After each of my babies were born, I could not wait to get back into a fitness routine. I was a dancer growing up, and as an adult found joy in dance fitness classes like Zumba and barre. In recent years, I’ve also become a fitness instructor and get to work with women in all stages of their pregnancy and postpartum journeys. Needless to say, I love to be active and strive to be fit.
Many women will agree that while pregnancy is wonderful in so many ways, most women struggle to love and accept their bodies both during pregnancy and right after birth. Because let’s face it—your postpartum body will be different than the pre-baby days.
I’m here to remind you that it’s okay to allow yourself to feel whatever feelings may come about your body after you give birth. With that said, one way to learn to love and accept your “new” body is to establish regular exercise habits as soon as you are able to post-delivery.
Research has found many benefits of postpartum exercise including:
- Stress relief. Having a baby is one of the most meaningful but stressful life experiences you can have! In my opinion, nothing helps release tension and stress like rigorous exercise.
- Increased energy. We all know that new moms need extra energy once the hormones and lack of sleep kick in after having a baby. Personally, I always find myself feeling stronger and ready to take on challenges after a good workout. For this reason, I’d go as far as to say that exercise makes me a better mom because I am more energized afterwards.
- Helps prevent postpartum depression and “baby blues.” Gotta love endorphins, right? Fitness is a mood booster like no other; it helps clear your head, connect with others, and develop self confidence. Working out is one way new moms can practice self-care.
- Promotes healthier sleep. With a new baby, you’ll need all the help you can get when it comes to improving sleep. Experts agree that exercise is associated with better sleep and can even work as well as sleeping pills. Yes please!
- Strengthens and tones weak pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. Pregnancy and birth take their toll, but the “damage” is completely reversible. By regularly doing strength training and other specific exercises, you will notice an improvement in this area for sure.
- Strengthens mother-child bond. This benefit is related to the endorphins released during exercising that I mentioned earlier. It’s no surprise to anyone that happy moms are better able to bond with their children.
If reading over those benefits doesn’t convince you to commit to a regular exercise routine, I don’t know what will! These are just a few of the many benefits of exercise you may experience after giving birth— if you look into it you’ll see there are so many more!
Although it can be difficult to feel motivated to exercise when you are sleep-deprived and emotional (thanks, crazy hormones!), it’s important to make exercise a priority. Put it on the calendar if you have to—it’s THAT important. Trust me, it really is a gift to yourself and your family!
General Guidelines and Myths about Postpartum Fitness
I’ve prepared a list of my favorite types of exercise for postpartum mothers, but before I get to that let’s talk about a few general guidelines to follow. I also want to go over some myths that often get spread around about postpartum fitness. I believe it’s important to go into it well-informed so you have realistic expectations and an accurate understanding of what is safe for your post-baby body.
When Can You Start Working Out After Giving Birth?
The “six week” rule. Many women receive instructions from their doctors to not exercise for at least six weeks after giving birth. But in reality, there is no hard rule about when it’s okay to start exercising since everyone’s body heals at a different pace.
My understanding is that the best rule of thumb to follow is to wait until your bleeding has stopped (or is very light) and you are no longer experiencing pain in your uterus or pelvic floor. Make sure you take it SLOW and quit doing something if it’s painful. Basically, watch for and listen to signals from your body. If your bleeding picks up again, take it easy and try again a few more days later.
When Can You Workout After C-section?
It’s no secret that C-sections are different than vaginal births; they are a major abdominal surgery which takes much longer to recover from and requires stricter guidelines afterwards. To ensure a healthy recovery, it’s important to be in communication with your doctor about when it’s safe for you to start exercising again.
For some women it may be only a few weeks but for others it may be much longer. In fact, most fitness trainers will require a signed note from your doctor saying it’s safe to resume exercise before they will begin any kind of program for C-section moms.
Will Exercising Decrease Breast Milk Production?
One of the questions I get asked most often by new moms is whether exercising will cause their milk supply to drop. They understandably want to make sure that they can keep up with their baby’s nutrition needs. While not every woman is the same, studies show that daily moderate exercise does NOT affect milk supply.
However, I think the most common mistake women make when trying to get their “pre-baby body” back is cutting calories while breastfeeding. If you are actively cutting calories, you will probably notice a drop in your milk supply. To avoid that drop, simply eat enough calories (of healthy, nutritious food) to replace the calories you burned during your workout. And ALWAYS drink plenty of water—your body needs it to make that milk!
How Can I Strengthen My Pelvic Floor After Childbirth?
The pelvic floor. Pregnancy and childbirth obviously take a major toll on your pelvic floor. This is especially true if you had a prolonged pushing stage of labor or a forceps delivery since both situations increase your risk of a weakened or damaged pelvic floor. With this in mind, I always suggest women start their postpartum workouts with exercises designed specifically to strengthen the pelvic floor.
I’ve found it’s really essential to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles before moving to ab work (such as crunches), heavy weightlifting, or high-impact exercise to avoid the chance of prolapse. Some great pelvic floor exercises include kegels, “drawing in” exercises, planks, squats, glute bridges, and bird dogs. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these terms, you can find very helpful illustrations on a Google search.
How Often Can I Exercise After Giving Birth?
How often to exercise. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends postpartum mothers get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. This works out to about 30 minutes a day, or at least 3 10-minute bouts each day.
Not sure what counts as aerobic? Let me clear it up for you: aerobic exercise is anything that is rhythmic in nature and gets your heart rate up to a level where you can still talk but can’t sing. You will also break a sweat in aerobic exercise. On the RPE Scale (see below), aerobic exercise will be at about a 6. To get specific data, you can use a fitness tracker to keep track of your heart rate.
