Despite plenty of new postpartum fitness programs, the guidelines for what you can do when are seriously vague. Here’s the truth about returning to exercise after having a baby.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
Jan 24, 2020 @ 3:30 pm
Anna Bizon/Getty Images

Exercise likely isn’t the first (or seventh) thing on your mind after having a baby. But for new moms who feel ready to get back to sweating again, knowing when you can work out and what you’re allowed to do can be confusing — guidelines for postpartum exercise are vague

It used to be that post-baby, women waited for their ob-gyn to ‘clear’ them for exercise, often between six and eight weeks postpartum, depending on their method of delivery. Now, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recognizes that some women can go back to physical activity within just days of delivery. But until you have that postpartum follow up appointment, you might not have much, if any, contact with your doctor — and thus likely won’t have had an internal exam to check how you’re healing.

Generally, you want to wait to resume any normal exercise until you’ve stopped bleeding. Sarah Bradford, a diastasis recti and core rehabilitation specialist, says you’ll also want to be sure you’ve taken the time to work on your pelvic floor and core rehabilitation. “The ACOG saying that some people can begin exercising again within days after delivery is very misleading,” says Bradford, founder of The LUNA Method, an online pre- and postnatal fitness program. It should not, she notes, be interpreted to mean that you can or should start lifting weights or running. “It really just relates to light walking and rehabilitative exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and pelvic floor and core exercises.” These are just some of the exercises offered in The LUNA Method’s ‘Early Weeks’ program, which was designed in collaboration with a physical therapist and is safe to use in the weeks following delivery. 

After all, certain physical activities can be extremely useful to heal and restore strength after giving birth. “It’s important to raise awareness about the unique physical needs of women in those early weeks postpartum,” says Bradford.

And today, there are more options than ever tailored for the specific needs of women in the postpartum phase. Peloton recently launched prenatal and postnatal fitness classes, Aaptiv added a ‘fourth trimester’ workout program. Australian trainer Kayla Itsines just launched a post-pregnancy workout program on the SWEAT app. And fitness companies such as The Bloom Method and PROnatal Fitness are specifically dedicated to the prenatal and postnatal exercise space.

Despite new resources, there are still plenty of myths out there that can be hard to wade through. Here, trainers who work in the prenatal, postnatal, and pregnancy space share what else we need to stop (and start) believing.

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Myth #1: Being fit beforehand means you’ll be able to jump back into fitness faster.

“You can set yourself up for success and have a healthier overall pregnancy by staying active, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can jump back into working out or doing what you're used to faster post-pregnancy,” explains Kristin McGee, a mom of three and a Peloton yoga instructor who teaches prenatal and postnatal yoga classes. 

Itsines agrees. “I had so many people telling me because I was fit and healthy before I [got] pregnant, I would find it easy to get back into exercise post-birth,” she says. “I think because that's what everyone was telling me, I had hyped myself up and believed it. It’s so important to remember that every woman's recovery process and return to exercise is different, no matter what your fitness level before pregnancy.”

Returning to working out again too soon can also actually create problems — even for the most fit, adds Bradford. “Birth is a major physical event and if you had a C-section, it is major surgery. Our bodies need time to heal from that.” 

If you’re still bleeding postpartum, exercising too soon, for example, can increase bleeding, which can be dangerous. “If you had an open wound on your leg, you probably would wait to go for that run until it had healed. The same care should be taken for postpartum bleeding,” says Bradford. 

Your pelvic floor and core also need time to heal, she notes, which could take a different amount of time for everyone, depending on your birth as well as how active you were during pregnancy. (And FYI, even if you weren’t particularly active during pregnancy, pelvic floor work and core rehab is still important postpartum since it addresses issues that could have arisen during pregnancy or delivery.)

The best place to start: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing (where your belly expands 360 degrees on the inhale and contracts on the exhale) and rehabilitative pelvic floor and core exercises (more on that later).  

Myth #2: Your doctor always knows best.

It’s always important to listen to your doctor’s advice but it's also important to listen to your body, says McGee.

After all: “Far too often healthcare providers fail to fully assess each individual when it comes to giving the green light to return to exercise postpartum,” explains Bradford, who notes that women aren’t always assessed for diastasis recti (a common separation of the abdominal muscles during pregnancy) and pelvic floor function at their postpartum visits, yet are still told they can resume all pre-pregnancy activities. The issue: You might go out, start a routine, not be ready, and not have much guidance as to why. After all: While your postpartum visit should happen no later than 12 weeks, the fact that there's only one visit in the first place can mean your doctor may not fully know how your healing is progressing.

