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Exercising Regularly After Childbirth

Samantha, a patient of Ricki's, came to her appointment concerned about her weight, which was still more than twenty pounds heavier than it had been before having her first baby, now three years old. Ricki asked about exercise, and Samantha smiled and quoted a saying: Oh, I do get the urge sometimes. But I just lie down until it passes! Then she became more serious and added, I just can't find the time. My day is busy from 6 a.m. to 11 at night. Ricki wondered about her husband, and Samantha explained that He jogs from 6 to 6:45 every morning, then showers, bolts down his breakfast, and is out of the house by 7:30. The gears began to turn. You're right, she mused, he makes it a priority. Why don't I?

They talked about how exercise has to be important, or it just won't happen. As a result, Samantha went home and had a long talk with her husband, Ben, and he agreed to take over child care and dinner preparation three nights a week. Samantha began jogging on a treadmill in the bedroom while watching the evening news. Ben enjoyed becoming more than a "microwave chef," and he liked spending more time with their daughter, who stood on top of a stepstool helping him with nightly lettuce tearing and salad tossing. In a year, Samantha lost twenty-two pounds, felt more energetic, and had a sunnier mood.

To motivate yourself, remember that exercise will improve your cardiovascular health, strengthen your immune system, and help prevent obesity and adult-onset diabetes. It brings vitality, energy, and relaxation; lifts depressive feelings; and keeps you trim. Think about your reasons for taking good care of yourself, like wanting to live a long and healthy life. None of us really "finds" time for self-care and exercise. We make time for these crucial activities because they are essential to our well-being and health.

You probably already have an idea of what kind of exercise you'd do if you only had the time. And if not, you can get loads of information about exercise in the books or videos listed below, or from personal trainers in your gym or health club. If you've recently had a baby, your OB/GYN can make recommendations about safe and gentle exercises to strengthen stretched-out abdominal muscles or tighten up the pelvic floor; of course, if you have any orthopedic or anatomic problems that Interfere with exercise, please consult your doctor or physical therapist for specific suggestions. The real issue is how to shoehorn exercise into a day that's already crowded with work and family. That's our focus here, as we look at ways to fit fitness into everyday life with children.

Resources for Exercise

Getting Started
If you are just starting to exercise, take heart. It feels great simply to begin, to know that yes, you are really doing something wonderful for yourself. Set realistic goals that you know you can consistently attain, and perhaps write them down so you can see them every day and stay on track with your own care amidst attention-grabbing infant and child care. You can keep boredom at bay by doing a variety of things, like taking a brisk walk in the early morning on Monday while your husband handles the kids and breakfast, stopping at the gym on Tuesday and Thursday after work, and then going on a long bike ride with a friend over the weekend.

If you have a regular exercise partner, you can help each other stay motivated, and when she shows up at the front door, it'll be easier to extricate yourself from your housework or family. And if your resolve starts to sag, take a look at a picture of yourself as a child; she is precious and beautiful, and seeing her sweet face can help sustain your positive self-loving energy. Once you build up momentum after a few weeks, it will feel odd not to exercise, and every step you take on your own behalf - whether baby-sized or big ones - will make you feel better and better.

If you haven't exercised for a few months or more, take it easy when you start up again. The old adage "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" certainly applies to overzealous plunges into exercise. And if your body has become at all depleted, your muscles and connective tissue could be prone to strain, since they may have low levels of the minerals that keep them supple and resilient. So before you dive into a major program, we suggest you take a few days first to do ten to twenty minutes a day of gentle yoga or stretching. And try to do some stretches at the start of any workout; stiff muscles are like sleeping children: they need encouragement and a little time to wake up!

Aerobic Activities
Any good fitness program balances the development of aerobic capacity and strength. Your goal is to work up to keeping your heart beating fast (but not more than 140 times a minute) for at least twenty to thirty minutes, three or four times a week. No matter how out of shape you might be, or super-busy, there's always something you can do to get the blood moving and a sparkle in your eyes. Here are some suggestions we've seen work for mothers.

Go for a walk or a run. You can walk by yourself, grab another mom, or - courtesy of modern technology - use a cell phone with a headset to catch up with a friend. Bringing your child in a stroller or in a baby backpack will make it even more aerobic and eliminate the child-care problem. Check out your community by asking friends, going through a local newspaper, or looking at bulletin boards: many have a group of moms who go for walks together; Jan joined one that took short hikes with little ones in baby packs. Or if you're ready to pick up the pace, you can go for a run; you could even bring your child, if you like, by using a baby jogger, a mommy-powered tricycle.

Ride a bike. Riding is great fun with a child. She can sit behind you in a kid seat, or you can get a cruiser-trailer that hooks on to the end of your bike, and she'll look like a queen in a carriage. If she's old enough to ride on her own, she can come with you, though you'll probably need to drop her off back home midway through your workout.

Take an aerobics class or use the equipment in a gym. Many gyms now have on-site child care, even for infants. We know mothers who joined a gym with high intentions, but it was so much hassle to get out of the house that they finally gave up - so try to work out a regular schedule with your partner that's truly feasible and not rushed.

Go for a swim. Swimming is especially good for mothers who have connective tissue problems and need low-impact exercise. If you're not thrilled about showing up in a bathing suit, you can tell yourself you've earned your body the hard way, and that most people are so self-conscious about their own appearance that they're paying hardly any attention to you.

In the comfort of your home. Many women like to exercise at home while watching a workout video tape. Or get your own treadmill, rowing machine, etc. For example, every morning Ricki reads the newspaper while riding a stationary bike at home. Beginning when Leah was in preschool, Ricki started getting up a half hour earlier to do this - and her only regret is that she didn't start a couple of months after her baby was born!

Exercise your mind as well as your body. For a double workout, how about combining aerobics with stress-relief techniques? For instance, try to imagine that a dark cloud of tension leaves when you exhale, and a lovely light of peace and happiness enters when you inhale. You could repeat affirming statements to yourself or listen to an inspiring tape. Or focus on "being here now" and let your attention rest in the sensations of your body or in what you see.

Strength Training
There's nothing like strength training to flatten a tummy, fortify an aching back, or get a grip on upper arm flab that seems like it has a mind of its own. The obvious option is to use the free weights or machines in a gym. But you might also be amazed at how much of a workout you can get while tending to children, running errands, or doing housework. During the tiny in-between times - such as when your baby is sitting in a high chair or walker, contented with a toy or a cracker - you could do some sit-ups or push-ups while leaning against a wall. You might try keeping a set of weights by the phone and working the free arm with bicep curls or tricep flexes. Carry your grocery bags by their handles, so you can either curl your biceps or stiffen your elbows and challenge your shoulders by seeing how high you can raise the bags; life is too short to worry about how it may look to others!

Just like with aerobics, there's always something you can do to become stronger.

Making a change is usually hard at first, especially when you're already fatigued from 3 a.m. wake-ups or long days at work. It's also a sad irony that guilt about not taking steps for yourself can make you feel so down and discouraged that it's even harder to get some exercise. But when women reflect back on their lives, it is the positive changes they have made and sustained that they feel best about. That's the very best way to show guilt the door: try some of the road-tested suggestions above, notice how good you start to feel, and go on to take another step toward your fitness improvement goals.

From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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