One of the most common questions I get asked as a Women’s Health Physiotherapist, is “What exercise can I do to get my pre-baby body back?”
If only it were that easy!
The answer to this question is far more complex, so I am going to debunk the myth that one exercise can give women their ‘pre-baby body’ back, and help to set our expectations straight.
Firstly, let’s look at the goal of achieving your ‘pre-baby body’. After 9 months of growing a baby and then giving birth, do you think it is fair of you to expect your body to look exactly the same as it did before you had a baby? As an expert in this field, it’s a no from me! Pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum is no easy feat for women. Your body has gone through the biggest transformation it will go through in your entire life. And now it is in recovery mode. Postpartum is a time when your focus needs to be on healing and recovery, with the end goal to be the best version of yourself, both physically and mentally. Yes, absolutely this should be to look and feel fit and strong, but we need to look forwards, taking into account what our body has been through, rather than focusing on how we looked in the past.
During pregnancy and postpartum there are several ‘behind the scenes’ factors that influence how your body changes and recovers. These are:
- Relaxin: during pregnancy and postpartum, your hormones change dramatically. During pregnancy the hormone, relaxin, is released which relaxes the ligaments in the body. It is unknown when this hormone stops affecting the body in postpartum, which means that your post-baby body is likely to have more laxity and movement in it. Therefore a woman’s hips may be wider than ‘normal’ for some time.
- Oestrogen: if you are a breastfeeding mama, you will have less oestrogen in your body and therefore your muscles will not be as strong as when you are not breastfeeding. This is because our muscles need oestrogen to function optimally. As a result, lower oestrogen may influence your muscle tone and strength, and therefore the way your body looks
- Maternal weight gain
- Your ability to lose excess ‘baby weight’ will depend on how much weight you gain in pregnancy. If you put on the recommended amount of weight for your BMI (body mass index) then you are more likely to recover quicker after having a baby compared to someone who has put on 16+kgs in pregnancy. It’s important to note that the higher a woman’s BMI (i.e. if she is overweight) the less weight she needs to gain during pregnancy. Conversely, the lower a woman’s weight pre-pregnancy the more she is required to gain. To learn more about maternal weight gain, stay tuned for a future blog post.
- Connective tissue
- Connective tissue is the tissue that binds, supports or separates other tissue and organs inside your body e.g. connective tissue connects skin to muscle. This tissue is different in everyone depending on genetics, hormones and environmental factors. Therefore the degree to which your dermal connective tissue (under the skin) stretches and recovers after pregnancy is going to be different to the next woman. In some women this stretching can cause stretch marks on the skin and loose abdominal skin.
- Genetics is linked to our body composition, shape, size and fat distribution. From this, it’s reasonable to think that the way our body rebounds after pregnancy can also be linked to genetic factors. Like most things though, genetics is just one piece of the puzzle, and environmental and lifestyle factors are also key players in our body composition and recovery.
So with these factors in mind, it’s important to recognize that postpartum recovery is multi-factorial and cannot be determined by one simple exercise.
In saying this, specific core and strengthening exercises as well as general exercise are without a doubt important elements in your postpartum recovery. But the KEY to your postpartum body looking and feeling the best it can is…
The key to recovery in postpartum and having a healthy body is to do with how you fuel your body. Always remember the 80:20 rule. Weight loss is 70-80% diet and 20-30% exercise (depending on who you ask). And by diet, I don’t mean dieting as in deprivation; I mean nourishing yourself with an abundance of wholefoods.
You see, FOOD = ENERGY. You need to fuel your body to have the energy to care for yourself and your bubs, as well as provide nutrients to bubs via breast milk (if you are breastfeeding). Not only this but you need good quality food to fuel your mind. With the radical life change of now looking after a human being 24/7, the sleep deprivation that goes along with this, and wild hormones, you definitely don’t need to add a poor diet to the mix!
After having a baby, it is common for women to put themselves last on the list of priorities – eating on the run and grabbing whatever they can get there hands on. For many new mums who are breastfeeding, you require more food to nourish yourself and bubs. However, unlike popular belief, this is not a free ticket to eat whatever is in sight. Just because your metabolism may be faster and your energy expenditure higher, junk food and sugar still has the same affect on your cells and body composition as not breastfeeding.
