Having delivered some hours ago, I was shifted back into the ward and was just processing a major life event, when the hospital physiotherapist handed me a pamphlet that advertised how I could get rid of my mommy belly and how to feel like myself again.
It is this diet culture, as well as a male-dominant societal expectation of eliminating the loose skin after pregnancy that ones finds on one’s belly, that has set many a woman back during this vulnerable time.
I am a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology and have always been interested in fitness, and regularly exercised pre-pregnancy, during pregnancy, and now post-partum.
However, despite my 12 odd years of yoga, 5 years of Zumba ( 2 years of being an instructor), and 3 years of CrossFit, along with rigorous obstetrics and gynecology training, I was inept when it came to the nuances of post-partum fitness and also oblivious to how tainted my own psyche was by this unreal societal standard of losing mom belly fat.
While I navigated my own postpartum journey, I recognized how misguided a lot of postpartum fitness regimens are, and how detrimental they can be to a woman’s mental, physical, and emotional recovery from childbirth. Someone once said, “Women’s bodies are celebrated during their pregnancies, and then women are meant to hide their postpartum bodies and act as though they ought to cover up something that was shameful or to be forgotten.” I couldn’t agree less. Here are some things I would like each of you to know before embarking on your fitness regime post pregnancy and childbirth.
- You do not NEED to get your body back: It’s normal to grieve our abs after having a baby, our old clothes, and also to look back fondly on aspects of our personalities prior to being mothers. But just as we flow through life’s tides, and are transformed, so too, are our bodies, forever transformed. The more we accept this change, the more easily we flow with the transition, and can actually make progress by changing our definition of what our physical goals are. Celebrate the looseness of your abdominal wall, without hating it. Celebrate the cellulite, which is almost universal after the many months of being pregnant. Allow yourself to experience the joys of exercising, without the negative pressure of meeting some pre-defined ideal.
- Post-partum fitness is NOT the same as any other fitness: Just as specific segments of the population have specific physical requirements, for example you can’t expect a senior citizen to be learning advanced calisthenics during an introductory class on fitness, you must be easy on your post-partum body. You need to recognize there are specific digressions from the normal female body during this post-partum state and pushing yourself beyond the permissible standards predisposes you to injuries in the long term.
- Mindset is everything: Change your definitions of the duration of a “good workout” to mean anything from a 5 minutes to a 45 minutes, to be adjusted based on your particular situation. Many women avoid exercise altogether because they feel they can’t exclusively dedicate time to the cause. However, doing this will hinder your progress. By accepting the highly unpredictable schedules of the post-partum period, you will begin to squeeze in workouts whenever possible. While you may not have the time to change into gym gear or head out at the same time of day to a gym, squat beside your baby’s crib doing 20 reps at a time, while your baby takes a nap.
- Diastasis Recti in women after delivery is ubiquitous: What appears to simply be loose skin after pregnancy could be due to an underlying diastasis rectus, or a separation of the six pack muscles that hold your abdominal wall in. You will aggravate this by launching into aggressive crunching, planks, or sit ups, all of which can exacerbate this condition. This doesn’t just have cosmetic fall outs, but can lead to incontinence, and increase chances of a prolapse of pelvic organs later. You should have a doctor evaluate you for diastasis rectus, or at least do a self-evaluation, or by default look for “diastasis-safe” exercises before embarking on any exercise regimen.
- Slow and steady wins the race: True to the adage, slow and sustained efforts win over massive, short term gains in the post-partum period. Focusing on the core and pelvic floor seems slow, painful, boring, and repetitive. However, it reaps enormous benefits. Although core exercises won’t shed pounds, they lay the foundation for everything to follow. The core muscles, truly, are at the core of a transformed body.
- Define why you are exercising: Having unrealistic goals or expectations can spell failure from the start. The thought of being able to run around with your children as they grow, to be able to demonstrate to your kids a healthy lifestyle concerning food and body image are great motivation. Seeing a super muscular athletic woman at the supermarket may momentarily inspire you to get on track, but having relatable goals that are specific to you help to further that intention.
