Navigating Post-Natal Fitness: A Step by Step Guide

Well, you did it. You pushed a little human out of your ladyparts. Or, maybe they handed you your bundle of joy after cutting through your abdomen. But either way, you are a rockstar. You have fought the good fight, and regardless of how it all went down, you, Mama, are a hero. You are an active participant in the miracle of life, and that is no small task. If you are like me, sometimes you are amazed by all of it, and other times you are just plain exhausted and wonder when, oh when, will you ever feel like yourself again?! Just as every birth story is different, just as every baby is different, just as every postnatal mama is different, the answer to that question is as unique to you as your fingerprints. Let me tell you – even though it’s now been a year since I became a mom, I still feel sometimes like I’m shouting my questions into a deep, echoing abyss: “When will I fit into my old clothes?” “When will I feel strong again?” “When will my hormones settle the F*&! down?”

The reality is no one can answer those questions – mainly because everyone is different. There is no concrete answer, and our differences should be celebrated and welcomed.  But let me be very candid: there is just not enough research or credible information for women to fall back on. I have taken a very proactive approach to my own postnatal recovery and have been disappointed time and again by the lack of readily available, easy to read, science-based information regarding the stages of postnatal recovery. There are so many factors that play into a woman’s unique experience: hormonal changes, psychological changes, changes to pelvic structure, differences in center of gravity and balance, differences in strength and laxity of muscles, whether or not she is breastfeeding, genetics… the list goes on. Due to the lack of research driven information, we must get most of our knowledge and reassurance by sharing experiences with other women – a profoundly important practice, but also problematic. In doing so, we engage in comparison and feelings of “I’m not where I am supposed to be, what’s wrong with me?” Furthermore, many women don’t feel comfortable sharing or talking about their most vulnerable concerns (Give me a woot woot if you’ve peed your pants!), and so that deep, echoing abyss persists. We are still in the dark.

I will be the first to say that I am no researcher – I do not claim to have all of the answers. But what I do claim to be is persistent, inquisitive, and an active participant in my own recovery. I don’t know if what I write in this article will work for you. But by sharing what has worked for me, maybe I can shine a little light into the darkness for someone who just doesn’t know where to start or where to go from here. Herewith are the stages of postnatal fitness as I’ve experienced them.

Stage One: The Clean Slate

Most of us do not have clearance to exercise until at least 6 weeks after giving birth. But during that time you can still prepare your body for what’s to come. Carrying a baby wreaks havoc on one’s posture, and doing some simple posture exercises every day will help you rebalance and realign. Start reminding your neuromuscular system where neutral is. Neutral is the term I use to refer to proper posture and alignment – think about these things: feet evenly weighted, knees aiming over second and third toe and not locked, pelvis balanced so that your two hips are level, lower back lengthened so tail bone is pointing straight to the floor and hips are directly above pubic bone, lower abdominals pulling in and up, ribs directly over hips, shoulders also over hips, collarbone wide and long, and ears directly over shoulders.  I used to practice this as I stood in the shower, or in front of a mirror. And for good measure, use your breath – a long exhale – to try and pull your abdominal wall to your spine. Waking up your core strength and shifting things back into place will change how you look and feel immediately.

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Stage Two: Walk it Out

Somewhere around the 3 or 4 week mark I started walking. It wasn’t long or far at first, but it was a start. I began with my street, then my block, then my neighborhood.  Eventually I started walking stairs with a baby attached. Bonus points if you do your posture exercises while you walk.

This is also a good time to have a physical therapist or trained postnatal exercise specialist examine you for diastasis recti. (Not sure what that is? Read this. If you do in fact have diastasis recti, I recommend looking into the Tupler Technique, or adding sessions with a trained physical therapist or Pilates instructor to your arsenal.stairs

Stage Three: Get ‘er Done

Once I received the clearance to exercise at 6 weeks, I had to get creative with how I was going to make it happen. My husband was back to work, I don’t live near family, and I don’t have a nanny. Furthermore, my baby was still so little and I was breastfeeding, making it tough to leave her with someone (plus, who wants to pay a babysitter every day just to get to the gym?). But mama needed to move. So I thought outside of the box. When my husband was home, we would do partner workouts with the stroller at the park: one of us would push the stroller while the other one sprinted ahead on the path for 30 seconds. After the 30 second sprint, we would do a bodyweight exercise (like pushups, burpees, mountain climbers, or jump squats to name a few) until the stroller-pusher caught up. We would trade places, and go for 8-12 rounds. Just like that, BAM, you have an interval workout.  When hubby was off at work, I would create an interval workout for myself in our garage or basement while little one napped. I downloaded an interval timer app to my phone (I use the free version of Seconds), and invested in some small, affordable equipment. I have a TRX, a ViPR, a jump rope, a body bar, bands, a pull up bar, a Pilates ring, a balance trainer and a stability ball – those plus a couple fitness DVDs, bodyweight exercises and sprints down the driveway (thank god for the baby monitor!) were enough to keep me going for a good few months until I was able to get to the gym.

