Pregnancy is a fairly long period of metabolic and physiological alterations in the maternal body. Although childbirth marks an end to the hormonal imbalance caused by pregnancy, it also suggests the beginning of a very important phase in the mother’s life.
It is a common misconception that childbirth leads to automatic weight loss, which is untrue. It is understandable that post pregnancy exercise seems impossible at times but it is very important that new mothers initiate weight loss regimens after delivery because:
- Metabolic rate decreases after childbirth and the chances of substantial weight gain increases many folds if no active strategy is adopted
- Significant weight gain is very common after delivery because of poor eating habits and cravings that developed during pregnancy.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Exercise After Pregnancy?
There are numerous benefits of adopting an exercise regimen after childbirth; a few are discussed as below:
- Exercise aid in weight loss (especially if supplemented with reduction in caloric intake)
- Improvement in energy levels, cardiovascular functioning and breathing
- Early restoration of muscle tone and strength (hormonal imbalance and weight gain leads to laxity of muscles)
- Tightening of abdominal muscles and early return of skin/ muscle tone
- Moderate decline in stress, agitation and mood swings
- Prevention and management of psychological conditions like postpartum depression, mood disorders and psychosis due to early resolution of hormonal imbalance.
When Is a Good Time to Start Exercising After Childbirth?
As per the recommendations of American Pregnancy Association, a woman can start postpartum exercises as soon as she feels comfortable; however, most healthcare providers suggest that strenuous physical activity or exercises should be avoided for a period of at least 6 weeks during which the body initiate remodeling and healing process to optimize results and minimize the risk of any potential complications.
In women who have maintained active exercise regimen and gain moderate (or recommended weight) during pregnancy, post-partum exercises can be resumed early. For best results, start with mild exercises like stretching, walking and sit-ups (as long as you feel comfortable). You can gradually increase the pace, intensity and duration of exercise regimen.
Recommendations are different for women who underwent cesarean section. It is always a good idea to speak to your primary healthcare provider regarding the safety and nature of exercises that can be performed. Most healthcare providers advise only mild physical activity like walking for 8-10 weeks to minimize the risk of developing blood clots in the deep veins of leg.
Will Exercise Affect Breastfeeding?
A lot of women tend to avoid exercise or physical activity due to popular misconception that exercise can affect breast milk production, which is not true. It has been proved that even strenuous physical activity does not interfere with the breast milk production. However, it has been reported by some mothers that strenuous exercise activity can affect the taste of milk (due to excessive secretion of lactic acid into the breast milk following exercise activity). Sour milk can affect the breast-feeding which is why it is recommended:
- To increase the total water/ fluid intake
- To feed the baby prior to exercising
How Do I Know When I Exercise too Much?
There are several signs that suggest strenuous post-partum physical activity and should be watched for. It is recommended to seek medical assistance:
- If you feel excessively tired or fatigued after performing exercise
- If you experience increased postpartum vaginal discharge (lochia) or color changes in the discharge
- If you develop active vaginal bleeding from the vagina
- If you develop severe pelvic pain or vaginal discomfort
In addition, there are some exercises that are not recommended by healthcare professionals in postpartum women. Those exercises that are not indicated as postpartum exercise regimens are swimming, bending, twisting or push-ups (virtually any exercise that demands hand-on-knee posture).
1. Lower Tummy Exercises on the Exercise Ball
This exercise is helpful in improving the strength and stability of your pelvic floor and abdominal wall muscles.
- Sit on an exercise ball with your legs supported by the floor (it is always suggested to have exercise ball placed on the carpet to avoid slipping or sliding).
- Once your bottom is fully supported on the ball, lift your right foot above the ground as high as possible.
- Hold your breath for 8 seconds and return to neutral position. Repeat the same exercise with your left foot.
2. Squeeze and Lift
- Lie on your back (for women who underwent cesarean section) or on your side (for women who delivered the baby vaginally).
- Hold your breath and contract your abdominal and pelvic muscles (an action similar to stopping yourself from passing urine or wind).
- Now gently pull your umbilicus inwards and upwards (that should generate a feeling of tightening in the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles). Hold your breath for 10 seconds and slowly relax your abdominal muscles. Wait for a few seconds and repeat the exercise.
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Exercises to Strengthen Pelvis
1. Kegel Exercise
Kegel exercise is one of the safest and highly recommended exercises for strengthening pelvic floor muscles. The primary benefit of this exercise is to strengthen the muscles that support and stabilize vital organs like uterus, rectum, urinary bladder and other genitourinary organs.
This exercise can be performed at least 3-5 times a day (even when you are pregnant). This involves voluntary contraction of your pelvic floor muscles (as if you are stopping the mid-stream wee).
2. Pelvic Tilts
- Lie on a flat surface (a bed or on floor mat) with a support (like a pillow) under your head. Slowly slide your feet under your buttocks by bending your knees.
- Contract your tummy and pelvic muscles and hold your breath for 3 seconds. Now lift your back from the ground in an arched position and hold it in place for 10 seconds. Repeat this exercise at least 5 times.
- You can also do pelvic tilts in sitting position by tightening your pelvic floor muscles and pulling out the abdominal wall muscles, while you are sitting on a chair or stool. Now adopt an arch like position by slumping your chest and back muscles outwards as far as possible.
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Exercises to Strengthen Upper Back
Lactating moms spend fair amount of time in lean over position (especially while breastfeeding), which is why upper back pain is so common in this group. Healthcare providers advise the following exercises to strengthen upper back muscles and connective tissue framework for sustained muscle action during various activities (including lactation)
- Sit straight with your legs crossed (in yoga posture). Now tilt your head to your left without moving any other part of your body. Now repeat the same activity on your right side. To add extra effect, you can:
- Try to extend the exercise by touching your left shoulder by your left ear and right shoulder by your right ear
- You can also perform this exercise in two-dimensional direction (by touching your chest with your chin and extending your head backwards as far as possible).
Exercise # 2:
Sit straight at a flat but comfortable place. Now fold your arms around your chest and twist your shoulder towards your left side. Hold the position for 10 seconds and repeat the same on your right side.
Exercise # 3:
Sit straight and lock both hands behind your neck. Now move your head (supported by your locked hands) towards the right shoulder and repeat the same on your left side.