Athletes returning to physical activity after giving birth often contend with a strong desire to regain fitness and form. Coined the fourth trimester, this period of time — from birth up to about 12 weeks — involves a myriad of changes that include physical and psychological adaptations. Interrupted sleep and breastfeeding contribute to adjustment for this new, albeit temporary, normal.
Fortunately, research demonstrates that continuing or resuming physical activity is not only safe for new moms but is also beneficial. Postpartum physical activity can enhance mood and reduce depression and anxiety. It can improve cardiorespiratory fitness and promote weight loss. It might even enhance the quality and quantity of a mother’s milk supply.
In a quest to chase post-pregnancy fitness, it is helpful to contemplate individual goals, recognize limitations, and choose a path that is comfortable and deliberate. The data is favorable, so with a doctor’s clearance, getting back at it can happen sooner than later.
Here are answers to three big questions athletic moms may have now that their new family member has arrived.
Is it OK to Exercise Right Away?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women get 150 minutes of physical activity every week after childbirth. “You can divide the 150 minutes into 30-minute workouts on 5 days of the week or into smaller 10-minute sessions throughout each day. For example, you could go for three 10-minute walks each day.”
For women who were already training and maintained some level of fitness, ACOG guidelines state, “A vigorous-intensity activity is one in which it is hard to talk without pausing for breath. If you followed a vigorous-intensity exercise program before pregnancy, it may be possible to return to your regular workouts soon after the baby is born. Be sure to get your health care professional’s approval.”
The flip side is that not every woman will feel up to jumping right back into a training regimen. Nancy Charlebois, a Physical Therapist with over 25 years of experience working with postpartum women, suggests new moms make an effort to ignore societal pressure and listen to their own instincts. “I advise women to do 50% of what they think they can do in the first few weeks. You should feel good all of the time.” There are a lot of physical adaptations happening as a woman’s body shifts from carrying a child to breastfeeding and recovery from birth. These can include instability and weakness. “Keep a journal and note what activity you do, how you felt, and how you feel the next day. That way, you can ensure you aren’t doing too much,” says Nancy.
Should You See a Pelvic Floor Specialist/Physical Therapist?
Seeing a PT who specializes in postpartum recovery is a good idea. Nancy acknowledges that many changes occur during pregnancy to accommodate a growing fetus. Giving birth, while a natural process, can result in a shift in postural balance. Athletes, being in tune with their movement patterns, can often tell when something is off and will detect weakness or dysfunction. Many PTs can diagnose these early on and some even offer home health visits during the first weeks after birth.
Nancy explains that “it isn’t always a weakness in the pelvic floor. Sometimes there is an imbalance somewhere else that is contributing.” Checking in with postural awareness in each sport and noting weak and strong areas will help athletes rebuild safely. “You don’t have to just live with urine leakage and pain.” As always, any unusual pain, heaviness or pressure, or discomfort should also be shared with a physician.
What About Breastfeeding?
The World Health Organization recommends women breastfeed for at least 6 months and data suggests this isn’t a problem for athletes looking to get back into training. A study of long-distance runners found that many modified their behavior during breastfeeding; but of those who ran competitively prior to pregnancy, most reported that running had no effect on their ability to breastfeed.
A 2014 article review entitled “Summary of International Guidelines for Physical Activity After Pregnancy” contemplated data from numerous countries and determined that there were no negative consequences of moderate physical activity on breastfeeding given appropriate food and fluid intake. Also, there was no effect on the composition of breast milk. Canadian guidelines suggest that if babies don’t feed well after maternal exercise, moms should “feed their baby before exercise, postpone feeding until one hour after exercise, or express milk before exercise to use after.”
Experts and most experienced moms know that breastfeeding athletes should invest in a well-fitted sports bra that offers support versus extreme compression. This can provide more comfort overall. Using a breast pump before exercise can also assist in alleviating discomfort. The first few weeks can be a bit of a trial period, but soon a pattern will emerge and athletes can adapt to their baby’s feeding schedule.
As many mom-athletes are demonstrating on the national and international stage, having a child is just the beginning of a new adventure. You can be strong, fast, and feel great. Lay a foundation in the early postpartum weeks, be patient, and go chase goals and have fun!
Bø, K. et al. (2017, June 22). Exercise and pregnancy in recreational and elite athletes: 2016/17 evidence summary from the IOC Expert Group Meeting, Lausanne. Part 3-exercise in the postpartum period. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28642221/
Evenson, K.R. et al. (2014, July). Summary of International Guidelines for Physical Activity Following Pregnancy. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4134098/
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2019, July). Exercise After Pregnancy. Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/exercise-after-pregnancy#:~:text=If%20you%20had%20a%20healthy,soon%20as%20you%20feel%20ready