Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Fitness & Health

Exercise After Birth?
by Jan Johnson

Karen scowled at her reflection in the mirror. Her stomach still protruded and her face looked as lifeless as she felt. It was almost six weeks after she had delivered her baby, so she could start exercising soon, but she thought, Get real! Exercise is the last thing I feel like doing!

It's easy to feel sluggish about sit-ups when you're wearied from night feedings and new demands. But according to fitness experts, the exercise you dread may be the thing that will help the most. Elaine Bowles, Registered Nurse with the Maternal Health Child Unit at South Bay Hospital in Redondo Beach, California, notes that exercise strengthens the back and abdominal muscles, raises energy level and relieves aches and pains. It keeps organs in place and prepares new mothers to get back to activities they enjoy such as running, biking or swimming.

Exercise can move a postpartum woman out of her exhaustion and supply the extra energy and strong back muscles she needs for the additional bending, lifting, and carrying involved in caring for her baby. Exercise also improves body image, which helps women get through postpartum blues. The better you feel about yourself, the easier your adjustment will be."

Cathy Ritter, Los Angles area manager of Jazzercise, Incorporated, and new mother, notes that postpartum mothers need an outlet. "Being a new mother is overwhelming and requires giving so much attention to a helpless person. Taking time to exercise forces us to do something special for ourselves. We need to know that there's life after birth for us too."

On the other hand, The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists advises caution in postpartum exericise. Societal pressures to exercise and look attractive motivate some new

mothers to put performance goals before safety. Without proper supervision, women may resume their pre-pregnant exercise routine and overlook the fact that the postpartum body is not physiologically back to normal yet.

Here are guidelines that the ACOG, health professionals and fitness instructors suggest.

Check with your doctor first. Besides getting approval to begin exercising, new mothers should ask their doctors for guidelines and warning signs for their specific problems. Why? No single exercise or program will meet the needs of all postpartum women. The program a physically fit mother uses will differ from a mother who is overweight and lives a sedentary lifestyle.

Choose a medically sound postpartum exercise program. The ACOG has found that most postpartum women who exercise do so without supervision or with inadequate supervision. Ask for recommendations from your pediatrician or obstetrician's offices, YMCA's, hospitals with active maternity floors, or family centered health clubs. Some may offer postpartum classes or "lighter side" classes for new mothers and others with special health considerations. "Mommy and Me" exercise classes not only help you exercise, but they give you a special time with your baby. If you're interested in home videos, watch it first before you decide to use it. Check its reviews in fitness, women's or parenting magazines and check to see if the advisory board includes doctors, nurses or exercise physiologists.

- Exercise gently. The extra hormones in the postpartum body soften muscles and ligaments. While the estrogen, progesterone and elastin which were present during pregnancy subside, the resulting lax tissues and unstable joints make you more susceptible to injury.

You can protect yourself by not extending joints or stretching to maximum resistance. Exercise physiologist Greg Phillips cautions to never exercise to the point of pain. Avoid jerky, bouncy movements. Using a wooden floor or a tightly carpeted surface reduces shock.

Watch out pain, bleeding, dizziness, shortness of breath, palpitations, faintness, back pain, pubic pain or difficulty in walking. Contact a doctor if these occur.

- Avoid falls. Falls are a problem because enlarged breasts and uterus disturb your sense of balance and change your body's center of gravity. Pelvic and hip joints strained by pregnancy are less stable. Be careful to rise gradually from the floor and avoid rapid changes in direction.

- Keep your heart rate below 75% of the maximum heart rate. The new mother's heart rate is elevated at rest since her volume of blood is still decreasing from the +30% level of pregnancy. Women whose oxygen carrying capacity is compromised by anemia or who are extremely sedentary or obese should be particularly cautious. These patients respond abnormally to even mild exercise, according to the ACOG.

- Do low-impact movements, including aerobic exercises. That means keeping one foot on the floor at all times. For example, it's better to march than to hop. "Nursing mothers especially should avoid bouncing and should consider wearing an athletic or sports bra for adequate support," says Phillips.

What if you're too tired to exercise? Walk! Take your baby in stroller and start around the block. Enjoy being out in the air with your baby. The walking improves your energy level, and then you'll be ready for more.


This article originally appeared in Vibrant Life, and has been reprinted in Pittsburgh Parent, San Diego Family Press, and Sacramento-Sierra Parent.


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