The Diet Detective: Everything You Should Know About Post Pregnancy Fitness

This is the first of a two-part series on fitness and nutrition for new mothers. The first feature column is about exercise and activity. The second part focuses on nutrition and weight loss.

What's changed about my body since having a child that can affect my ability to exercise?

According to Erin O'Brien, creator of the exercise DVDs Prenatal Fitness Fix and Postnatal Rescue, "The lower back has such a strong curvature (lordosis) after birth that it really affects the rest of the body. Once the hormone relaxin has stopped after you've given birth, your joints start to tighten up again. This is a really dangerous time for women because they're structurally not ready to do the things they did before getting pregnant.

But the good news is, you can re-teach the body to go back to its pre-pregnancy way of moving. The funny thing is, some women have no problem putting themselves back together, while others (myself included) find it really a bit baffling."

Can you really get back your old body, or even a better one? If so, how long should it take?

Experts agree that you can still have a great body post-pregnancy. "It's not too much to expect to get your body back. I know many women even after multiple children who gain better bodies than they've ever had. You do want to give your body some time to do this. Don't expect miracles. It took you 40 weeks to stretch that body out, so you need to give it time to bounce back," says Lisa Druxman, M.A., the creator of Stroller Strides and author of Lean Mommy (Center Street, 2007).

"Most women need to adjust their expectations, because it isn't going to happen overnight and it takes discipline and time (both of which are in short supply for most new moms). So, expect to see results in an average of three to 12 months," says Jennifer Wider, M.D., author of The New Mom's Survival Guide (Bantam, 2008). However, a recent review from Cochrane Library suggests that women who return to their pre-pregnancy weight by about six months have a lower risk of being overweight 10 years later.

What are the benefits of postnatal exercise?

"Exercising after having a baby can speed a woman's recovery time after delivery. In addition, a recent article in the journal Birth reveals that exercise can lessen the severity of depression in new moms. Other studies have also suggested that exercising can lower a woman's chances of postpartum depression. Postnatal exercise can also increase a woman's energy, which can be quite beneficial when she is exhausted by all the changes in her life," says Wider.

How long should I wait after giving birth before working out?

Most physicians recommend waiting six weeks to resume a traditional exercise program. But that doesn't mean that you have to wait to begin any exercise, says Druxman. She suggests doing the following:

Begin pelvic floor rehab immediately: Kegels.
Weeks 0-2: Focus on gentle activity; begin pelvic tilts and small abdominal crunches.
Weeks 2-4: Short walks, duration 5 to 15 minutes.
Weeks 4-6: Maintain routine, don't rush progression.

She also suggests a few limitations such as avoiding strenuous exercise. Stop if the exercise causes pain, dizziness, fatigue or an increase in bleeding. Avoid wide squats and big lateral movements.

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