Six weeks after having my first baby, the doctor gave me the all clear to exercise.
The urge to do something active after so many weeks of being cooped up with a newborn was so intense that I immediately went for a run.
But I had scarcely made it halfway along the promenade at Bondi Beach when I suddenly wet myself. Yep – totally peed my pants. I froze, horrified.
Determined not to give up, I started up again but as the trickle continued, my running stride faltered. I cut my route short and headed for home, devastated.
Nobody had warned me about this.
Sure, the benefits of kegel exercises had been repeatedly brought up over the course of my pregnancy and I had taken heed. But still I wasn’t prepared for this.
Keen to lose my baby weight, I threw myself into a rigorous workout regime that consisted primarily of intense HIIT classes with the odd Pilates session and the occasional run thrown in for good measure.
But the surprises kept coming. Halfway through a class, my top became visibly soaked with breast milk. My shoulders became rounded over from hunching over to feed and carry my baby. My stomach was soft and saggy. And there were still the occasional leaks.
Of course, everyone’s body and experience of returning to exercise is different.
Many women throw themselves back into a vigorous workout regime straight away with few issues. Serena Williams plans to play the Australian Open just three months after giving birth and will probably ace it – with her existing fitness levels working to her advantage.
Indeed, your own recovery from the birthing experience will likely be much faster if you continued exercising while still pregnant.
But be gentle with yourself until you are aware of what your body can and can’t deal with.
It’ll thank you later.
Here are the things I wish I had known back then:
First focus on restoring core strength and function
Rest is definitely the priority during the first six weeks post-partum, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start incorporating some walking, gentle movements and stretching into your new daily routine.
Gentle core exercises (this does not mean sit-ups) with an emphasis on connection breathing are where you should begin your postnatal fitness journey. This is particularly important if you experienced separation of your abdominal muscles during your pregnancy.
Although separation can heal without any extra help by around eight weeks post-partum, it can linger and if not dealt with can stay separated.
Core work also includes strengthening your pelvic floor muscles. These will have been significantly weakened during labour, often to the point where bladder control goes out of the window. As a result, they can take some time to build back up.
Pilates is an excellent way of focusing on this part of the body. Book in for an initial one on one session if you can (many pilates instructors are also physiotherapists) so they can fill you in on what you’re working with.
Bye bye boobs
Your relationship with your boobs will be shaken, especially if you are breastfeeding. It will take some time to look at them (or your vagina for that matter) in the same light.
But in the meantime, be kind to them.
If they’re swollen with milk, get a sports bra that fits them well. Invest in some breast pads to mop up any embarrassing leakages.
Avoid any prone exercises that might make them feel squished and anything high impact which will make them uncomfortably jiggle.
If you’re not breastfeeding, it will still take some time to get used to your breasts which will have undergone some changes during pregnancy and the post-partum period in terms of size and stretch marks.
Protect your posture
When you eventually return to strength training, rather than simply hammering out a ton of push-ups or sit-ups, take a more thoughtful approach.
Breastfeeding can leave your shoulders rounded giving you that hunched over look. So rather than focusing simply on pushing exercises (although you should still incorporate these), try and do more pulling to balance out your posture.
Carrying your baby on one side can also start to make you lop-sided so try and rectify the imbalance by using more weight on the other side. Or make a conscious effort to carry bub equally on both sides.
Go low impact
As trendy as high impact HIIT training may be right now, during those first few months of returning to exercise, it isn’t going to be your best friend.
Not only do all those jumps and leaps put unwanted pressure on your fragile pelvic floor, but your muscles will be weak after some time out and will need to build up to strenuous exercise.
Pregnancy hormones, particularly relaxin, remain in your body for up to four months after you finish breast-feeding meaning you’ll still need to take it easy with your stretches and you may still experience reduced stability in your pelvis and joints.
That makes it all the important to take care as you return to exercise in order to prevent any longer term injuries.
Stay low impact for at least the first 12 weeks of your postnatal fitness journey.
The endless hunger
Those that go down the breastfeeding route will find the process increases their need for calories.
But even if you’re not breastfeeding, you may find that the simple lack of sleep leaves you craving a potent combo of caffeine and sugar. Too much of both of these things is a no-no, with the potential to hike your cortisol levels and leave you more exposed to stress, weight gain and finding it even more difficult to get any quality shut-eye.
Make sure you keep healthy snacks around the house to help fight those urges – fresh fruit, yoghurt, nuts and dips with crudites are infinitely better than biccies, sweets or chocolates.
What did you wish you had known about your body before having a baby?