stroller

Stage Four: Rev Up and Repair

About 7 months into my postnatal fitness adventure, I really tried to up the ante. I pushed myself hard, tired of carrying around a few extra pounds. I started getting impatient, frustrated and overall pretty bitter. Yep, I will admit it… now. I was kind of a bear. But despite my efforts, my body was not having it. I was still breastfeeding, and as soon as I started pushing myself to lose more weight, my milk supply plummeted and my weight plateaued. Well, the anxiety over my rapidly decreasing supply was enough to make me stop exercising altogether. And wouldn’t you know it? I started losing weight again, without much effort at all.

Now, I am not saying you should stop exercising. What I am saying is stop PREOCCUPYING. Don’t spend all your time beating yourself up – I truly believe that when we do, our bodies stop cooperating. Take a step back and just start observing your body’s natural process. For me, I looked back and realized that at the three month mark I had a huge hormone shift (read: my hair started falling out, I was weepy and weary, I could lose my temper in an instant, and my face broke out), and simultaneously, my body shed a few pounds. The same happened at 6 months when my period returned (yep, even though I was still breastfeeding. Got the short end of that stick, didn’t I?), and again at 9 months… for me. It won’t happen this way for everyone.hike

Stage Five: Save the Va-Jay-Jay

It was around 11 months that I started doing some extra research into pelvic floor rehabilitation. I was tired of leaking when I jumped or sprinted, and was not content to live that way for the rest of my life. I want to be able to jump on a trampoline with my kids – mama has a mean forward flip! Anyway, I had read a bit about pelvic floor disorders on the Katy Says blog, but when I found this article I was convinced I wanted to get checked out. After a few phone calls I found out that my insurance would cover sessions with a specialized pelvic floor physical therapist. LADIES, BELIEVE ME WHEN I TELL YOU: this is something every Mom should investigate. I wish I had gone BEFORE I had my baby, because it probably would have made my labor much easier. And here’s a mind blowing fact: KEGELS AREN’T FOR EVERYONE, myself included. It turns out some people’s pelvic floors are too tight – which ALSO causes leakage. But the only way to know for sure is to get checked out. It’s not intimidating or awkward- no worse than being at the OBGYN. And it turns out some conditions are pretty easy to fix. For me, my path to rehabilitation meant more yoga, more stretching, more relaxing…. now THAT is a prescription I can get behind. Do it, I promise you will be thankful you did. Special thanks to Pelvic Therapy Specialists in Boulder, CO.

Stage Six: Call in the experts

Everyone needs a jumpstart every once in a while. At 11 months postpartum, I started working out with a personal trainer, and it was around the same time that I started weaning my daughter. Strength training at this point felt so darn good – I was doing cleans and pullups and deadlifts… now let me back track a moment. I am a Pilates instructor. Heavy lifting is NOT in my wheelhouse. I do it, and I like it, but it does not come natural to me. I will probably always look like a dancer trying to lift an elephant over her head. But without a doubt, strength training during yet another hormonal shift yielded the most results when it came to changing my body’s overall shape. After just ten sessions, I was seeing the contours of my body start to return, and I felt strong, capable and confident. I couldn’t have done that alone though. I needed a coach, someone who told me “You are a warrior now, you have had a baby. You can do anything,” and gently pushed me when I wanted to give up.

An important disclaimer: be sure to request a trainer that is familiar with postnatal clients. There are still hormones affecting your muscle strength, control and laxity when you are breastfeeding, and for a while after you wean. Care should be taken to avoid injury.

And now, at 13 months post-delivery and with breastfeeding behind me, I have consulted with a nutritionist and decided to challenge myself with a four week clean eating program. I have paid attention to every other aspect of regaining my health and fitness except this. Now it is time to cut out the extra “I’m-breastfeeding-so-I-can-eat-whatever-I-want!” calories. And I think the timing is just right, because my body is responding.

The journey to your best postnatal self is not cut and dry. It isn’t one size fits all, and it isn’t predictable. You probably won’t lose weight consistently, you probably won’t feel “normal” immediately after exercising and you probably will have unforeseen challenges. But I’m here to tell you that if you take your time, work with YOUR body, try not to compare yourself to others, get creative and ask for help when you need it, you will be able to meet your goals. When you feel you have plateaued, change it up or try something new, just don’t give up. You will feel comfortable and confident in your body again – you are a Mama Warrior, after all.

