As a Pilates instructor and the owner of a health and wellness company for over a decade, I've helped many clients recover from a myriad of issues and injuries, some so severe they required surgery. As you'd expect in these cases, my clients were kept informed before, during, and after a procedure by their doctors, were prescribed physical therapy, and were given an abundance of information on how to properly build back strength.
The one exception was when a client would give birth. Even in the best-case scenario, a woman might face stretching, swelling, tearing, and cutting, yet two to six weeks later she can be cleared for exercise with little to no guidance on how to properly rehabilitate postpartum.
We don't expect the body to "self-heal" after any other major surgery or physical event, so why do we assume this should happen after birth?
Mothers face many physical issues during recovery from birth. Hormonal changes, like elevated levels of relaxin, a hormone that loosens ligaments and joints to aid in delivery, can cause balance issues and an overall clumsy feeling for moms. Gestational weight gain and increased breast size leave many women hunched over, leading to poor posture and balance and muscle aches and pains.
Plus, most moms will also suffer from weakened or damaged abdominal, lower-back, and pelvic muscles, which can play a role in incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. It's obvious that giving birth is a major life and medical event, and recovering from it should be addressed as seriously as recovering from trauma.
Mistakes to Avoid During Postpartum Recovery
Jumping back into intense exercise too quickly. Many moms return to high-impact cardio and heavy lifting without thinking about what their new bodies can handle. New mothers who were avid runners or even CrossFit enthusiasts prepregnancy are more susceptible to joint injury during these exercises due to elevated levels of relaxin.
Building abdominal pressure. Traditional crunches, planks, and intense core exercises can worsen diastasis recti, increasing the likelihood of lower-back and bladder issues postpartum.
Poor diet. Nutrition plays a role not only in weight gain or loss, but also in energy, mood, sleep, and muscle recovery. Too often, busy new moms go for the fast and easy food choice, without thinking about the nutritional content and consequences.
Doing nothing. Immediately after birth, your body will need time to rest and recharge before you can start an exercise regime. However, once your medical professional has given you the go-ahead to start moving, the right exercises and stretches will help aid in your recovery efforts and provide clear benefits over a sedentary lifestyle.
Tips For Safely and Slowly Recovering From Birth
Try low-impact cardio for heart health. When adjusting back into a heart-healthy routine, moms should stick to low-impact cardiovascular exercise during the first few months postpartum. Walking, swimming, cycling, and elliptical trainers are generally preferred to exercises involving jumping and pounding that can lead to joint damage. Start out with five to 10 minutes a day, and build up to 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, five times a week, to keep your heart and lungs healthy.
Be careful about your core exercise. Focus on simple abdominal exercises targeting your obliques, lower back, transverse abdominals, pelvic floor, and hips without increasing abdominal pressure. Pilates and yoga-based poses will improve overall core strength and balance postpartum.
Load up on nutrient-dense foods. Continue a healthy diet with energy-rich foods, accompanied by plenty of fluids. According to nutritionist and registered dietician Hawley Poinsett, MS, LD, the main nutrients that are of concern in the first year after childbirth are calcium, iron, fiber, and fluids.
Prioritize your health. It's important for moms to practice self-care and secure "me time" whenever possible during the postpartum period. Don't be afraid to ask for help from family, neighbors, and friends when it comes to a support system and securing child care. With help, a couple of minutes a day for exercise can go a long way for a new mom in jump-starting the healing process. Recent studies even show that exercise and meditation may reduce the risk of postpartum depression.