Exercising both pre and postpartum feels like a minefield. There’s so much information out there that making sense of it when you’re already navigating the world of pregnancy and new-babyhood can feel overwhelming. But as ever we’ve got your back. We’ve brought in pre and postnatal health expert Shakira Akabusi to answer some of your biggest questions. Here’s everything you need to know about exercising as a Mum.
Exercise can be a great way to (re)connect with your body
Exercise is such a brilliant way to reconnect with your body, during and after pregnancy.
Shakira explains: “After the birth of my twins I really had to work on building my fitness back up slowly and I took a lot of time reconnecting to my body in that initial postnatal period (weeks 0-8). I think we need to be talking more about having energy, feeling body positive, and how we can increase strength, and overall health. Rather than just losing weight I think there’s so many more goals a woman can have for her body that isn’t just ‘I want to lose weight and get back into my pre-baby jeans’.
That’s what Strong Like Mum does. It brings people together and it shifts that conversation hugely. I love exercise and it has had a huge positive impact on my parenting and on my mental well-being. Having an aesthetic goal is great, however there is also much more to it.”
Exercise doesn’t affect milk supply if you’re breastfeeding
One of the most common questions Shakira gets asked is whether exercise impacts breast milk supply. The short answer? No. But dehydration can. So staying hydrated throughout exercise is key. What’s interesting though is how the hormones produced when we’re breastfeeding can change our bodies and the impact that has on how we exercise.
“I’m asked a lot ‘can exercise impact breast milk supply?’ but we rarely consider it the other way around” says Shakira. “Breastfeeding can also impact our exercise journey. There’s a hormone called Relaxin and it’s produced from about two weeks after conception, rising throughout pregnancy until about five months postpartum. If you’re breastfeeding, you continue to produce that hormone at high levels. The role of that hormone is to loosen the joints and ligaments in and around the pelvis to prepare for labor and birth. However, it can’t be isolated just to the pelvis so it can affect all the joints throughout the body.”
“It’s really important when we’re exercising that we’re not over stretching or overreaching our range of movement. If you’re lifting weights make sure you’re lifting with control, and within a comfortable range to avoid injury.”
If you’re a runner, and it feels right, you can run during pregnancy
You might have watched the first Sex and the City movie and seen Charlotte’s storyline around running during her first pregnancy. For lots of people who go through pregnancy, there’s anxiety around running. But research has proven that running doesn’t affect the number of weeks babies were born, or the birthweight of the baby.
For Shakira, with the research in mind, running is all about doing what feels right for you. She shares “in my singleton pregnancies I was running up until about three weeks before giving birth and I felt great. With my twin pregnancy however, I went for my first run at 16 weeks and I never went again because it just didn’t feel right. I could feel that pressure on my pelvic floor.”
In terms of what didn’t feel right, Shakira explains: “When you’re pregnant your posture changes and an arch in the lower back can develop. If you imagine your pelvis like a cereal bowl, as the lower back arches, the pelvis is tilted forwards, as if the ‘cereal’ were all tips out the front of the bowl. This pelvic tilt could means that the internal organs, which previously rested across the boney support of the pelvis are now shifted much more onto the pelvic floor muscles below.
During pregnancy we also carry the additional weight of baby, amniotic fluid and placenta etc. The pelvic floor is built to manage this, however we can help with supportive core exercises so that we can enjoy running during pregnancy. I enjoy running a lot, however during my twin pregnancyI felt it was too much additional pressure on my core. Being able to have that confidence in your own journey and know when to reduce exercise, moving at your own timeline is so important.”
Breath can be an invaluable tool for healing
We talk about the power of the breath a lot here at HMHB. It’s useful for helping you feel grounded, for slowing anxious thoughts. But, Shakira explains, it can be really useful for healing after a C-section too.
“I never fully anticipated the power of a good breath until the birth of my first son. Whether we are looking at caesarean or vaginal deliveries, all postpartum journeys will benefit from breathing techniques. Not only can breathing assist with the overall function of our core, and keep the core working in synergy, but for cesarean women, really taking a deep breath can assist with keeping the scar tissue mobile, so that it doesn’t become rigid and stiff. This can really impact the functionality of our core and our comfort.”
Static contractions will focus on your deep core
A member of the HMHB community was curious to know Shakira’s thoughts on stomach wrapping after birth and how to get a firmer stomach. Regardless of whether you choose to wrap your stomach or not, what really works your deep core, or your transverse abdominal muscle, which is crucial for recovery, is static contractions.
“If we want to target the Transverse Abdominis (a deep core muscle crucial for postnatal core rehab), exercises such as, pelvic tilts, leg slides, the bridge or the modified / incline plank can be really beneficial. Making sure that we use breathing and pelvic floor engagement to support each movement. Drawing up the pelvic floor with each exhale” Shakira advises.
Going back to running (and most postpartum recovery) comes down to strong foundations
One of the most frequently asked questions from the HMHB community came down to when parents could get back to exercising after giving birth. For Shakira, it’s all about building strong foundations, from pelvic stability to the entire core.
If you’re looking to return to running we want to focus on really realigning our pelvis because it’s going to help us a be able to activate our glutes better, well as get our hamstrings back into more of an optimal alignment. That’s going to help us with our stride and our power when we run.
“When we’re looking at returning to running, as with all post-natal recovery we need to be assessing our core. Running is hugely demanding for the core. Not only is it an impact exercise but running is also a single leg movement so it really takes a lot of negotiation through our core to be able to manage the movement. We definitely need to be giving our pelvic floor the support with the exercises previously mention, working on our pelvic floor muscles making sure that they can take that impact. It’s also important to assess our foot health and rehabilitate any fallen arches with exercises such as calf raises or paper towel crunching with our toes. Making sure we have good posture is also important when comes to returning to running.
Ultimately once we’re doing these foundation exercises and building strong foundations we need to get out there, give it a go, slowing building up our routes over time.”
You can have an active pregnancy
According to the NHS, there’s evidence that active women are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labour. Generally, if you’re well, you can keep up your normal daily physical activity or exercise (sport, running, yoga, dancing, or even walking to the shops and back), for as long as you feel comfortable. The exception are impact sports or activities with increase risk of falling, which should be stopped unless you have been cleared by a medical professional.
While pregnancy isn’t a time to be trying to get your marathon PB, you can even try new things if you feel up to it.
Shakira says: “Trying new things can be great and for some women, pregnancy is the first time they’ve considered their fitness and building in an exercise routine. However, it’s not necessarily a time to be pushing our physical boundaries. I would encourage everybody to enjoy an active pregnancy. If we really look at the instinct of the human body we were made to move and not be sedentary all day.
I think there are so many benefits for pregnant women who exercise during pregnancy. And postpartum it can help us gain confidence and feel positive about our body. Building up slowly can help us sustain healthy goals and enjoy a long term active lifestyle.”
You can watch all of Gi’s chat with Shakira on Parenting SOS (formerly known as Asking For A Friend) below or check out the podcast episode wherever you usually listen.