Quite a few of my friends have recently had babies, ( I have no idea what was in the air 10 months ago but there seems to be a mini baby boom).
Some are first time parents doing what they can to get their heads around all the changes that come with keeping a new life safe and some already have kids but are now trying to manage the competing demands of existing family life with the new arrival. Being a personal trainer, I have been approached by some mums to ask about how to go about exercising again.
Why you are wanting to exercise.
Is it that you have always had a fit and active lifestyle and it is something that is important to you?
Is it because you are wanting the energy to be as strong a parent as you can be?
Incontinence, bleeding and a whole other host of pelvic floor challenges might be leaving you feel ashamed or awkward in your own skin.
Is it because of your body image and feeling that your body is not “right” or how you want it to be?
Firstly, your body is miraculous. Your cells have helped you grow a human, post birth your body is having to adapt to reduced sleep, complete upheaval of any old routines or roles, you might be worried about bonding with the baby or the impact the birth is having on relationships.
In addition to whilst you work out how to manage this significant life change, your endocrine system (hormones) have been through a tsunami of changes and you’ve used muscles you didn’t know you had.
So firstly, my advice to any new Mum asking about how to be more active is to rest!
This might sound contradictory to the mum, telling me she wants to be more active so let me explain why.
As human beings we have a parasympathetic nervous system and a sympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system = rest and digest
The sympathetic nervous system = fight flight and freeze
Our sympathetic nervous system is being activated every time we experience a threat, we hear our baby cry or each time we are motivated and driven to go and be productive.
Our parasympathetic system is activated when we are able to rest and be soothed. As humans we are not always the best at prioritising and allowing time for this system, with a new baby in the home it can feel near impossible.
Our vegal tone is how effectively the parasympathetic vegus nerve is functioning and is an indication of how we are able to return to rest and digest after periods of stress. Researchers are still not sure about the impact of vegal tone during pregnancy however a high heart rate variability is associated with high vagal tone and it has been found that throughout pregnancy this decreases, usually returning to post-natal levels between 6 weeks and 3 months post pregnancy
So, in the early days of having a baby: To exercise I am encouraging you to rest and soothe.
If anyone comments on this you are “toning” your vegus nerve.
Exercise when we are stressed can be helpful however when we are in chronic stress, adding further stress load such as exercise in can sometimes be misplaced. So before starting on any new exercise regime start to work on your vagal tone and work out ways of regularly accessing “rest and digest”.
I am not going to lie, this is not always easy to do, so let’s not think of long lie ins in bed or holidays away as being the only way to activate rest.
You are working out how to soothe your baby every time they cry. Work out how you can soothe you. What micro opportunities are there in the day for your feel to connect with the ground and for you to breath and activate your rest and digest (Parasympathetic nervous system). Start with your breath. Long slow exhales will activate the vegus nerve. I am not going to ask you to do a 10-minute meditation – how realistic will that be when there is so many new sounds and interruptions for you at home. But when you remember, feel your feet against the ground and breath out slowly.
Next look at if there is anything you can delegate to someone else so that you can do less, just because you want to be fiercely independent doesn’t mean you can’t accept the odd offer of help or reach out and ask if no help is forthcoming.
Prior to your 6-8 week check-up do not be engaging in moderate exercise.
Use your Kegals but also relax and do not be squeezing and tensing all the time. Also, no number of crunches is going to give you a 6 pack or bring together diastasis rectus so don’t be tempted to do sit ups.
Throughout this time period there will be plenty of opportunities when you are moving so once in a while be mindful of your daily movement and just check in with how your body feels when you are:
PUSHING a pram,
SQUATTING down to pick something off the floor
PULLING something down of a shelf.
Once you have learnt to incorporate rest and activate your parasympathetic nervous system AND you have thought about the movements you need in daily life then is the time to start thinking about being more active. If there is exercise that you have done before remember that your body and mind has been through a lot and it may feel different on your return.
Think about what’s going to be realistic within your new routine. Is an hour gym class 3x week might work if you have a network of family ready to babysit but more likely than not that time will be prioritised for other things. So, if that’s not realistic explore the local area on foot. Find out what appeals to you that would be realistic to fit in your routine. As a personal trainer I come out to your home to fit within your routine (Or lack of!) Remember on some days a successful goal might be just to get out of your PJs!
Once you have nailed rest the next step is to consider if you are being active enough in your day. Being active can boost energy levels, improve sleep quality and help manage any aches and pains.
So think about building on your core, back and posture. If this is strong enough to support you it will then make other exercise easier and more effective.
When you are choosing exercise make sure it incorporates
This will then help enhance your function in daily tasks and help your body adapt to the new challenges it faces.
Think about if your exercise wants to be reflective down time or social and uplifting. Do you want a social situation or to be on your own?
If you are struggling with feeling of not being good enough or your mental health is a barrier to getting more active, then speak to your G.P or health visitor.
Finally remember that even when it feels hard that you have been amazingly resilient to do what you are doing and your body whilst it may feel different it is because it is doing exactly what it needs to do and is adapting.
If you live in Solihull or Warwickshire and would like to find out how my service could help you then get in touch.
Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT