Why safe return to exercise is critical for long-term health
We all know that regular exercise has numerous health benefits but why is safe return to exercise so critical for new mums and their long-term health? Anita Guerra explains.
Regular exercise has numerous health benefits, all of which apply equally to the new mother as at any other stage of life. These benefits include assistance with weight loss, increased aerobic fitness, social interaction and psychological wellbeing.
Exercise after giving birth can also hasten recovery and assist with muscle strength and toning. But more to the point: the right ‘Safe Return to Exercise program’ will also minimise complications for long-term health.
What are some of the benefits of exercise for postpartum women?
Research by ACOG shows that exercise has the following benefits for postpartum women:
- It helps strengthen and tone abdominal muscles.
- It boosts energy.
- It may help prevent postpartum depression.
- It promotes better sleep.
- It can help you lose the extra weight that you may have gained during pregnancy.
- Exercising after you have your baby can improve your physical and mental wellbeing.
- Helps restore muscle strength and firms up your body.
- Makes you less tired because it raises your energy level and improves your sense of wellbeing.
- Promotes weight loss.
- Improves your cardiovascular fitness and restores muscle strength.
- Improves your mood and relieves stress.
What about your pelvic floor post birth?
Participating in sport, running or other high-impact activities early after childbirth may actually reduce pelvic floor muscle strength and cause long-term bladder and bowel problems or pelvic organ prolapse. You can minimise the risk of these developing with some careful precautions.
How does returning to sport or exercise too soon after birth affect my pelvic floor muscles?
Have you heard of the boat theory? This is one way to help you think about the role that your pelvic floor muscles play in supporting your pelvic organs. Imagine that your pelvic floor is the water level, while your pelvic organs (your uterus, bladder and bowel) are the boat sitting on top of the water. The boat is attached by ropes (your supportive ligaments) to the jetty. Now, if the water level (i.e. your pelvic floor muscles) is normal, there is no tension on the ropes. However, after pregnancy and the birth of your baby, your pelvic floor muscles can be stretched, so the water level is lower and the ropes are under tension. Imagine if the water level stayed low for years. If your pelvic floor muscles do not strengthen again, your ropes (or supportive ligaments) can overstretch and weaken, increasing the risk of you developing a prolapse. This may occur soon after the birth, or in the years to come.
If your pelvic floor muscles are strengthened after the birth, there will be less risk of ongoing tension on the ligaments supporting your pelvic organs, and therefore less risk of developing a prolapse in the future. Imagine, however, what would happen if you added jumping, running or bouncing type of activities to a pelvic floor that was still stretched. This could further weaken your muscles and place extra tension on the supporting ligaments, increasing the likelihood of them becoming overstretched and weakened. This can result in your pelvic organs dropping down and a prolapse occurring. You may feel fine on the outside, but you are unable to see what is occurring on the inside. This is why some women may not notice a prolapse occurring until they return to exercise, unaware that there is the risk of this happening.
So, which exercises should I start with after giving birth?
Some of the best physical activities for your body don’t require the gym or ask you to get fit enough to run a marathon. We just want you to be safe post birth.
These “workouts” can do wonders for your health. They’ll help keep your weight under control, improve your balance and range of motion, strengthen your bones, protect your joints, prevent bladder control problems and even ward off memory loss.
No matter your age or fitness level, these activities are some of the best exercises you can do and will help you get in shape and lower your risk for disease and help prevent lifelong complications.
1. Strength training
If you believe that strength training is a macho, brawny activity, think again. Lifting light weights won’t bulk up your muscles, but it will keep them strong. “If you don’t use muscles, they will lose their strength over time,” Dr. Lee says.
Muscle also helps burn calories. “The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, so it’s easier to maintain your weight,” says Dr. Lee. Similar to other exercise, strength training may also help preserve brain function in later years.
Before starting a weight training program, be sure to learn the proper form. Start light and with a safe trainer like a Safe Return to Exercise Trainer.
You might call swimming the perfect workout. The buoyancy of the water supports your body and takes the strain off painful joints so you can move them more fluidly. “Swimming is good for individuals with arthritis because it’s less weight-bearing,” explains Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Research has found that swimming can also improve your mental state and put you in a better mood. Water aerobics is another option. These classes help you burn calories and tone up. Just what we need as mothers!
Walking is simple, yet powerful. It can help you stay trim, improve cholesterol levels, strengthen bones, keep blood pressure in check, lift your mood, and lower your risk for a number of diseases (diabetes and heart disease, for example). A number of studies have shown that walking and other physical activities can even improve memory and resist age-related memory loss.
