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Health

The Postnatal Diaries 4: How and when to exercise safely after birth

September 23rd 2018 / Susannah Taylor / 0 comment

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Susannah Taylor got seriously fit before baby No.3, but is taking expert advice before she throws herself back into the gym. Plus her results so far after ten weeks on the Louise Parker body plan

The idea of ‘pinging back’ into shape post-pregnancy is a ridiculous one. Some people can fit right back into their 26-inch J Brands within four weeks, granted, but for the rest of us it can be a long haul. I’m not obese by any means, but it’s six months post-Willow’s birth and I’m not fitting back into my old jeans yet despite having lost 9lbs so far in almost three months on the Louise Parker plan (see below). Am I concerned? Absolutely not – with each baby it took more than a year to get back to the old me.

It is also a crazy idea that after growing a baby, plus a new organ (the placenta), we think we can go right back to the gym and pick up where we left off. If you think about it, all our organs are squished into new places for nine months, our stomach muscles split right down the middle to leave space for the ever-growing bump and our pelvic bones shift. We then achieve the near-impossible task of pushing a baby out into the world from a space that really doesn’t look big enough and needs a tonne of stitches, while many women have C-sections which means undergoing full abdominal surgery.

I kept fit in pregnancy this time (my third) with a prenatal exercise regime and lots of yoga, but I still felt pretty broken post-birth. Willow’s arrival was incredibly fast (three hours from the first contraction) and I almost felt like I’d split in two. I remember going for a very gentle swim a few weeks after giving birth – it was a very odd feeling not knowing whether your body could function normally.

My clothes are fitting better and even my knickers aren’t digging in anymore

The NHS guidelines for exercising post-C-section and vaginal delivery are to wait until six weeks, but depending on birth complications and your general health, it is best to listen to your body and not run before you can walk (literally). My advice is to start verrrry slowly as the chance of injury is high when your muscles aren’t as strong as they were and everything’s been shifted out of alignment. Even exercise addicts need to give their body the break it needs to heal.

So what is safe exercise and when should you start? I spoke to Pilates teacher Chloe Hodgson, who has two young children herself – and an incredible set of washboard abs.

Weeks 1 – 2: mobility, stretching and pelvic floors

Whether you’ve had a natural birth or Caesarean, Chloe recommends not pushing yourself too hard too soon, but at the same time she says, “I would never promote doing nothing.”

We aren’t talking weights and lunges here. Post-birth everything can start to seize up a bit, so Chloe recommends gentle movements. “Even if it’s lying in bed doing spinal twists, gentle stretches, cat stretches or a bit of walking, the first few weeks are about keeping mobile and stretching rather than strength. It’s really important to take it slowly and not push yourself at this stage as your body needs to heal,” she warns.

How to do pelvic floor exercises properly

Chloe (who has also had two Caesareans) recommends no exercise at all for a few days post-birth, which will allow your body to settle and you to spend time with your baby. However, within the first two weeks, she suggested starting your pelvic floor exercises, which are the most important exercise you will do after birth as they basically keep your insides up. A weak pelvic floor can lead to prolapse now or later in life. If you are worried about this, speak to your GP.

Chloe explains that we have two different types of fibres in our pelvic floor muscles – fast twitch and slow twitch which require two different types of exercise. She suggests the following daily:

• Squeeze your pelvic floor by imagining you are picking something small up from the floor like a bean. Hold for ten seconds and repeat three times.

• Next, squeeze your pelvic floor for a second and let go. Repeat like a pump ten times and repeat three times.

• Repeat the whole sequence three times a day EVERY DAMN DAY.

Tips to perfect your pelvic floor technique

Don’t just imagine you are drawing up your vagina, but your back passage too. This doesn’t mean your glutes - you should not be clenching the cheeks of your bottom or the backs of your thighs. We are talking about your internal workings here.

Chloe suggests using a visualisation which can also double up as a calming meditation to quell the stress of new motherhood, “Breath into the back and sides of your ribs, then as you are blowing out, imagine you are blowing up a balloon with your mouth. As you breathe out squeeze your pelvic floor up imagining you are picking a chickpea up from the floor.”

If you can’t remember to do the exercises three times a day Chloe suggests having a trigger throughout the day that will remind you to do them, for example, every time you stop at traffic lights or every time you boil the kettle.

