As a certified pre- and postnatal fitness trainer and also a licensed social worker, I know something about physical and mental health. I have witnessed the undeniable link between the two and the dramatic impact the body and the mind can have on one another.
New motherhood, for all the joy and privilege, brings with it a wealth of complex challenges. The body is reeling from nine months of physiological change, while the mind is adjusting to the overwhelming nature of being responsible for a life other than one's own.
This is to say nothing of the external pressure our society places on postpartum women. We are expected to function on little to no sleep for months, to figure out (or feel guilty if we don't) the complexities of breastfeeding, and to somehow lose the baby weight before being discharged from the hospital.
For those clients who come to me for assistance with that last goal, I offer the following perhaps surprising tidbit of advice: Let go of losing the baby weight. Forget about fitting back into your skinnies. Forget if or how you exercised in your pre-motherhood life. Whether you were once a gym rat or believed texting to be a complete workout, new motherhood can provide a rich moment to reframe your ideas about and approach to exercise right now. Doing so can not only enable your physical and mental well-being as a mom but can present an opportunity to model good health for your child as well. So rather than feeling frustrated by wondering when the number on the scale will reach the "target," think about exercise as a tool for better postpartum living. Here are five ways to consider how a little activity can go a long way toward improving more than just your waistline.
- Save Your Social Life: Many new moms struggle with social isolation after bringing home a baby. Meeting other moms for a walk in the park or a group movement class can provide a chance for adult communication and connection. Conversely, exercise can be a chance for quiet introspection and reflection. Book a sitter and spend some time sweating solo.
- Sleep More Soundly: Got sleep? Not if you're a new mom you don't. At least, not enough of it. Most new moms are unable to avoid sleep deprivation at least during the first few months postpartum and often beyond that. A study published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine revealed that a home-based, individual aerobic exercise program can reduce fatigue, both physical and mental, in women with postpartum depression.
- Bolster Your Bones: Most moms are never told that bone density can actually be lost during breastfeeding! Calcium, used to make milk, is extracted from the bones, resulting in a certain amount of bone loss. For most women, bone mass is restored after lactation stops. But this is not the case for all. Both aerobic and strength training exercises may help to reduce the rate of bone loss in women throughout the time period they are nursing, according to a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
- Help Your Heart Out: Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women around the world! A 2015 study of postnatal women engaged in an exercise program demonstrated improvements in haemodynamic function (the flow of blood) and a reduction in blood pressure, both of which can reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Manage Your Mood: With estrogen and progesterone hormone levels taking a nosedive in the days and weeks postpartum, most moms could use a mood boost. The positive correlation between exercise and mood enhancement is well documented. Natural endorphins released during exercise, the ones that make us feel good, are similar to those brain chemicals stimulated by antidepressant medications but without the unpleasant side effects. This makes exercise an incredibly useful intervention at this time, particularly for nursing mothers.
So take a note from the overplayed Frozen anthem: let it go. Forget about losing the baby weight. Concentrate on using exercise to make the overwhelming, sleepless, hormonally challenging days of postpartum life easier. Wondering how to weave a workout into the routine (or lack of one?). Check out a few quick ideas here.