All you need is a well-fitting and supportive pair of shoes. Start with walking for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Over time, you can start to walk farther and faster, until you’re walking for 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week.
4. Pelvic Floor exercises
These exercises won’t help you look better, but they do something just as important — strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder. Strong pelvic floor muscles can go a long way toward preventing incontinence. While many women are familiar with pelvic floor exercises, these exercises can benefit men too.
To do a pelvic floor exercise correctly, squeeze the muscles you would use to prevent yourself from passing urine or gas. Hold the contraction for two or three seconds, then release. Make sure to completely relax your pelvic floor muscles after the contraction. Repeat 10 times in a row 3 times a day. If you are totally unsure about your pelvic floor we highly recommend you see a Women’s Health Physio or a Body Beyond Baby trainer to make sure you are activating correctly to help strengthen properly from the inside out to prevent lifelong complications.
Many of the things we do for fun (and work) count as exercise. Raking the yard counts as physical activity. So does ballroom dancing and playing with your kids or grandkids. As long as you’re doing some form of aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, and you include two days of strength training a week, you can consider yourself an “active” person.
Creating time for postnatal exercise
When you’re caring for a newborn, finding time for physical activity can be challenging.
Some days you may simply feel too tired for a full workout but that doesn’t mean that you should put physical activity on the back burner. Do the best you can.
- Seek the support of your partner, family and friends. Exercise with a friend to stay motivated.
- Walking is a good way to get back in shape – all you need is a pair of comfortable shoes. It is free, and you can do it almost any place or time. You can also take your baby along.
- Include your baby, lying next to you on the floor, while you do abdominal and pelvic floor strength training exercises.
- Exercising 10 minutes at a time is fine. We know 150 minutes each week (as per National Physical Activity Guidelines) sounds like a lot of time, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Not only is it best to spread your activity out during the week, but you can break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself if your exercise plans go awry. Just do the best you can, and remember – you will get more time to yourself as your baby settles into a predictable routine.
- Tummy and pelvic floor exercises can be done while you’re doing other tasks, either sitting or standing. To help you remember, try performing the exercises whenever you do certain things, such as breastfeeding or driving the car.
- Walk your baby in the pram rather than use the car for short trips.
- Join a Safe Return to Exercise Training Group.
Keeping healthy habits over time isn’t easy—but it is worth it.
Once you push past the first few weeks of starting a new fitness program, you probably start to notice some changes in how you feel which is positive for long-term health.
You might feel challenged to stay motivated – changing up your workouts is a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle.
In addition to feeling energised and positive about your progress, regular physical activity is shown to provide a bundle of physical benefits:
Overall health improves with exercise
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says ongoing exercise can help:
- Control weight
- Reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and some cancers
- Strengthen bones and muscles
- Improve mental health and mood
- Improve your ability to do daily activities and prevent falls
- Increase your chances of living longer
Exercise can make a positive impact on aging
Harvard Medical School compares the effects of aging with the effects of exercise – and demonstrates that exercise can influence how you’re quickly your body grows older. For example, with age:
- Resting heart rate increases – exercise can help decrease resting heart rate.
- The speed at which intestines empty decreases – exercise can help increase speed.
- Metabolic rate decreases – exercise can help increase metabolism.
- Body fat increases – exercise can help decrease body fat.
- The risk of depression increases – exercise can help decrease this risk.
Consistency is key
To realise the benefits of exercise, it’s critical that you participate in physical activity regularly. For example, running five miles on one day and then skipping workouts for the next two weeks doesn’t work that well. Exercising sporadically can decrease motivation, decrease endurance and increase injury.
However, “consistent workouts” does not mean that you must work out every day – it’s important to build rest days into your fitness program. Does it really matter if you work out three days in a row, rather than spread activity across the week? Yes.
There’s no doubt exercise is good for you, but the degree of benefits varies.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans are based on years of scientific research, which shows that the longer, harder and more often you exercise, the greater the health benefits.
Scientific American examines common claims about the benefits of exercise and says that family history and other factors can also play a role in how fitness can have an impact on your overall health.
To get started on your safe return to exercise journey, find a trainer close to you by clicking here.
Anita Guerra is a Registered Midwife and Certified Fitness Trainer. She runs Fit For 2 in South Morang, Victoria. To find out more about her and get in touch, click here.
You can also find her on Instagram.
Pelvic Floor First – Returning to sport or exercise after birth.