No matter how fit you were before and during pregnancy, exercise post-baby can be a challenge. Your body is still healing from delivery. You may feel exhausted while caring for a newborn. Even finding the time for fitness may seem impossible.
But getting back into exercise post-baby is good for the mind and spirit. “I’m a big believer in exercise,” says Sherry Ross, M.D., OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and author of She-ology. “It’s so good for the mental condition and gets you back on your way to feeling like your pre-pregnancy self.”
We’re not even talking about “getting your body back.” That shouldn’t be the motivation or even part of your thinking. However, making small steps now will help you get in the exercise habit, so you can ramp up your workouts later. As they say, it took nine months to put on the pregnancy weight, so it’s OK to give yourself at least that long to take it off. For now, focus on getting yourself moving when you can. This way you can reap the positive mood, stress, and sleep benefits, help yourself heal, and have a little “me” time.
Ease back into it.
When you’re ready to start post-baby exercise will depend on a number of factors. These include your fitness levels pre-pregnancy and during pregnancy and the details of your baby’s delivery. A complicated delivery may mean more discomfort and a longer healing time, so you may have to be extra patient.
Your doctor may tell you to wait to do any vigorous exercise until at least your postpartum checkup—usually about six weeks after baby’s birth. But there are some things you can do in the meantime if you’re feeling up to it.
Right away, you can start doing Kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor, Ross says. This can help with bladder control. Stretching your pelvic floor—in what some call a “reverse Kegel”—is important for many new moms, too.
“The pelvic floor can be hypertonic or too tight, and that can cause incontinence,” says Tara Gregorio of Tara Gregorio Pilates & Wellness in Cold Spring, New York, who is a mom of twins and specializes in postpartum exercise. “So, while some people encourage Kegels, the first exercise I recommend is to breathe deeply and stretch the pelvic floor.”
When you’re feeling up to it, short walks—either while pushing the stroller or on your own—should be fine in the beginning. You can start with 20-30 minutes. If you’re feeling good, ramp it up to 30- to 45-minute walks around four weeks postpartum, Ross says. Gregorio agrees. “Walking is the best exercise for everyone after having a baby,” she says.
Be aware of how your body has changed.
Once you get the all-clear from your doctor to start increasing your workouts, proceed with caution. Your body may have experienced some changes that are important to address before pushing yourself.
For example, some women have trouble getting back into exercise post-baby because, even with Kegels, they still leak urine when jogging, jumping, or straining. Gregorio recommends seeing a trained pelvic floor physical therapist for personalized help. Stress and diet can also contribute to incontinence, she notes.
C-section moms may need extra healing time and, after 12 weeks, can start massaging their abdomen to break up scar tissue. Pelvic pain can also interfere with your ability to get back to running or other aerobic workouts.
“Physical therapy exercises can help postpartum moms get back into fitness,” Gregorio says. “You may also want to see an instructor who’s knowledgeable in postpartum exercise, maybe even one who’s been through it. Be sure you’re listening to your body, and if you’re having pain, stop and readjust your workout.”
Adjust core work for diastasis recti.
Pregnancy can cause the linea alba to stretch. This makes the abdominal muscles separate in a common condition known as diastasis recti. Women with diastasis recti experience weakness in the core that can affect their workouts. Gregorio says women with a separation should avoid crunches, planks, V-sits, teasers, and any other exercises that cause the abs to push out, as they can worsen the separation.
Instead, for abdominal recovery, Gregorio recommends exercises that combine deep breathing and abdominal contractions to strengthen the transverse abdominis. Learn more about how to heal and avoid further exacerbating diastasis recti here. Working on correct posture as you move around in your day-to-day actions can help as well. “You need to learn alignment first and how to engage your core second before you can go back to crunching again,” Gregorio says.
As you work out, look out for moderate to severe pain, increase in postpartum bleeding, dizziness or lightheadedness, or other discomforts. These can be signs of pushing too hard too early.
Breastfeeding moms may feel a little top-heavy or uncomfortable doing certain exercises and can get dehydrated more easily. Breastfeeding hormones can also loosen the ligaments, making you more prone to injury with exercises such as yoga and running, so be cautious about overdoing it.
Indoor cycling or spinning can be really uncomfortable for moms who had tearing or an episiotomy, so you probably want to avoid the bike at first.
“Know your level of athleticism, and ease into cardio workouts. Be really careful with them,” Ross says. “Now’s not the time to start training for a marathon.”
Embrace short workouts.
Possibly the biggest obstacle for new moms getting back into exercise post-baby is finding the time. But “even 15 minutes is definitely worth it,” Gregorio says. “A short burst of exercise is almost what you have to do when your children are young.”
Gregorio encourages new moms to think of meditation as exercise as well. Even a short savasana can be restorative and help you feel like you did something beneficial for your mind and body.
“Tell yourself a little bit of exercise is good enough,” Gregorio says. “Sometimes less is more, and your body will heal. Women have to be patient with it, especially postpartum. You can be strong again. There’s a fear that we’re not going to be, but eventually, it does happen.”