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How to Exercise After Giving Birth

When to Begin Postpartum Aerobic Exercises

You can get back to your prepregnancy figure relatively quickly. Find out when and how to resume aerobic exercise after delivering a baby.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Daily exercise, even for 20 minutes a day, will eventually get you back into prepregnancy shape.

Much has been written on the benefits of aerobic exercise. The benefits we are most concerned with here are those specifically for a new mother. They are increasing stamina and endurance -- the ability to do more but feel less tired -- and decreasing body fat. And remember that if you can't manage aerobic exercise, regular nonaerobic exercise can help, too.

Decreasing Body Fat

After delivery and with exercise, your body slowly begins losing some of the fat it stored during pregnancy. How much you accumulated during the nine months depended on your percentage of body fat going into the pregnancy and the kinds and amounts of foods you ate during pregnancy. The leaner your body was, the less likely it is you laid down large fat stores. Hereditary factors also come into play.

After delivery, the fat stores gradually decrease over a period of four to six months. No miraculous changes occur within the first six weeks, as many sources may lead you to believe. You may notice a difference in your body during the first two weeks after delivery, when you lose much of the accumulated pregnancy-related fluid through urination. After that, loss of fat stores is up to you.

Breast-feeding women initially lose weight faster than women who bottle-feed. However, because of hormonal factors in operation throughout breastfeeding, their body fat level remains slightly higher, their breast tissue weighs more, and they retain a small amount of extra fluid beneath their skin as a reserve. As a result, breast-feeding women tend to weigh about three to seven pounds more than their prepregnancy weight during breast-feeding, regardless of efforts to lose weight.

Having taken this fact into consideration, if you still aren't losing the weight you expected to lose, take a good look at your diet and calorie intake. A diet full of excessive amounts of fats and sweets does not help you return to your prepregnancy weight easily.

Check with your physician before you plan a reducing diet while breast-feeding. Many breast-feeding women can lose weight on 1,700 to 1,800 calories a day and still maintain a good milk supply; others must have 2,000 calories a day to maintain an adequate milk supply. Making milk itself takes lots of energy (and hence, uses up calories). Add aerobic activity for 20 to 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week, and you will lose weight.

Do not regard breast-feeding as an impediment to recovering your prepregnancy figure -- or as an excuse for not trying to. On the other hand, don't let the fear of extra weight gain keep you from breast-feeding in the first place. The few pounds of weight that can be attributed to breast-feeding are with you only temporarily; the benefits of breast-feeding for you and your baby will be with you forever.

Remember, it may take four to six months for body fat to start dropping. A daily nudge with aerobic exercise starts events. Be patient. Many answers still lie ahead of us as more and more studies are undertaken to help us understand the mechanisms of the body that just gave birth to new life. One aspect is absolutely certain: Having a new baby is not an excuse for looking or feeling out of shape.

Increasing Stamina and Endurance

Women often say, "I already walk a lot just caring for the baby, and I'm very tired. The last thing I want to do if I have spare time is walk -- I just want to sit down and relax or nap!" But walking while caring for the baby consists of a lot of stop and start movements, not really going very far from one place to another.

What you need is slow, steady, rhythmic movement for 5 to 15 uninterrupted minutes. This kind of activity, after you get over the initial tiredness the first few times, actually gives you energy and releases you from feeling tired and sluggish.

When to Begin or Resume Aerobic Exercise

The time to begin or resume aerobic exercise depends on a number of factors, such as how fit you were before giving birth, whether delivery was vaginal or by means of a cesarean section, whether you experienced any complications, how much sleep you get, and your emotional reaction to the birth.

Some women take days, weeks, or months to work through unexpected or unpleasant birth-related events. They may feel sad, angry, or depressed. Emotional factors may sometimes prevent a woman from taking hold of her situation and following through with desired action.

General guidelines are as follows: If a woman exercised regularly for 8 to 12 weeks before delivery, she can safely resume moderate aerobic exercise 10 to 14 days after an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, or approximately 21 days after a cesarean delivery. If a woman had a high fitness level before pregnancy and exercised regularly all through pregnancy, she will probably find it comfortable to begin short, brisk walks during the first week after a vaginal delivery or during the second week after a cesarean delivery.

Whatever aerobic activity you choose to begin with, be sure to monitor your pulse; work at about 60 percent of your theoretical maximum attainable heart rate (TMHR) for the first few weeks. Do not start at a level of 70 or 75 percent. Remember that you have just had a baby (and, if by means of a cesarean, major surgery as well). Remember also that you are almost certainly getting less sleep than usual.

Start your exercise program at 60 percent, and if it feels good, work gradually to 75 percent. If you are new to exercise, take 12 weeks to make this transition. To develop stamina and endurance and for your body to burn fat as fuel, you never need to work at a pulse rate higher than 85 percent of your TMHR. The old "no pain, no gain" slogan is not true -- pacing, regularity, and persistence are the keys to successful (and enjoyable) exercise.

The very best guideline for resuming aerobic exercise is to tune in to your body. And remember, never exercise to exhaustion. If you feel yourself tiring, slow down or stop. End your workout at the point at which you feel you could go another ten minutes. Learn to pace yourself.

This is the time to think about joining (or rejoining) an exercise class. A pregnancy/new mother class is ideal. You have the support, advice, and caring of women in your same situation. Although you may not do all the exercises in the class during your first weeks of attendance, getting out of the house, forcing yourself to organize your schedule, being with other mothers, and being in a formal class can do wonders beyond the benefits of the exercises themselves.

Carrying a baby for nine months puts your body through some extreme changes. But now that you have the tools to get back to the physical shape you were in before pregnancy, you'll find it relatively easy and very rewarding.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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Alvin Eden, M.D. serves as a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the Weil Medical College of Cornell University in New York, New York. He is Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn. Dr. Eden is also the author of a number of child care book, including Positive Parenting and Growing Up Thin.

Dr. Elizabeth Eden, M.D. is a practicing obstetrician with her own private practice in New York City. She serves as an attending physician at the Tisch Hospital of the New York University Medical Center, as well as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the New York University School of Medicine.