Athlete and postnatal fitness expert Shakira Akabusi shares her tips on how to approach exercise after you’ve had a baby
I’d always been aware that the information available on pre- and postnatal health was lacking, but it wasn’t until I had my son that I realised how limited it really was. According to findings from the Register of Exercise Professionals, only five-and-a-half per cent of fitness professionals are qualified in pre- and postnatal training, and it’s even more difficult to find those who have updated these qualifications in the last five years. It’s no wonder new mothers are confused about how and when to start exercising. These are my five need-to-know pointers on postnatal fitness:
Exercise and breastfeeding
To date, there has been no scientific evidence to suggest that exercise negatively affects breast milk supply, in fact regular exercise has proven to not only improve blood lipid profiles and insulin response (both vital for good health), but also reduce stress levels and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety in new mothers. However, it’s important to note that after high-intensity exercise the content of your breast milk may be altered with increased lactic acid build up, although the effects are only short term and will replenish within 90 minutes or so.
On the other hand, breastfeeding can impact our workout routines. The hormone relaxin is produced from around two weeks into pregnancy, right up until five months postpartum and longer for breastfeeding women. Relaxin softens the ligaments to prepare your body for labour, but causes instability of the joints, so it’s vital to work within a comfortable range of motion, particularly when weightlifting and stretching.
My tips for breastfeeding mums
Express and go: If you’re still concerned about the content of your breast milk you may wish to express prior to exercise or schedule a workout after a feed. Also remember to wipe down your breasts as sweat may cling to your skin, making the taste unknown to baby.
Bring in support: If you’re serious about exercise then now is the time to invest in a good sports bra, especially when you begin high-intensity exercises such as jogging.
Stay hydrated: Breast milk contains a high level of water (about 87 per cent) and as such, a mother’s fluid intake is crucial. Always replenish your water stores prior, during and post-exercise.
Reconnecting with your core
Pregnancy and labour can take its toll on your body and for the first few weeks postpartum you want to make sure you give yourself time to recover. I would always advise waiting until your six-week check before committing to a fitness programme, but something you can start on right away is your pelvic floor. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends that if pregnancy and delivery are uncomplicated, a mild exercise programme of walking and pelvic floor exercises may begin immediately. You should work on your pelvic floor throughout your pregnancy, too, as this has been shown to reduce the risk of incontinence.
How to work it correctly
You may wish to begin working on your pelvic floor lying down, building up to a seated and, finally, a standing position. As you begin to develop strength, you can squeeze stronger and for longer. Try to do this approximately three to five times a day for five minutes. In order to test the strength of your pelvic floor muscles, you should be able to stop your urine midstream, however this should only be done occasionally. Continuing with these exercises throughout your life is crucial. These muscles support and stabilise your core, which is the basis for all future abdominal work.
Creating a workout routine that works alongside your new life as a mum should be gradual, making it sustainable and healthy rather than a quick fix. Your body has gone through a dramatic change and your hormones need time to level out.
Alongside pelvic floor exercises, walking is a great way to begin exercising before your six-week check. Then focus on low-impact exercises to mobilise the body, as it can help to reduce the amount of pressure on your ligaments and joints.
If you’re lucky enough to have time to hit the gym, the cross trainer is great machine to slowly raise your heart rate, and swimming is another great alternative.
Diastasis Recti repair
It is imperative to check for Diastasis Recti (separation of the abdominals) before training.
Once you’ve consulted a professional and been given the go-ahead, heel raises and heel slides can be performed by lying on your back on the floor at home.Over time you can progress these exercises to include squats where the core continues to be challenged, gradually increasing the intensity.
Having a workout partner has proven to help sustain a fitness programme, so if you can, buddy up with other new mothers or a friend. And when it comes to staying motivated my biggest tip is to avoid boredom. Trying different forms of exercise such as jogging, swimming, resistance training or dancing is a brilliant way to get your body moving. However, as we all know, new motherhood means it’s not always possible to find time for yourself outside of the house, so get creative with at-home exercise instead.
For example, a kitchen chair, bench or garden stoop are great places for a few decline press-ups, tricep dips or step-ups. I also remember filling my washing basket with shoes and tin cans to use as a weight. Another favourite of mine is using a five-litre bottle of water as a dumbbell – which is equivalent to five kilograms – great for tricep extensions, lateral raises and shoulder presses! There are also plenty of exercises you can do with your little one. I often work out with my son, making fitness a fun game for him while I still get the work completed.
Most importantly, try not to be too strict about your workout routines. Children are unpredictable so if you need to skip exercise one day, just try again tomorrow. The greatest tip to a sustainable fitness programme is to enjoy the process.