The fact of the matter is that eating processed or sugary food is only going to make you more tired, grumpy, less motivated to exercise, and it’s actually going to be much harder to shift stubborn baby weight.
If you are eat nourishing food at each meal, then your blood sugar will be more stable throughout the day, and you won’t be reaching for that block of chocolate at 4pm. Sugar is an addictive substance – therefore the more you consume the more you want. The opposite is also true – the less you consume, the less you crave sugar.
For many new mothers the thought of upgrading their diet can seem overwhelming or impossible, especially in the new unknown territory of motherhood.
So here are some tips to help you make long-lasting dietary changes:
- Work on your relationship with food and why you make the food choices you do. There is likely to be more going on at a deeper level than you first think. Click here to find out more.
- Upgrade your diet ASAP – so before pregnancy or during pregnancy if you can (depending on when you are reading this!).
- Get your partner on side. Talk to him/her about the importance of improving your diet for yourselves and bubs, and both commit to this.
- If you don’t buy it, you can’t eat it! When you or your partner go to the shops, don’t put processed or junk food (or drink) in your trolley. Don’t even tempt yourself by driving your trolley down the confectionery aisle!
- Don’t go food-shopping hungry or hangry! We all know how that ends up.
- Shop online for ease and adopt the same principles.
- Find a good quality organic butcher or market locally to visit weekly. This could be a nice outing for the family that doesn’t involve supermarket tantrums!
- Shop at your local fruit and vege store.
- Plan meals for the week ahead so you have enough food to get you by for the week, or most of the week.
- Stock your fridge and pantry with wholefoods (fruit and vegetables) 1-2 times a week so there are always healthy options.
- Reduce inflammatory foods in your diet. Click here to read more.
- Meals can be healthy and simple. Think protein with salad/vegetables.
- Add good quality protein and fats to each meal to keep you full for longer e.g. avocado, sardines, olive oil, smoked salmon, eggs, nuts and seeds, chicken, tuna.
- Eat carbohydrates in the form of vegetables- sweet potato, root vegetables.
- Switch pasta with zoodles (zucchini noodles) and white rice with quinoa or cauliflower rice.
- Get your children eating the same healthy meals as you from day one so you aren’t making several different meals each night.
- Eat leftovers for lunch.
- Make double what you need for dinner and freeze the rest.
- Do cook ups on the weekends for the week ahead or to freeze.
- Pre-prepare quick healthy snacks you can grab on the go e.g. a handful of nuts, fruit, veggie sticks and dip, popcorn, protein balls, protein shake, smoothie, boiled eggs.
- Use healthy meal service like Hello fresh, Marley spoon or You foodz (I have not personally used these so please check the menus are healthy).
- Sleep when your baby sleeps. When you are tired, you are more likely to seek a sugar fix.
- Allow yourself a treat every now and again. Don’t deprive yourself, but instead eat mindfully.
- Don’t skip meals. When you are ravishing you are more likely to make poor food choices.
- Choose healthy takeaway options. With delivery apps these days, there are so many options when it comes to takeaway. Steer away from the burger/fried outlets.
- Choose healthy menu options when you are eating out.
- Drink plenty of water – 3L of fluids if you are breastfeeding and 2L if you are bottle-feeding.
Like everything in life, there is no magic pill or exercise to turning your body into a powerhouse of health and vibrancy after having a baby. However, the key ingredients are – your diet, safe postpartum exercise, and your mindset. And then add in time and perseverance.
Take this opportunity to redirect your focus off your ‘pre-baby body’ and onto optimising your health and your baby’s health through what you choose to eat. Focus on healing yourself from the inside, and you will start seeing changes on the outside. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Monte S et al (2011) Maternal weight gain during pregnancy and neonatal weight gain: a review of the literature. Journal of Prenatal Medicine. 5: 27-30.
Motosko C et al (2017) Physiologic changes in pregnancy: a review of the literature. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. 3: 219-224.