Postpartum exercise tips

Exercise after giving birth can be a challenge, especially if you’re a female Service Member. In addition to the major life change, there’s the added pressure to meet your Service’s weight and fitness standards within the time allowed. Finding good advice is also hard—the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week and weight-training twice a week. Or you might find postpartum fitness programs online, but maybe none of them are the right fit for you. So, how do you get 150-minutes in—and where do you start?

Start your workout plan

If you had an uncomplicated delivery, you can start to ramp up your activity as soon as you feel okay and your doctor clears you. If you had a Cesarean birth (C-section) or any complications, you should follow your doctor’s advice about when to start. Many doctors will advise you to wait 4–8 weeks before you get back to full activity. You should ask if light activity and core exercise are okay until then.

Aerobic fitness             

Start with short walks that get progressively longer. You should aim to go for a 30-minute walk 5 times a week by the time you’re 6–8 weeks postpartum. Around that time, you have a follow-up appointment with your doctor, who can clear you to run again. After that, look for a “couch-to-5K-running” program you like. Most programs will allow you to set goal dates and completion times. You can use the date you’re required to take your next PFT, and the time you need to meet, as your goal. If you’re not a Marine, your PFT run is less than 3 miles, so you can use your time for shorter distances to calculate your 5K goal time. Set your goal to be your 5K time based on your shorter distance.

If you have a 1.5-mile run, double the standard time for your 5K goal. For example, if you have to run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes, set your 5K goal to be 24 minutes. If you have a 2-mile run, add 50% of your time. This means if you need to complete 2 miles in 14 minutes, set your 5K goal to be 21 minutes. Marine moms, just use your 3-mile standard time for your 5K goal.

Weight training after pregnancy

Weight training to maintain or improve muscular fitness is more challenging than aerobic fitness. Pregnancy temporarily stretches your core muscles past a point where they can work effectively to stabilize your torso, which leads to a condition called diastasis recti. While diastasis recti normally can be resolved a few weeks after delivery, it can sometimes last for months. Your body also releases hormones that allow your ligaments and muscles to stretch for childbirth. After delivery, your muscles don’t snap back to their normal state and the hormones don’t immediately clear your body.

As with aerobic training—as long as you’re cleared by your doctor—you can also start shortly after delivery, as long as you feel good enough. Instead of jumping right into heavy lifting, start small with isolated core exercises such as transverse abdominus activation exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, and Kegel exercises. You can do these exercises once or twice a day, extending the duration every week. After a couple weeks, you can add more challenging core exercises such as birddogs, dead bugs, and planks.

It’s also okay to start bodyweight exercises shortly after delivery. If you follow the rough training outline for beginners—neuromuscular control and balance for 2–3 weeks, then muscular endurance for 4–6 weeks—you’ll be at a point in your postpartum physical training to start heavier hypertrophy training and then strength training. However, you should get explicit medical clearance from your doctor before you do any heavy lifting.

It’s best to err on the side of caution, since there doesn’t seem to be expert guidance on how to progress your workouts in the postpartum period. As you work on neuromuscular control and balance, it’s okay to keep doing the same number of sets and reps for the full 2–3 weeks. The goal of neuromuscular control exercise is to improve how well you do the exercises—not to work on how many you can do in total or how much weight to lift. When you transition to muscular endurance—if you feel you’re able to—you can follow the standard progression guidelines. If that’s too challenging a few weeks after delivery, wait to add repetitions until the amount becomes easy.

For example, increase to 12 body squats when 10 becomes easy. Once you’re cleared by your doctor for full exercise, then you can push yourself by adding reps weekly. However you increase the amount and duration of your workouts, the most important thing is to listen to your body. If you’re in pain or overly fatigued, you’re probably doing too much.

When to exercise with a newborn

One of the most challenging parts of staying active with a newborn is finding the time. If it’s your first child, making the time can be overwhelming. If you have other children, your newborn isn’t the only one who needs your attention.

You can take the baby with you for aerobic exercise. Remember—until you get cleared to run by your doctor— the goal is simply to go for walks that get your heart rate up, and work your way up to 150 minutes per week by 6–8 weeks. For the low-intensity walks, you can use your regular stroller or wear the baby in a carrier.

If you get a jogging stroller, manufacturers recommend waiting to use it until the baby is 3–4 months old. This way, the baby is old enough to support their own head. Jogging strollers can be incredibly expensive, so you can look at online marketplaces for people who sell their used strollers. You can usually find one in great shape for a fraction of the retail price.

You can sneak core exercises in when the baby naps. Or, join your baby during tummy time. You can get in some quick exercises on the floor while your baby strengthens their neck and shoulder muscles and develops their motor skills. When your goal is to retrain your muscles, a good core workout can take as little as 10–15 minutes. Even if you only have 5 minutes, dedicate them to a single exercise, and choose a different exercise when you have another 5 minutes later in the day.

When you’re cleared by your doctor for more intense exercise, you can dedicate some time in the gym to get a good workout that meets your fitness goals. It can be a challenge when the baby needs to eat every 2–3 hours, especially if you’re nursing. You can invest in athletic clothing and sports bras designed for nursing mothers. Some gyms, such as the YMCA, offer babysitting services and military discounts as part of their memberships. You can pause your workout to feed the baby, and then pick up where you left off. That way, you don’t need to time your trip to the gym perfectly during nap time or between feeds.

Bottom line

The key is to start small and build your way back. HPRC has a summary chart of weight and fitness standards by Service you can use to help you set your goals to get back to your pre-pregnancy self. Most physicians won’t clear you for full exercise until 6–8 weeks after your delivery. But that doesn’t mean you need to wait that long to start exercising. Build your way back, get in some cardio and core exercises when you can, so you can hit the ground running once you’re cleared.


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References

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Benjamin, D. R., van de Water, A. T. M., & Peiris, C. L. (2014). Effects of exercise on diastasis of the rectus abdominis muscle in the antenatal and postnatal periods: a systematic review. Physiotherapy, 100(1), 1–8. doi:10.1016/j.physio.2013.08.005

National Institute for Heath and Care Excellence (March 2021). Caesarean Birth. NICE guideline (NG192). Retrieved on 30 December 2021 from https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng192

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Thabet, A. A., & Alshehri, M. A. (2019). Efficacy of deep core stability exercise program in postpartum women with diastasis recti abdominis: a randomised controlled trial. Journal of musculoskeletal & neuronal interactions, 19(1), 62–68