6 Best Postpartum Exercises
Okay, now that we’ve covered some basic guidelines for postpartum fitness, let’s move on to the good stuff. Here are the top six workouts that I absolutely LOVE for the postpartum period—you don’t necessarily need to do all of these every day, but I encourage you to pick one or two that you enjoy and get started as soon as you are feeling ready!
If the weather allows, get the stroller out and head outside for a nice walk with baby. If your baby is like mine, she will love the fresh air and new views just as much as you do! Since walking is a low-impact activity, it poses little risk of damaging the pelvic floor right after birth, making it an ideal postpartum form of exercise. It’s also a great way to get out of the house, soak up a little Vitamin D, and help fight off baby blues and postpartum depression/anxiety.
Another appeal of walking is that it can be a social activity. If you can, try to find another mom to be your “walking buddy” and schedule daily walks with her. Having a workout partner keeps you accountable and helps motivate you to get in your daily exercise. Additionally, a resulting friendship will enrich your life and lift you up emotionally.
Maybe you’re thinking that it’s too cold or hot to walk outside where you live. If that’s the case, consider walking around a mall, track, or indoor fitness center. If you look around you’ll see that many recreation centers and gyms have indoor tracks that allow strollers.
It may also be a good idea to locate a gym near you that has a child care facility on-site so you can use the treadmills and other fitness equipment but still be near your baby for feeding. What I’m trying to say is that there are plenty of ways to make walking work, you just may need to get a little creative!
Remember that bit I went over earlier about strengthening the pelvic floor? Yoga is an AMAZING low-intensity, low-impact workout for finding those core and pelvic floor muscles again after pregnancy.
Plus, yoga feels incredible for your mind and body! In my experience, it can also help postpartum mothers deal with the stress of having a new baby. Since yoga consists of controlled breathing and mental focus, it can reduce anxiety and even lower your heart rate. I for one always feel a general sense of well-being after a yoga practice.
Just make sure to let your instructor know if you are newly postpartum so he or she can suggest alternatives to any exercises that may be too strenuous or risk damaging the pelvic floor. Don’t worry: there are plenty of modifications you can take on any yoga pose to accommodate your recovering body.
Pilates or Barre
When you’re ready to step it up a bit, consider a pilates or barre class. Like yoga, pilates is low-impact and enhances flexibility and core strength. Barre is also similar to yoga but it combines elements from ballet as well, sometimes only using your body weight and other times using tools like bands, weights, or balls.
You can find pilates and barre classes at your local gym or on YouTube. Both of these classes are great for strengthening the core while also offering lots of modifications depending on where you are in your recovery.
Over time, you’ll be able to tolerate a higher heart rate and you can start to branch out into more moderate exercise. I know I’ve said this before, but that’s because it’s critical: be sure to start slow and listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right, stop and ask for a modification.
On the flip side, as you feel comfortable, don’t be afraid to take the more challenging options. Maybe you can relate to this, but one thing I learned from childbirth is that my body is capable of doing hard things!
Once you’re comfortable with yoga, barre, and pilates classes, you may be ready to move onto some good cardio. When you reach this point, I recommend starting with a cycle class. Also known as spinning, cycle classes take place on indoor, stationary bikes and deliver an intense total-body workout.
An instructor will guide you at the front of the class and talk you through different speeds and resistance levels. These classes are perfect for new moms because they will get your heart rate up but protect your pelvic floor as it recovers. Take it from me: cycling is low-impact but still kicks your butt!
Another reason cycling is an excellent option for postpartum moms is that you can modify the class very easily since you have control of your own bike. You shouldn’t be afraid to lower the resistance and speed the first few times you go. Don’t stress about this; you’ll eventually be able to work yourself back up to your pre-pregnancy intensity levels.
Those who know me know that I am a HUGE proponent of weightlifting for women, but I’m the first to say that after having a baby it’s a good idea to lay off the heavy weights until your core strength returns. Until then, a good resistance class can help bridge the gap as you recover.
During your first few classes, omit the weights completely or use very light weight. Most resistance exercises can be performed with or without weight or bands. If you attend a class at a gym, your instructor will give you modifications appropriate for your fitness level. Remember to skip ab crunches for the first several weeks. Instead, flip to all fours and do bird dogs. You’ll still feel this exercise but it is much gentler on your body.
Mommy and Me
If one of the reasons you’re putting off exercising after childbirth is that you aren’t ready to be away from your baby, a Mommy and Me workout may be just what you need. It is important to note that your infant will need to be able to lift their head independently in order to safely participate.
I’m sure that you could find a variety of Mommy and Me classes in your community. Reach out to gyms or other moms to find recommendations. But if you’d rather just stay at home, you can also find plenty of Mommy and Me workout plans online.
Many of them incorporate exercises in which you lift your baby as you would lift a dumbbell. For instance, you could do crunches with baby on your lap, lift baby over your head for upper body work, or do squats while holding baby.
I love Mommy and Me workouts because it turns exercising into a fun way to bond with your baby. You can’t help but smile when looking at your baby, even if you are working hard!
Just Do It
In closing, just remember, when it comes to postpartum exercise, the most important thing to remember is to just DO IT. If you don’t like one type of workout, try something new until you find your perfect fit. You will have so many excuses not to—forget them all and just get moving.
The benefits, both for you but also for your sweet baby, are incredible. If it was me, I’d write myself a sticky note listing all of the benefits of working out postpartum and display it near my bed as a daily reminder. So go find a workout buddy and make a plan today! You’ll thank me later!
About the Author
Fiona is a certified doula, fitness coach, and mother. She enjoys helping women navigate delivery and postpartum to help moms feel their best.