain Syndrome, which I was advised was a type of RSI from lifting baby up from under their armpits and gave me random grief throughout the day every time my thumb was extended – flicking the light switch on my bedside lamp, shampooing my hair and shaking someone’s hand would cause my thumb to feel like it was dislocating or going numb. Some women do their best to ignore the problem, some get steroid injections, and some undergo physiotherapy.
Interestingly, I recently had an epiphany late at night that joint problems can be caused by vitamin deficiency so I resumed taking my pregnancy supplement of choice, Elevit. Practically overnight my De Quervain’s disappeared. Take from that what you will, but I’m lifting my daughter up from under the armpits just as much as I did before taking the vitamin supplement.
The importance of pelvic floor training
Regardless of whether you have a straightforward vaginal delivery, an episiotomy or a C-section, your pelvic floor muscles undergo a lot of stress during pregnancy and childbirth.
I did my pelvic floor training every day in the leadup to giving birth and frequently since then. At several days post-birth I felt like my insides would drop out through my pelvic floor, at several weeks that feeling had gone away but things still didn’t feel quite right. At three months it was almost back to normal, and at six months things are fine. If you experience incontinence following pregnancy, you’re not alone – many women have this problem and pelvic floor muscles can alleviate, if not fix the issue.
If you don’t take care to rehabilitate your pelvic floor, performing exercises such as squats and lifting heavy weights can cause a lot of downward pressure which may cause prolapse problems. Learn how to do pelvic floor exercises correctly and do them frequently!
Finding the time and energy to exercise
I really struggle to find the time to exercise unless I have help. I’ll do little odds and ends throughout the day at home, but I’m lucky that my husband and mum are super supportive in making sure I get the time to do my gym training.
I have a set gym routine every week that involves two cardio classes, one spin class and a yoga class. If I have more energy and time on my hands, I’ll go for walks or do some of my own training at home (but my gym routine is more or less non-negotiable so I always know I will get those sessions in an absolute minimum).
If I’m having a rough week, I make sure to get someone to look after my daughter long enough to get a few hours of catchup sleep at some point. Don’t suffer in silence and assume you have to be tired just because you have a new baby. Get help from your friend, relative, neighbour, anyone you trust with your child to ensure you get enough sleep and have the time to exercise. As a mother, your health and wellbeing are important and should be a top priority!
Get decent equipment to get yourself mobile
Sometimes a walk is all you can manage. I highly recommend getting a baby carrier or wrap of some kind – I own a Moby stretchy wrap and an Ergo carrier – which will make getting out and about tenfold easier. Bear in mind these can get hot in summer time, and different carriers are better suited to different body types, so do a bit of research and figure out one that will work best for you.
A decent pram that can handle a bit of offroading is also a good idea if you plan on going for bushwalks, we opted for a Baby Jogger City Mini GT as it’s fairly robust, easily movable, can fold with one movement by pulling a handle in the center, and the wheels are filled with foam so they won’t deflate.
Dealing with bigger boobs
Find a great sports bra. I cannot stress this enough. My boobs grew from a C cup to a G, and none of my pre-pregnancy bras are suitable now. One of my friends recommended a breastfeeding-friendly one from La Leche League which I bought from Breastmates.co.nz and she advised to go a size smaller than the sizing guide showed. Although it takes some contortionist wizardry for me to get into it, I’m glad I went for this option as it feels like everything is pretty much held in place whether I’m running, jumping or upside down for yoga.
I don’t endorse buying a bra that doesn’t fit correctly, this is what I feel works for me. However, if you choose to do the same be aware that ill-fitting tight bras can cause blocked milk ducts that you may need to massage or pump out.
Where I’m at now; 6 months in
I was rowing competitively and in the best shape of my life at the time I fell pregnant, so I was never expecting to return to that level of fitness straight away. I’m currently 8kg off my pre-pregnancy weight (having put on 19kg over the course of my pregnancy). It’s slowly but surely coming off with each week that passes and I’m not overly concerned about it. I don’t feel that breastfeeding has added the weightloss people promised, as it’s made me ravenously hungry at all times of the day :-p
As my joints are still feeling a little dodgy, I go easy on any jumping, high impact training and exercises that place a lot of pressure on the wrists. My abs still feel rather useless, and although the diastasis recti has more or less healed closed I’m still being careful with crunches and downward facing planks until my core muscles feel like they are a bit stronger. Running any more than short distances doesn’t feel great (but I wasn’t a runner before being pregnant anyway!) and yoga feels like it eases out my stiff joints and muscles.
If you’ve recently given birth and are thinking about getting back into exercise, please go gently! Listen to your body, allow it time to heal, get as much rest as you can, eat healthy whole foods to nourish your body, and just focus on getting active in any way you can that fits with your energy levels.
Images / NZ Real Health