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Weeks 2 – 4: power walking and pelvic tilts – but strictly no abs

As your body starts to heal a little, Chloe says you can turn your walk into a faster power walk. It’s important however to be mindful as to how you walk, whether your baby is in a buggy or strapped to you in a papoose.

“You must walk with purpose,” says Chloe. “Pull your belly back to your spine, make sure the papoose is tight (it mustn’t hang off your shoulders as this can cause back problems), retract your shoulder blades by pulling them back and down, walk tall and squeeze your glutes.” All this will be helping to make you strong again and prevent injury.

Time to add in ‘pelvic tilts’ to your pelvic floor routine

Chloe also suggests introducing ‘pelvic tilt’ exercises after your pelvic floors every day to keep your lumbar spine lengthened and to engage your deep stabilising muscles:

Inhale, then as you exhale draw your pelvic floor up and tilt your pelvis towards your belly button. This will boost the transverse abdominis muscles that wrap around your body and your abs too.

Chloe also explains that most women’s stomach muscles separate and until they knit back together ab exercises like crunches are out of the question.

Weeks 4 – 8: the occasional run plus stretching and Pilates

As you start to feel a bit stronger it’s important you don’t go headlong back into HIIT classes as you will be at high risk of injury (no matter how strong you thought you were before). However, Chloe suggests continuing with daily cat stretches, Superman exercises, and clam shells which will strengthen glutes. “Everything will need to be reactivated,” she says.

If you are up to it, Chloe then suggests you can turn your power walk into an occasional run. “During your walk, start to run for a few minutes and build it up every time you walk.”

“At six weeks you can then do a Pilates class,” she says, “because it will focus on deep local stabilising muscles and will never injure you. Once activated you can then bring in other gym exercises slowly."

2 exercises to relieve breastfeeding backache

If you have ever breastfed, you will know what a toll it can take on your back and neck, especially if you slump over when you do it (which you will as you want to see if your baby is feeding correctly). Chloe has some exercises that retract shoulder blades together to strengthen your back and release tension:

Exercise 1 “Standing, place your arms at right angles, palms up as if you are holding a tray with your elbows tucked into the sides of your waist. Your crown should be to the sky. Squeeze shoulder blades for 5 seconds and release. Repeat 10 times.”

Exercise 2 “Standing, take a resistance band and hold the ends in each hand. Stretch your arms out straight in front of you and pull the band open across your chest so that straight arms are stretched wide. Retract as you squeeze between the should blades. Repeat 10 times.”

Week 10 of the Louise Parker Plan

Ten weeks ago I committed myself to the Louise Parker food and fitness plan in a bid to feel a bit like myself again and a desire to fit back into my jeans. Well, the former is happening even if the latter isn’t.

It’s been a challenge, to say the least, during the UK’s only heatwave since about 1976. During the summer, the rose’s been on ice most days as I’m sure it has with many of you. I’m all about balance, which means I might drink wine but then I won’t have pizza as well. Or I might have pasta but I’ll go for a run, which I did about five times in the 28-degree heat at 8am on holiday in Italy! Crazy, I know, but I highly recommend exercising on holiday because it makes you feel much better about indulging when you do. I ate a lot of mozzarella salads and tuna steaks and only had the incredible gelato on the last day (three scoops of it).

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After that, we went on a motorhome trip to Cornwall, where we were stuck in a field 20 miles from any supermarket. It was bliss, but there was often no other food option than pizza or a Cornish pasty (and you can’t just get in a motorhome once you have parked up and drive somewhere). However, I did paddleboard to the next bay in my rather snug wetsuit and my buddy Viv and I did a HIIT workout in the field one afternoon, which made me feel a little more Louise Parker-like. We were pleased to get home and eat some vegetables and have a bath.

Despite the crazy summer, I have tried to stick to Louise Parker’s recommended snacks (often nut butter and an apple), have eaten protein where possible (lots of eggs for breakfast) and as many vegetables as I can (despite the Cornish blip). So far, wait for it…. I have lost 9lbs which I don’t think is too bad considering. My clothes are fitting better and even my knickers aren’t digging in anymore. I could have possibly tried a bit harder but in my last maternity leave ever, I didn’t want to put too much pressure or be too strict with myself.

Next time on the Postnatal Diaries, I’ll discuss the 20 things I’ve learnt from the Louise Parker Plan.

For information see louiseparker.com. Follow Susannah on Instagram.

Missed Susannah's previous Postnatal Diaries? Catch up with them here.

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