Postpartum: Starting to Exercise Again
Walking is a good first exercise for both you and your newborn. Put your baby in a stroller or carrier and start walking. Start with a trip around the block, and gradually increase the distance you stroll.
If you have a gym membership and you have someone who can care for your baby for a couple of hours, check into postpartum exercise classes or gentle yoga classes. At home, you can begin doing the strengthening and stretching exercises described in the following pages one to three times a day while your baby naps or spends time with Dad.
Once you start exercising, be alert for signs that you may be working too hard. Watch for increased lochia flow (bleeding) after exercise sessions, especially in the first month postpartum. This is your body telling you to cool it. Otherwise, just listen to your body's signals. If your vagina, perineum, or cesarean incision are not healing well, if your breasts are too full and sore for even your most supportive bra, if you need a nap more than you need exercise, or if you experience dizziness or extreme fatigue, stop and try again tomorrow or the next day. You do not have to do this quickly, and rushing it will not make much difference in the end.
During the first month postpartum, don't worry too much about stretching your lower body. Your ligaments are still stretchy from the effects of the hormone relaxin. Nursing and carrying a newborn can cause the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and back to tighten, however. Stretches can help to relieve that tightness.
Get down on your hands and knees. Lower your chest down to the floor and then bring it back up. Try doing one set of ten with your elbows pointing out (to work your chest muscles), and another set with your elbows coming into your waist (to work the muscles on the backs of your arms). Most of your body weight should be supported on your knees. After the first week, try doing two sets of each per session.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
This exercise helps to prevent the tense shoulders and upper back that new mothers often experience. Stand with your feet hip-width apart or sit in a straight-backed chair. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and toward each other, then release. Do this ten to twenty times per session.
Head and Shoulder Lifts
Most women have a diastasis, or separation in their abdominal muscles, after giving birth that feels as though someone had unzipped their abs down the center from top to bottom. This separation can be closed up with the right abdominal strengthening exercises. Before you try any abdominal exercises, check to see how wide your separation is. You can do this during this exercise.
Lie on your back and cross your arms over your chest. Inhale and slowly lift your chin toward your chest and curl the tops of your shoulders up off of the floor. Imagine that you are pressing your abdominal muscles down toward your belly button. Inhale as you release back down. Start out with ten repetitions and work up to twenty per session.
To check your diastasis, reach down with one hand as you hold your chin and shoulders up. Hold your hand with the palm facing your face and find the gap just above your belly button. You may be able to fit three or four fingers into that gap. If you have a diastasis wider than three fingers, take special care to build up your abdominal strength slowly. Don't attempt to do "crunches" (in which you lift your entire upper back off of the floor) or other more strenuous ab work until the gap has closed to less than three fingers in width. Wrapping your arms around your waist and hugging the two edges of the gap together as you work your abs will help close the gap.
This is an excellent first postpartum abdominal strengthener. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor or your lower legs resting on the seat of a chair. Feel the small gap between the curve in your lower spine and the floor. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, use your abdominal muscles to gently press your lower spine down. Imagine that your tailbone is curling up and around toward your navel. Release as you inhale again. Start with ten repetitions and work up to twenty per session.
Stand facing a wall, about an arm's length away from it. Clasp your hands and bend forward from your hips, placing your forearms against the wall. Keep your knees slightly bent and your elbows as close together as possible as you slide your forearms down the wall. You should end up bent at the hips at about a 90-degree angle. Allow your chest and head to sink toward the floor and breathe deeply.
Half Head Rolls
Sit or stand comfortably with your back against a wall. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder, keeping both shoulders relaxed (don't bring the shoulder up to meet the ear). Then slowly allow your head to roll forward, chin to chest, to the left, and back to the center. Repeat this a few times to loosen your neck and upper back muscles.
Cat Back, Dog Back
On your hands and knees, make your back flat, like a tabletop. Inhale and arch your back up toward the ceiling, tucking your chin toward your chest and your tailbone between your legs (this is the "cat back" portion of the exercise). Exhale, returning to the flat, neutral spine. Inhale again as you arch your back the other way, looking up to the ceiling and pointing your tailbone up (the "dog back" portion). Return to flat back again as you exhale. Repeat this a few times. Your baby will probably enjoy lying face up beneath you as you do this stretch.
Upside-Down Chest Stretch
Stand with your feet wider apart than your hips but not so wide that it strains anything, toes pointing forward. Clasp your hands behind your back, elbows straight, and inhale slowly and deeply. As you exhale, slowly bend forward until your head is hanging down. Do this slowly to prevent dizziness. If this feels like too much stretching in your legs or low back, bend your knees. Let your arms sink toward the floor behind your head. Stay in that position for at least ten seconds and be sure to come out of it slowly. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded even if you do this stretch slowly, do it in a chair with your knees spread and your feet flat on the floor.
Tight hamstrings put extra pressure on the lower back muscles, so be sure to do this stretch often. Sit on the floor with one leg extended straight out. Bend the other knee, let it fall to the side, and tuck the foot of the bent leg into the thigh of the straightened one. Straighten your back as much as possible, then lean over the straightened leg, pointing your tailbone back behind you. Gaze out at the extended foot. The bend should be happening in the hip joint, not the lower back. Feel your lower back with your hand it should feel straight and flat, not rounded. You may be able to lean forward only slightly. That's okay; the object is not to put your nose on your knee, but to stretch the muscles in the back of the thigh of the straightened leg. Reach for the leg and gently draw your torso down toward it. Hold this position for at least half a minute, then switch legs.
Stack two or three pillows on the floor or on your bed. Sit right up against the stack with your back facing it, with your legs outstretched, then gently lie back over the pillows so that your head is hanging over the edge. Allow your arms to relax into whatever position feels best try letting them stay by your sides, cross them over your chest, spread them wide, or raise them over your head. Breathe deeply as you stay in this position for up to two minutes. To get out of the backbend, roll to one side and off the pillows.
This yoga pose is excellent for releasing tension from the entire body during and after pregnancy. Sit with your legs folded beneath you, so that you are sitting on your heels with your knees parted. Fold your body forward so that your torso sinks toward the floor between your thighs. Gently rest your forehead on the floor. You can extend your arms overhead, out to the sides, or down toward your feet. If you like, you can relax forward onto a pillow. Remain there for as long as you like, breathing deeply to allow deep inhalations to expand your lower and upper back.
Older babies that are crawling and pulling themselves up on objects love it when their moms stretch on the floor. Their favorite food source, piece of furniture, comforter, and entertainment system suddenly takes on a new role jungle gym!
More on: Adjusting to New Motherhood
From A Natural Guide to Pregnancy and Postpartum Health by Dean Raffelock, Robert Rountree, and Virginia Hopkins with Melissa Block. Copyright © 2002 by Dr. Dean Raffelock. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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