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Rediscovering Your Strength: Navigating Physical Fitness During and After Pregnancy


When I was newly postpartum after having my twins, my body didn’t feel like my own. I was exhausted, I was full of milk, and I could barely sit up in bed without help. I went back to the gym as soon as I felt able to, but with no guidance from my doctors, midwives or other medical professionals. I tried to do everything I’d done before having kids: running, lifting, doing squats, you name it. And not too long after, I injured my hip and had to quit my gym and start from zero.


Our bodies go through a LOT to grow our babies: our joints become looser, our center of gravity shifts, our organs are moved around. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that my fitness and exercise programs would need to change in order to accommodate these ongoing body changes. All too often, however, pregnant people aren’t given the information that they need in order to exercise safely and effectively. Myths about what pregnant people should or shouldn’t do while pregnant and postpartum abound: Exercise is dangerous! Don’t lift any weights! Don’t do crunches! Don’t go upside down!


The reality is that there are plenty of safe exercises you can do to stay active while you grow your baby (or babies!) The most important thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t increase your activity level during pregnancy: if you were running marathons before you got pregnant, keep it up! But don’t start your training during your second trimester. And while one of the greatest challenges many folks face exercising postpartum is finding the time while caring for a little one, the good news is that a little bit goes a long way. Walking is an excellent and safe way to stay active during your pregnancy and postpartum for anyone of any activity level and has added mental health benefits. While it may seem counterintuitive, a little physical activity is one of the best ways to counteract the fatigue many pregnant people experience during the first trimester.


Taking care of your postpartum body is also essential for your mental health and wellbeing. The discomfort and shame associated with the changes to our bodies can leave you feeling alone and not like yourself, leaving you at higher risk for developing a perinatal mood disorder. Those changes also mean that the activities of caring for yourself and your new baby can become difficult at least, and dangerous at worst. Taking the time for self-care is not only essential for you - it’s also a great opportunity to model self care for your little one and show them that exercise can be an important, and fun, way to care for yourself.


There are many benefits of exercise during pregnancy, including reducing back pain, easing constipation, and improved energy. One important benefit of exercise during pregnancy is that it helps you have an easier recovery from birth. Many pregnant people develop a condition called Diastasis Recti, which is a separation of the rectus abdominal muscles that occurs in order to make space for your growing baby. This condition can be minimised by learning proper core engagement during and after pregnancy to support your pelvic floor muscles (the collection of muscles in your pelvis that hold up your internal organs, including your growing uterus). Without proper engagement, your pelvic floor becomes unable to function properly which can lead to a host of problems including incontinence, organ prolapse, painful intercourse, constipation and other conditions.


The good news is that all of the above conditions are highly treatable with help from a pelvic floor physical therapist. Many insurance plans will cover pelvic floor physical therapy and your perinatal health provider can provide referrals to a local therapist. With slow and steady work towards reengaging your muscles in a safe and coordinated way, anyone can regain the strength they had before pregnancy, and more.


Once I got assessed by a pelvic floor PT, I learned that I was compensating for weakness in my core caused by diastasis recti. Without proper core engagement, I was injuring myself by using my muscles improperly. Once I learned to reconnect to my core, I was able to slowly but surely increase my mobility, strength and reduce symptoms such as urinary incontinence and sciatica. There are many fitness programs out there, both in person and online, specifically geared towards supporting postpartum bodies. It’s never too late, or too early, to start caring for your body and building the strength and confidence you need to take on your new role as a parent.



 

References:


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (n.d.). Exercise during pregnancy. ACOG. Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/exercise-during-pregnancy


Benjamin, D. R., van de Water, A. T. M., & Peiris, C. L. (2019). Effects of exercise on diastasis of the rectus abdominis muscle in the antenatal and postnatal periods: A systematic review. Journal of Physiotherapy, 60(1), 15-21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jphys.2013.12.005


Mayo Clinic Health System. (n.d.). Pregnancy and pelvic floor health. Mayo Clinic Health System. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/pregnancy-and-pelvic-floor-health

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