Quick Guide to Exercise After Childbirth

Quick Guide to Exercise After Childbirth

Is it appropriate to continue exercising during pregnancy?

Continuing to train during pregnancy has long been a taboo topic in the fitness industry, with the default recommendation being to avoid any strenuous activity at all for the entirety of the pregnancy. Luckily, this notion has been thoroughly refuted by the literature: continuing exercise during pregnancy (with modifications) creates health benefits for both the mother and the baby.

Exercise After Childbirth

However, not as much attention has been paid to returning to exercise after childbirth. Granted, the last thing new mothers might have on their minds is additional physical labor.

It may seem infinitely more appealing to search the web for the best available organic baby formula or top-of-the-line strollers than it would be to jump right back into the gym. But for the fitness-minded individual, what is the appropriate way to return to exercise after childbirth?

Don’t Jump the Gun

For most people, exercise is a lot more than just a way to put your body in motion and stay in shape. Many types of training contribute to a holistic sense of well-being beyond just your physical state. For instance, routine physical activity has been shown time and again to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Specific types of exercise, like resistance training, can also regulate various hormone levels.

But even if you’re the type of person who considers the weight room or the treadmill to be their own form of Church, you shouldn’t test the waters too soon. A recent review found that elite-level athletes tended to return to training after childbirth much sooner than their non-professional counterparts and that there was a trend for a higher rate of injury among those elite athletes. The trend towards a higher injury rate is likely explained by doing too much too soon, as the months leading up to childbirth likely included lower-intensity exercise than normal (if the training was performed at all). Your relative fitness level will certainly be lower than it was prior to pregnancy and diving right back into your routine as if nothing happened can lead to painful consequences.

The review alluded to a six-week postpartum window were returning to training likely wouldn’t be advisable, especially for recreational athletes. While high-level performers might feel pressure sooner, most people who simply enjoy exercise don’t need to be on any type of accelerated timeline.

There should be a period of at least six weeks of “downtime” (which probably won’t feel like downtime at all with a newborn) before returning to exercise after childbirth, and even then, your routine should not look the same as it did prior to your pregnancy.

Start Slow

If you were training into the later stages of your pregnancy, you probably gradually reduced the intensity of effort over time. There’s very little to gain and a whole lot to lose by lifting heavy or sprinting in week 40. After a ~6-week period away from the gym, it’s recommended to reverse that logic once you return to exercise: start with the minimum effective dose and gradually work back to your previous level of fitness.

If you run marathons or long-distance, you should probably break that all the way down into a few sessions of moderate-length walks per week just to assess your current work capacity. Once that becomes tolerable, you can begin adding sessions and increasing the distance, eventually transitioning to jogging and, eventually, running. This transition should take place in a matter of weeks (or months), not days. Remember: there’s no strict deadline.

For resistance trainees, you can retain a good deal of your muscle mass by doing fewer sets with lighter weights than you probably imagined. When you’re getting back in the gym, as little as six working sets per body part per week should be plenty, and you can use weights light enough to perform sets of up to 30 reps while still getting a stimulating effect. Your strength and performance potential will surely be lesser than prior to your pregnancy, but you can begin the process of mastering the movements with good form again and gradually build up from there.

Other forms of exercise after childbirth should follow the same pattern: break things all the way down to the lowest possible intensity, and continually assess your comfort level each time you turn things up a notch. If you have any concerns or newfound discomfort during this period of lower-intensity exercise, consult with your physician as soon as possible.

Exercises at Home

There are plenty of people who loathe the prospect of returning to the gym in person after taking just a few days off, for fear that they’ve lost out on valuable progress. This notion is likely a much more prevalent one among fitness-minded mothers who just had a child, considering their training has probably looked drastically different (or nonexistent) for almost an entire calendar year. They may have every intention of getting back into the swing of things but would prefer to do so in a less public setting.

Luckily, since most of the exercise you’ll be doing after childbirth will be lower in intensity and shorter in duration, there are plenty of options to get things rolling in the privacy of your own home.

Treadmills and stationary bikes are great options to begin your cardio training, and you can easily opt for walks around your neighborhood in the early stages. Yoga practice is a very relaxing way to start putting your body in motion again, with the added benefit of reducing symptoms of postpartum depression.

If you enjoy strength training, you can opt for very light dumbbells that allow you to perform sets of about 30 reps per set; you may even find bodyweight exercises like pushups and split squats provide a sufficient challenge in the early going. Beyond that point, a good set of resistance bands can begin to bridge the gap between low/no weight and the weights you’re more accustomed to using.

Photo by Loren Castillo
Photo by Loren Castillo