In Part 1 of our pregnancy mini-series—Pregnancy (Part 1): Everything You Need To Know About Exercising While Pregnant—we explored the issue of working out during pregnancy. In this article, we're going to dig into what you should know about postpartum exercise.
First of all, returning to exercise after giving birth is no easy feat, so be patient (and gentle) with yourself. Many people compare it to recovery from a sports injury due to the changes that occur, both physically and mentally. And, like a sports injury, returning to exercise after birth should occur in a gradual and progressive manner.
Women who are recovering from childbirth usually experience the following changes to their bodies, all of which need to be taken into consideration when returning to exercise postpartum:
- Stretched abdominal muscles
- Changes to the pelvic floor muscles, nerves, and connective tissues
- Scar tissue formation
- Hip and low back tightness
- Joint pain
- Low endurance and fatigue
These changes can pose major obstacles to working out after giving birth, especially if you are unsure how to restart the fitness journey. The first step is always talk to your doctor, but once your obstetrician gives you the go-ahead to start exercising again, here are 5 things that you should (and shouldn’t) do to get back in shape safely.
1. You SHOULD aim for 20–30 minutes of activity each day.
Depending on the stage of your postpartum recovery, the intensity level of activity that you should do will vary. However, keep in mind that even 10 minutes of exercise can boost your mental and physical state.
Walking is an excellent, low intensity, low impact exercise that should be included in every woman’s workout program after giving birth. Begin with 10-15 minutes, at least once per day, and gradually increase your time by 5 minute intervals. Monitor for pain, spotting, lightheadedness, back pain, and fatigue. Be sure to stay hydrated and consume the appropriate amount of calories, especially if you are breastfeeding.
Ultimately, you should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week. You can divide the 150 minutes into 30-minute workouts or 10-minute sessions throughout the day.
2. You SHOULDN’T push through the pain for the sake of gains.
It’s common to feel more tired in the first few months after giving birth due to interrupted sleep patterns and the added demands of motherhood and breastfeeding. Being fatigued and overexertion can increase your risk of injury, so it’s important to listen to your body. Know the warning signs of overexertion and slow down, if necessary.
Regardless of whether or not you are breastfeeding, your desire to exercise may be slow to return. Or, you may struggle to find the time or energy to workout. During this time, you can still work towards strengthening your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in preparation for when you are ready to exercise after birth.
1 in 3 women experience urinary leakage after having a baby, and retraining of the pelvic floor muscles with Kegel exercises can reduce this issue. Remember to gently initiate each contraction and build your endurance gradually. Be sure to relax the muscles fully between each voluntary contraction. If you experience moderate to severe urinary leakage, then give your pelvic floor muscles a break throughout the day by laying on your stomach or side as you play and interact with the baby.
Pelvic tilts, pelvic floor strengthening exercises, neck and shoulder stretches, and a low intensity walking program are great options for those “I don’t feel like doing anything” days during postpartum recovery. Related: Postnatal Workout or Post Abdominal Surgery Workout
3. You SHOULD engage in strength training after your doctor gives you the “OK,” usually around your six-week postnatal check up.
Strength training includes any exercise that works the body’s major muscle groups and should be performed at least 2 days per week (in addition to aerobic activity). We love these workouts and programs that may be just what you need to get back into exercise:
Once you’ve begun to regain some strength, endurance, and momentum with your workouts, progress your weights appropriately, but still limit any plyometric (high impact or jumping) activities. Also, continue to focus on pelvic floor and core strengthening.
4. You SHOULDN’T do traditional core exercises like sit ups, crunches, V-ups, and mountain climbers during the first few months of recovery.
These core-strengthening exercises are not recommended for women after childbirth because they can place unwanted pressure on the lower abs and recovering pelvic floor muscles. Related: What is Diastasis Recti? Diastasis Recti Test and Exercises to Avoid
5. You SHOULD trust the process.
It may take up to six months, or longer, before you begin to feel “back to normal” and exercise like you did before pregnancy. Typically, your pelvic floor muscles will have recovered by 4 months postpartum. At this time, you should be able to resume most activities unless you are experiencing back pain, pelvic floor heaviness, or continued urinary leakage. If this is the case, then please seek a professional evaluation by your obstetrician, a women’s health specialist and/or physical therapist that specializes in the pelvic floor.
The postpartum journey is an incredibly vulnerable, emotional, and, at times, painful process. Throughout these months of healing, it is important to check in with yourself, both mentally and physically, to make sure that your needs are being met. If you find yourself facing a severe lack of motivation to exercise, enjoy outside walks with your newborn, or engage with others, then you may be experiencing signs of postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety. We encourage you to talk to your physician to find the expert and compassionate care that you deserve.
Have you recently given birth and are just now starting your postpartum exercise journey? If so, then we are here for you! Share your wins, struggles, and best motivational tips with us below. Remember, the Fitness Blender Community is a wonderfully encouraging place, where you are bound to find others who may have experienced similar situations and can be wonderful sources of motivation and empathy.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician, your obstetrician, or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist
Exercise after pregnancy. (2019, July). Retrieved January 19, 2021, from American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website
Edmonds, D. (2019). Is post natal recovery like recovering from a sports injury? Network, 38–41.