The postpartum recovery period comes with its own set of physical changes.
Muscles remain longer and “softer” even post-birth (thanks to the hormone relaxin)—which means moms may struggle with atrophied muscles, bad posture, an achy body, and general fatigue.
This is where a prenatal and postnatal fitness specialist (like you) comes in.
An emerging body of evidence suggests that exercising after pregnancy brings about a slew of health benefits for a new mother. That includes reduced fatigue, improved mood, and even decreased risk of future chronic health conditions.
That said, many postpartum clients may harbor reservations about getting back into an exercise routine. They might even question the safety of postpartum exercise.
So, in this article, we outline a few essential pointers that’ll help you better support a postpartum client looking to make physical activity part of their life—once again.
When Should Postpartum Clients Start Exercising?
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG), mothers should return to prepregnancy exercise regimens as soon as it is medically and physically safe.
The time it takes till it’s “safe” for your postpartum client varies.
Some women can resume exercise within days of delivery, while others may need to hold off for a few weeks (or even months).
This largely depends on their delivery method. Existing guidance suggests that women who’ve delivered vaginally can expect to resume all normal activities—including exercise—by six weeks postpartum, while those who’ve delivered via C-section may need to wait a bit longer.
However, note that you shouldn’t be the one deciding when moms should return to their fitness journeys. That’s beyond your scope as a prenatal and postnatal fitness specialist.
Always make sure that your client has gotten the all-clear to resume physical activities from their healthcare provider before starting them on a routine.
Tips to Ensure a Safe Return to Exercise for Postpartum Clients
When designing a suitable fitness program for a postpartum client, always be mindful that the period right after giving birth is a transitory one. Your client’s body is still trying to normalize after having been through the stresses of pregnancy.
That’s why you must keep the following tips in mind before giving your exercise recommendations.
It’s normal for postpartum clients to wish to get back to their prepregnancy bodies as quickly as possible—but that isn’t always a wise idea.
Just as it took time for them to develop and birth a baby, it’ll take time for them to recover. That’s why you need to set realistic expectations right from the beginning. Make it clear that the primary postpartum goal is not for your client to get back to their prepregnancy physique immediately—but, instead, on self-care and healing.
The fitness routine you develop for a postpartum client should, thus, reflect this.
Start your client out slow with low-impact activities like the following:
- Low-impact cardiovascular exercises: Walking on a treadmill, riding on the elliptical, and even cycling a bicycle
- Low-impact bodyweight exercises: Squats, lunges, kneeling push-ups
In addition to your client’s delivery method (i.e., vaginal or C-section), another factor determines how quickly you can up the intensity of their workouts: their fitness activity before and during pregnancy.
Typically, clients who had good fitness habits—and a degree of conditioning—before giving birth will likely have an easier transition back to fitness.
Prioritize Core and Pelvic Floor Exercises
It is common for postpartum clients to experience a separation of the abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominis (i.e., the six-pack muscles).
A 2015 study suggests that virtually all women experience the separation of their right and left abdominal muscles at the end of pregnancy—and that up to 39% still have some level of separation at six months postpartum!
This is particularly worrying, given that core strength is vital for overall health and basic fitness.
As such, any routine you design for a postpartum client should focus on strengthening the transverse abdominis (the deepest muscles in the core). This will help your client regain much-needed strength and stability in the core region.
Not just any old ab exercises will be suitable, however.
If your client’s pelvic floor is weak, putting intra-abdominal pressure through exercises that involve spinal flexion (like sit-ups and crunches) can result in excessive pressure on the pelvic floor, inhibiting healing or even leading to a chance of organ prolapse.
Examples of suitable postpartum core exercises include belly breathing, abdominal bracing, pelvic tilt, and side planks.
It’s also a good idea to include exercises that’ll help your client refamiliarize and restrengthen their pelvic floor muscles (e.g., Kegels).
Additional Considerations for Breastfeeding Clients
It’s common for breastfeeding clients to worry about the impact exercise could have on their milk supply.
So, you’ll have to assure your clients that research has shown that moderate exercise does not change a mother’s milk production.
That said, for nursing clients (who produce about a quart of breast milk daily), staying hydrated is important. Make sure they’re drinking enough water—and fluids in general—before and after working out.
And, of course, it’ll be good to have your client nurse before their session.
Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t because exercise (so long as it’s moderate to high-intensity, rather than intense) will change the quality of the breast milk; it’s more so to do with the simple fact that it’s uncomfortable to work out with full, engorged breasts.
Watch Out for Signs Your Client Is Pushing Too Hard
Regularly check in on your client.
This will help you identify if the fitness routine you’ve designed for them is pushing them too much, too soon—and allow you to make necessary adjustments to the plan.
Familiarize your client with the usual red-flag signs: pain, bleeding, leakage, and pelvic heaviness. Let them know that they should bring these up for your (and their primary care team’s) attention.
Also, remind your client that they should always stop working out if they feel lightheaded or dizzy. Your client should also watch out for changes in their milk production. As mentioned earlier, appropriate exercise intensity shouldn’t impact milk supply.
As such, a sudden drop-off in your client’s milk production can indicate that they’re pushing too hard, too fast.
Be Mindful of Their Challenges
The postpartum period can be an incredibly challenging time for new mothers.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one out of every seven new mothers will experience postpartum depression (PDD).
What’s more, even those without diagnosable depression will likely experience hormonal shifts and possible mood swings as a new mom.
Such mood imbalances can lead to a general disinterest in keeping up with a fitness routine.
And this is made worse by another one of the most significant barriers to postpartum exercise: care of the baby. Your client can’t leave the baby alone at home while they’re training with you.
Some of the ways you can support clients in better integrating exercise and physical activity into their lives in a way that makes sense to them include:
- Asking about their day-to-day activities and suggesting ways to increase physical activity, rather than planned, regimented exercise. For instance, you could get your client to regularly go out for walks around the neighborhood while carrying the baby.
- If in-person training sessions aren’t an option, ask if they’d be interested in home-based, app-based, or web-based training programs.
Ultimately, you’d also want to drive home the message that all types of physical activity are beneficial.
Working with clients on their postnatal fitness is not as challenging as it sounds.
But it certainly requires you to be more aware of and understanding of the challenges that new mothers face. Only then can you come up with a training approach that best meets their needs—both physically and emotionally.