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. Since then, I’ve also become a fitness instructor and get to work with women in all stages of their pregnancy and postpartum journeys.
Pregnancy is wonderful in so many ways, but most women struggle to love and accept their bodies both during pregnancy and right after birth. Let’s face it—your postpartum body will be different. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel whatever feelings may come about your body after you give birth. However, in order to be able to learn to love and accept your “new” body, it’s important to exercise regularly as soon as you are able to post-delivery.
Some of the benefits of postpartum exercise include:
- Stress relief. Having a baby is one of the most stressful life experiences you can have!
- Increased energy. A much-needed benefit when the hormones and lack of sleep hit.
- Helps prevent postpartum depression and “baby blues”. Thank you endorphins!!
- Promotes healthier sleep. With a new baby, you’ll need all the help you can get when it comes to improving sleep.
- Strengthens and tones weak pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. Pregnancy and birth take their toll, but the “damage” is completely reversible.
- Strengthens mother-child bond. This goes back to endorphins as well (happy moms are better able to bond)
These are just a few of the many benefits of exercise you may experience after giving birth—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.
General Guidelines and Myths about Postpartum Fitness
Before I list my favorite types of exercise for postpartum mothers, let’s talk about a few general guidelines to follow and some myths that often get spread around about postpartum fitness.
When Can You Start Working Out After Giving Birth?
The “six week” rule. Many women are told by their doctors not to exercise for at least six weeks after giving birth. In reality, there is no hard rule about when it’s okay to start exercising. The best rule of thumb is to wait until your bleeding has stopped (or is very light) and you are not longer experiencing pain in your uterus or pelvic floor. Make sure you take it SLOW and quit doing something if it’s painful. If your bleeding picks up again, take it easy and try again in a few more days.
When Can You Workout After C-section?
If you have had a C-section. C-sections are different than vaginal births—major abdominal surgery takes much longer to recover from and requires stricter guidelines. 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 a few weeks—for others, longer. 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?
Exercise and breastfeeding. One of the questions I get asked most often by new moms is whether exercising will cause their milk supply to drop. While not every woman is the same, studies show that daily moderate exercise does NOT affect milk supply. 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 take a toll on your pelvic floor. If you had a prolonged pushing stage of labor or a forceps delivery, your risk of a weakened or damaged pelvic floor is increased. For this reason, I always suggest women start their postpartum workouts with exercises designed specifically to strengthen the pelvic floor. It’s really important to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles before moving to ab work (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.
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. What counts as aerobic? 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 should also break a sweat. On the RPE Scale (see below), you should be at about a 6. You can use a fitness tracker to keep track of your heart rate.
5 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 5 workouts that I absolutely LOVE for the postpartum period—you don’t necessarily need to do all of these, but 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. Walking is low-impact, so there’s little risk of damaging the pelvic floor right after birth. 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. 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.
If it’s too cold or hot to walk, consider walking around a mall or indoor fitness center. Many recreation centers and gyms have indoor tracks that allow strollers. You may also want 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.
Remember that bit about strengthening the pelvic floor? Yoga is an AMAZING workout for finding those core and pelvic floor muscles again after pregnancy. It’s a low-intensity, low-impact workout that can also help postpartum mothers deal with the stress of having a new baby. Make sure to let your instructor know if you are newly postpartum so he or she can modify any exercises that may be too strenuous or risk damaging the pelvic floor.
Pilates or Barre
When you’re ready to step it up a bit, consider a pilates or barre class. These classes are great for strengthening the core while also offering lots of modifications depending on where you are in your recovery. Your heart rate will get up a bit higher and you can start to branch out into more moderate exercise. 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.
When you’re feeling ready to get in some good cardio after baby, start with a cycle class. These classes are perfect for new moms because they will get your heart rate up but protect your pelvic floor as it recovers. It’s low-impact but still kicks your butt! You can also modify a cycle class very easily since you have control of your own bike. Don’t be afraid to take the resistance and speed down the first few times. You’ll eventually be able to work yourself back up to your pre-pregnancy intensity.
I am a HUGE proponent of weightlifting for women, but after having a baby, it’s a good idea to lay off the heavy weights until your core strength returns. 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, 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.
Remember, when it comes to postpartum exercise, the most important thing to remember is to just DO IT. You will have so many excuses not to—forget them all. The benefits—both for you and for baby—are incredible. Go find a workout buddy and make a plan today!