Alternatively, you might feel really good before your appointment. “After my first pregnancy when I delivered vaginally, I felt great within a couple of weeks; but after my twins, I didn't have the same feeling,” says McGee. “I really needed a full four to six weeks to fully recover, especially before doing more active things.” Listening to your doctor and your body can help you make an informed, sensible decision, she says.

Fitness programs specifically designed for the postpartum period can help meet you where you are and run you through safe postpartum moves.

If you think you’re suffering from something like diastasis recti or pelvic organ prolapse (when the muscles and tissues supporting the pelvic organs become weak), it is important to talk to your doctor or a pelvic floor physical therapist, who can help restore function.

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Myth #3: Separated ab muscles always heal on their own.

In general, diastasis recti will narrow back on its own, notes McGee, who experienced the postpartum abdominal condition after the birth of her twins. Your age, genetics, and whether you carried multiples will play a role, but sometimes the gap needs to be healed via physical therapy and in some cases via surgery, she says. 

“Through learning to properly regulate pressure through diaphragmatic breathing, physical therapy, rehabilitative core exercises, and re-training the inner core to function properly during daily movements, diastasis recti can often be fully rehabilitated post-birth, no matter how old your children are,” notes Bradford.

Myth #4: It’s normal to pee when you laugh, cough, sneeze, jump, and run postpartum.

Post-baby incontinence may be common but you don’t need to live with it, notes Bradford. And kegels (exercises where you pretend you have to pee and then hold it) aren’t always the fix. Why? Your pelvic floor needs to be able to lengthen and contract — not just contract. After all, when the pelvic floor is always in a contracted state, the muscles become shortened, tightened, and sometimes weak, she explains. 

Practicing proper activation and release along with diaphragmatic breathing is important, she notes. 

If you’re suffering from incontinence? “Seeing a qualified pelvic floor physical therapist is the best way to understand what is happening and get back to life without leaks,” says Bradford.

RELATED: Way More Women Are Peeing Their Pants Than You Think

Myth #5: Traditional ab exercises are off limits post-baby.

Crunches, planks, leg lifts, and bicycles can contribute to diastasis recti and you should skip ‘em if you notice ‘doming’ or ‘coning’ of your belly, says Bradford. But a movement like crunching is also an inherently functional movement. “We sit up out of bed from lying down which is basically a sit up,” she says. “Telling women not to do that when they are half asleep and getting up to tend to a crying baby is not realistic.” 

A better strategy: Learn how to do these movements correctly and safely, by activating your inner core and breathing properly (that diaphragmatic breathing again).

Also, branch your core and pelvic floor work out from the traditional moves. “Certain yoga poses and concentrated pilates core work can be great for postpartum moms,” says McGee. “Bridges, pelvic tilts, and breath work are all wonderful.”

Myth #6: Working out post-baby will be impossible because you’re exhausted and sleep deprived. 

“Being a new mother is challenging,” says Itsines. After her daughter Arna was born, she says she had days where she felt exhausted, emotional, and without motivation. “But it’s important to remember that not all exercise needs to be completed in a gym,” she says. 

Short walks around the block with a stroller and at-home workouts can be your best friends. And you don’t need to spend an hour sweating. Itsines’ new postnatal program, for example, features workouts ranging from eight to 25 minutes. “I think it's important for women to remember to listen to their body, take it slow, and know that it doesn't matter if you do two minutes or 10.”

McGee adds that it’s important to take that time for yourself. “Don't feel guilty about working out — it can help you feel stronger and feel better as a person, and in return, a better mom.” 

Of course, constant caring for a new baby combined with lack of sleep is exhausting — and if you’re not ready to jump back into your usual workouts, that’s normal. You can find other ways to care for yourself while getting some movement in. “Making it out of the house and going to a new mom’s group or meeting up with a friend for a walk are great ways to meet other mamas, get out of the house, and take some time for yourself, even with baby in tow,” says Bradford.

Myth #7: You’ll never be able to rebuild your pre-pregnancy strength.

Your body has changed, your hormones are shifting, and your body may not be able to do exactly what it could before, notes McGee.  Itsines agrees, saying, “Your body goes through so many changes through pregnancy, and regaining physical strength post-birth is tough.” But she adds one important caveat: “Strength isn't just physical but also emotional and mental.”

And because of that, Itsines says that her appreciation for her body and what it is capable of deepened through pregnancy. “I’ve had BBG mums tell me that before pregnancy they hadn’t stepped foot in a gym for 10 years or that they couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without feeling out of breath, and after having a baby, their mindset changed and now exercise is a huge part of their life. It’s really amazing.” 

So, will you rebuild your “pre-pregnancy strength”? You may exceed it in ways you never imagined, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. To stay on track, be patient with yourself, recognize what your body has done (and is currently doing!), and celebrate small wins along the way, our experts say.

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