- Know that you are unique: When the obsession with trying to “fit in” literally and figuratively dies down, you release yourself from punitive patterns. Know that you are unique, with individual strengths and charm that are only yours. Although your physical body has changed, you are just as lovable and desirable, because you possess inimitable qualities, and by unfair comparison you are only dulling your shine.
- Be patient: We have all fallen prey to society at some time or the other, and even though you may have eaten “healthy” during the pregnancy, you may have been tempted, or goaded into eating much more than you wanted to during the pregnancy because of people saying “you are eating for two.” While you packed the weight on over 9 months, give yourself an entire year at the very least to meet your goals. Anything rushed is either temporary or setting you up for injuries.
- Sleep deprivation is real: While you may have seen some influencer on Instagram show off her perfect physique, you need to know that sleep deprivation is a documented form of torture. Sleep deprivation and chronic stress from the tireless hours breastfeeding and night waking have repercussions on metabolism, appetite, and energy levels while working out. Try your best to incorporate 6-8 hours of sleep each night with these tips. However, when that hasn’t been the case, don’t expect your body to rise above the lack of shut-eye.
- Get in touch with other moms: Having a group of new mothers who you can share the ups and downs of newly anointed parenthood with makes the journey to fitness enjoyable. Even better if you have a group of women working out together. With COVID-19, and all classes being online, getting fit at home has never been easier. If you feel understood when you state how you missed your class as you fell asleep while the baby was napping, you may be motivated to keep at it the next time.
- Whenever possible, seek professional help: If you can afford professional trainers who are trained in post-partum fitness, do seek them out. While there are good free channels for postpartum fitness support, on Instagram (@deliciouslyfitNhealthy, @getmomstrong, @momstrongforlife , etc.), and YouTube (Sarah Beth Yoga, Lucy Wyndham Read, etc.), they certainly cannot replace dedicated time with an expert. Pelvic physiotherapists with certification in postpartum rehabilitation could help with urinary incontinence, pain during sex after delivery, and rebuilding strength.
- Consider slow but sustained efforts towards a stronger core as an investment in the long run: You may wonder, “What’s all the hullabaloo about the “core?” But it really is this core of deep abdominal and pelvic muscles that are going to help you live a healthier life for the rest of the days to come. Consider these a long-term investment with great returns.
- Do it for the fun of it: Exercising releases happy hormones and those happy hormones can only be released when exercise is done in a stress-free, no pressure way. Let go of any predefined thoughts on how you should, or how you used to do, any exercise. Learn to just enjoy and you will be tempted to come back for more.
- Do what floats your boat: While for some running is their fix, for others dancing is their go-to solution for all things exercise. Whether it’s running, cycling, swimming, dancing, aerobics, yoga, Pilates or group sports, be true to what calls out to you. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to post-partum fitness, and I personally like switching up my routine and like a mix of different forms to keep me engaged.
- Diet: There are a several conflicting studies on nutrition in the post-partum period, and no one single approach. General rules indicate eating a variety of groups of foods, and account for approximately 550 calories in addition to your pre-pregnancy daily intake if you are breastfeeding. These can come from healthy sources, and needn’t be fatty or sugar laden. Once breast milk supply is established, slow and sustained exercise shouldn’t cause a dip in milk production. It’s best to stay away from fad diets, or fasting as a form of weight loss, until you are lactating, as there isn’t definitive evidence regarding the side effects. Hydration is key, and you must make sure your water intake is sufficient. One easy way to do this, is to drink a glass of water every time you breastfeed, take sips during your workout, and another a glass of water after your workout.
A final word on post-partum fitness
Remember you are not alone. Women across the globe struggle with post-partum fitness, and making time for themselves with their demanding new roles as mothers. Having a great support system is vital to regaining good fitness levels. The goal isn’t about regaining a past self, rather about creating a joyous and active lifestyle to be enjoyed as you go along this journey of parenthood, fostering those habits in your little ones too.