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Cheers to the post-baby body!

This week, I posted something on Facebook that clearly resonated with a lot of mamas. It wasn’t my intention to strike a chord, but I guess I did, and I couldn’t be happier. Here’s what I wrote:

“I have decided I really dislike the phrase ‘get your pre-baby body back.’  Partly because my body is different now, plain and simple. But mostly because a post-baby body can be pretty amazing too. What no one tells you is this: after giving birth, it’s like you have a required rest period and then a blank slate. You have a fresh start to make your body what you want it to be. Never in my life have I been able to do pull-ups, and now after working with some amazing trainers, I am *thisclose* to being able to do them unassisted. So do I have my pre-baby body back? Nope. But look at what my post-baby body can do!”

Eighteen months ago, when I was in the throws of pregnancy, I never could have imagined how I would look or feel at this point, almost one year exactly after giving birth. Looking back, this is what I would say to my pregnant self:

1)  Stop worrying. Easier said than done, of course. It’s hard to relinquish control over what is happening to your body as it grows to accommodate human life. But you need to take a deep breath and let go. Let go of your self-judgment. Let go of your comparison. Let go of your need to control your body. As long as you are making healthy choices, eating smart, and still moving, you will be fine. In the meantime, you must allow your body to do what it needs to do for your little one. If that means gaining 50 pounds- the healthy way- then so be it.

2) Let go of expectations.  And while you are at it, let go of timelines. You have not yet met your post-natal self, just as you haven’t yet met your baby. Becoming a mom will change you, and it will change your body. But how you change is not just chance. Part of it is up to you. Cross that bridge when you get there. For now, respect the wisdom of your body. It knows what it is doing.

3) Set yourself up for success. Start practicing now for an easier recovery later. Keep your body strong. Work on proper posture. Use your breath to strengthen your deep abdominals by pulling the baby to your spine with each exhale. Keep reminding your neuromuscular system how to hold yourself in space. Eat healthy food and avoid excess sugars. These things alone will jump start your postnatal routine.

4) It will all be ok. Sure, you will probably have to work to meet your goals. Sure, it could take a year before your feel like some semblance of yourself again. But you know what? You won’t be worried about it as much as you are now. You will have something (someone) else that will occupy your thoughts, heart and emotional space more than anything else you’ve ever experienced. Meanwhile, you will be on the downhill slope as pounds drop when you aren’t even looking. Take a deep breath. It’s not that bad, I promise. Before you know it, you’ll be doing pull-ups.

 

 

A Letter to Maria Kang

Dear Maria,

I’ve seen your “What’s Your Excuse?” photo all over the news and facebook today, and it got me thinking. A lot. So, I’ve decided to get some things off my chest. What good is a blog if you can’t air your thoughts, right? Well, I’m here to weigh in (terrible puns aside).

First, CONGRATULATIONS! Getting back in shape after having a kid is NO JOKE. I am learning this now. I too am a 32-year-old fitness professional, and I am 6 months postpartum. For one, witnessing our bodies go through unprecedented changes to spawn a child and then experiencing the recovery process is equally humbling, fascinating and awe-inspiring. Couple these crazy changes in our physical bodies with a crazy lack of sleep and free time and I commend ANYONE and EVERYONE who is able to fit in a workout – six pack or not. But the fact that you do, in fact, have amazing abs after three kids is fantastic. I know how hard you’ve worked to get there.

Now here’s where it get’s a little dicey for me. When I first saw your No Excuses photo, these are the thoughts that immediately went through my head:

1) Wow, she looks great.

2) Wait, how old is her youngest?!

3) WAIT, why is she doing the Sexy Straddle over that child…

4) “What’s your excuse….” {UGH. CUE MOMMY GUILT.}

5) I’m only six months out. Still have 2 more months to look like that. {CUE UNHEALTHY COMPARISON.}

6) Why am I feeling GUILTY? Good lord, I’m sore from my last workout and I’m already planning how to get one in today.

7) Actually, on second thought, I’m not really making excuses. I AM making time. I AM getting healthy. I AM losing weight. I’ve lost almost 3/4 of the baby weight already!

8) But still, I don’t look like this yet…..

9) I wonder if she’s nursing?

10) I wonder if she works full time?

11) She probably doesn’t eat. Yeah, they said she used to be bulimic. She probably doesn’t eat.

12) I wonder how long she works out each day? What does she do with three kids while she works out?

13) Is this a professional photo? Yep. Definitely photoshopped. She’s prolly a model anyway.

