If you've been avoiding the mirror since your baby's birth, take heart. We've got a post-pregnancy fitness plan that will have you back in shape in no time. Developed by Catherine Cram, an exercise physiologist specializing in maternal fitness in Middleton, WI, this unique workout provides guidelines and exercises to help you safely and effectively regain your pre-pregnancy body. In fact, Cram promises, "By the end of the program, you may even have a stronger and fitter body than before."
This unique program -- which Cram created specifically for BabyTalk readers -- incorporates a series of abdominal exercises developed by Shirley Sahrmann, a physical therapist who specializes in abdominal rehabilitation. Unlike traditional abdominal moves, such as sit-ups and crunches, these exercises are designed to target the area most weakened by pregnancy -- below the belly button -- without creating stress on the back or abdomen.
Experts agree that exercising is one of the best things you can do for yourself after your baby's birth. Studies show that women who work out during and after pregnancy have more energy, less stress, and fewer physical complaints than women who don't. One reason: Exercise helps ease your body through the profound changes that happen after delivery. For example, your uterus shrinks to original size, pregnancy hormones diminish, lactation hormones soar, excess fluids exit, loosened ligaments tighten, your breasts get larger, and your center of gravity reverts to normal. "In no other time do you go through so many changes at once," Cram says.
So what are you waiting for? All you need is your doctor's permission to begin. Though this workout is designed to be gradual, you may not feel ready to start right away -- and that's fine. Just follow the program at your own pace, and don't worry if your own return to fitness doesn't exactly follow this sequence. Start slowly, but try doing the exercises three to five times per week, building from 20-minute sessions. Move to the next level only when you're ready.
Birth to 6 Weeks
The immediate postnatal period is the time to be easy on yourself. The focus here is on gentle moves that help you adjust to all the changes your body is experiencing.
Use slow movements and hold each stretch for 30 seconds to a minute or more. As you feel some slack, move further into the stretch until you feel more resistance, then hold. Exhale as you move into the stretch, then breathe normally as you hold. Never bounce or force the move. The stretches below can be done throughout the day, especially after feedings and diaper changes.
LEARNING THE BASIC BREATH
This movement is the foundation for all of the Sahrmann exercises. It will train your abdominal muscles to support your lower back. How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms at your side, knees bent, and feet on the floor. Don't press your back against the floor, just keep it relaxed. Breathe in slowly and deeply. As you exhale, tighten your abdominals, pulling your navel in toward the spine. Concentrate on contracting the muscles below your belly button, and be careful not to arch your back. When you are able to contract and relax your abdominals without moving your back, you'll be ready to begin the first Sahrmann exercise below.
7 to 12 Weeks
There's light at the end of the tunnel: You have more time and energy. You may feel ready for more intense activity, so here's where you'll begin strength training. Continue doing your stretches -- they're a great way to warm up before lifting weights or walking (see "Walk This Way").
You can use any type of weight, from soup cans to lightweight dumbbells or resistance bands. Use a weight or resistance that allows you to do 12 repetitions without feeling unsteady or shaky. Don't hold your breath; exhale when lifting the weight, inhale as you lower it. One set of 12 to 14 repetitions, two to three times a week, is sufficient for maintaining strength. To build strength, add more weight or resistance when the exercise feels too easy. Always take a day between strength workouts, to allow your body to recover.
13 to 18 Weeks
After the three-month mark, caring for your infant gets somewhat less time-consuming, and your recovery is nearly complete. Now is the time when you'll want to increase the intensity of your aerobic and strength-training exercises. Go for that extra set or walk an extra half-mile. However, some days you may feel more energetic than others, so modify your exercise to fit your energy level. And if you're just not up to a workout one day, don't sweat it. This is also a great time to consider joining a postnatal exercise class, to meet women who are going through the same changes you are. Or you can organize your own workout group with other new moms to help stay motivated.
Beth Howard is a writer and new mother in New York City. Catherine Cram is owner of Comprehensive Fitness Consulting and has helped hundreds of postpartum moms in their return to fitness.