14) Well. She probably just has a… (insert appropriate superlative here)… life than me.

15) For the love of God,  I’m now LOOKING for excuses why I don’t look this way!?! I’m one of the full-time-working, no-sleep-getting, boobs-out-ALL-THE-TIME-moms that IS ACTUALLY WORKING OUT CONSISTENTLY!!!!

16) ….Was this meant to be inspirational?

So, as you can see, that tagline really got to me. I imagine this train of thoughts is not that far off from what a lot of other moms felt when they read “What’s Your Excuse?” – even if they aren’t making any.

But, I was nothing if I wasn’t intrigued. So I went to your facebook page. I went to your website. And what I found really, actually, inspired me.

I found your fitness evolution page, and learned that you aren’t all that different from me: A fitness enthusiast who, despite continual exercise through pregnancy, still gained 35 pounds (for me it was more like 38, but who’s counting). A wife. A mom. A woman with a social conscience. A blogger who tries to keep it somewhat honest and real.  I found your FAQs page and realized you, too, had struggled with breastfeeding. You actually have stretch marks. You also have the confidence to post photos of what you looked like right after giving birth, muffin top and all. And you sometimes still indulge in a donut.

These are the facts that inspire me. It’s not your photoshopped photo. It’s certainly not the “What’s Your Excuse?” tagline. It’s not the hot-mom status that you’ve been granted – in fact the same media that crowned you queen of the MILFs is also the media that has plastered your No Excuses photo everywhere, taking it out of context, offering you up for dissection by people who are sitting on their couches, more comfortable judging others than finding out the truth.

But I want to ask you a favor. Please, can we maybe alter that motto a little? I get it, I do. I understand your well-intentioned point. But here’s the deal: the last thing any of us mommies need is a second helping of guilt or shame. What we desperately need is a dose of encouragement and truth. Like I said in an earlier post:

There are too many people giving too much advice and too many women feeling too badly about themselves.

Please, for God’s sake, let’s support one another. We are all passionate about our children. We all want the best for them. We are all doing our best for them. Our choices may be different, but our motivation is the same. What works for one will not work for another. Please, be forgiving of yourselves. Please, be compassionate to others. Please, stop telling each other they aren’t doing it right. All we can do is all we can do.

If all of us, as mamas, come together and support one another, think of the mountains we could move. The choices you make aside—formula or breastfeeding, cereal or vegetables, cloth or disposable, daycare or stay-at-home—our children look to us to lay the groundwork for their perspective on the world. We directly have the power to make a cultural shift. If we begin by tearing others down, what example are we setting? Let’s welcome everyone to the table.

I’m ready to change the dialogue. I’m ready to help women realize that every body is different. When we focus on the perfect, idealized end result, we fail to recognize the truth: the fact that you woke up at 5am to work out despite the fact that your little one woke you every hour before that. The fact that your skinny jeans still didn’t button until four or five (or more?) months out. The fact that last night you were just too damn tired, and you decided you could only muster ten pushups on the living room floor and called it a workout. And yet tomorrow is another day. Fitness – especially as a mom – is a journey. One that is not consistent, nor always progressing. Sometimes there are setbacks and sometimes there are plateaus. No two people are exactly alike. But we can all strive for and achieve our best versions of ourselves.THIS is the truth. And yes, THIS is the inspiration.

I’m starting today, by posting pictures of my 6 month postpartum body. I took these in my hallway this morning. I hadn’t shaved my legs. I hadn’t even showered. The photos sure as hell are not photoshopped. But, this is my truth.  This is where I am, today. I don’t have any excuses. And I have a few more pounds to lose before I’ll be comfortable. It might take me 10 months, a year, or even longer to get my body where I want it. But it will happen.

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A Before Photo – our honeymoon

pregnancy

37-38 weeks pregnant

6months

6months2 6months3 6 months postpartum

I am guessing, based on what I read on your facebook page and website, that you actually are a pretty inspiring person. And that you got the short end of the stick with all the negative comments you are getting. I’m sorry – haters will hate. I hope they do a little more research and look you up before they dismiss you. And yet, I hope you will join me in changing the message we are sending to moms everywhere. Instead of focusing on what they aren’t doing right, let’s focus on ways to help them do what they can. It’s not enough to say “I did it, so can you!” As fitness professionals, we need to show them how. Let’s be honest. Let’s give our vulnerabilites and our weaknesses as much air time as our victories. Let’s be REAL PEOPLE. And let’s celebrate the journey. Crossing the finish line is so much sweeter when you can look back at how far you’ve come.

Thank you for sparking this dialogue, and blessings to you and your beautiful family.

In health,

Saralyn