Postpartum women needn't feel discouraged when it seems like everyone else is back in shape after giving birth. Often the best way to recondition a body is to take it slow, experts say.
Doctors typically don't recommend exercise until six weeks after birth to allow hormone levels to return to normal. These levels are higher during pregnancy to relax the muscles, connective tissue and blood vessels, allowing the body to make room for and increase blood supply to your baby, says Dr. Jill Rabin, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine.
"But just because your hormone levels go down," Rabin cautions, "doesn't mean that your ligaments will spring back like a rubber band."
Your body may take three to six months to recover before you can return to your full pre-baby exercise routine," added Shelly Holmstrom, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of South Florida.
How active you can be during this period depends on your doctor's orders, medical history and your level of fitness before getting pregnant, she adds, so speak with your doctor first and get the go-ahead -- and listen to your body for any cues to slow down or stop.
Walking is the most universally accessible form of movement. You don't need any special equipment, just a good pair of shoes and someplace to go.
Jackie Keller, licensed wellness coach and the author of "Body After Baby"
Start with Stretching
Jackie Keller, a licensed wellness coach and the author of "Body After Baby," recommends that women in their first month after pregnancy perform gentle stretches and movements that work the shoulders, neck and back. These can include shoulder circles, shoulder rolls, and chest stretches such as lacing your fingers behind your back and lifting your arms behind you while sitting.
Start with 10 minutes of stretches a day and add 10 percent to your workout time whenever it starts to feel too easy. Do that until you have the energy to perform these movements up to an hour a day, she says.
Experts also recommend conditioning your abdomen and pelvic floor. Helene Bryne, a perinatal exercise specialist and author of "Exercise After Pregnancy: How to Look and Feel Your Best," recommends abdominal compressions, such as lying on your side and relaxing your stomach, then exhaling and contracting your belly so it gets smaller and lifts off the floor and your belly button moves toward your spine.
Keller also suggests abdominal contractions such as lying on the floor, inhaling and forcing the small of your back into the floor while tilting your pelvis up slightly, and then contracting it.
In addition, experts recommend toning the pelvic floor muscles, popularly known as Kegels. But many people misunderstand the exercise and end up only working a small part of their muscles. Bryne recommends sitting on an exercise ball or a hard chair with your legs spread apart so that you're sitting fully on your pelvic floor. She suggests holding your contraction as tightly as possible for 10 seconds and then allowing for a full relaxation of those muscles before starting a new one. Repeat this 10 times and do a set of 10 about eight to 10 times a day, or as recommended by your doctor.
Get to Stepping
Short walks soon after you have given birth can also be an ideal way to start conditioning your body. You can make small pathways inside your house or take a short stroll outside, Keller says.
"Walking is the most universally accessible form of movement," Keller said. "You don't need any special equipment, just a good pair of shoes and someplace to go."
Keller recommends walking for 10 minutes a day and slowly adding time and distance as your stamina increases. Once walking gets easier, consider adding weights such as carrying a backpack with a textbook in it.
As you progress in the months after your baby's birth, it's important to continue to carve out time for exercise, Keller adds. A great way to fit workouts into your schedule is to make a game of it with your baby.
Keller suggests cradling your baby while seated and lifting her from your lap to your chest and back down again. You can also do squats while holding your baby, she adds, or even knee pushups with your baby lying on the floor beneath you.
Remember Your Fitness Level
As you feel stronger in the months after pregnancy, try to exercise three to four times a week for at least 20 minutes to a half hour, Bryne adds.
Women who were out of shape before pregnancy should focus on low-intensity exercises such as walking for 15 minutes at a time and slowly adding time to the walk.
Very fit women should realize how different their body is postpartum. Bryne does not recommend any running for the first three months after delivery, telling her physically fit clients to focus on brisk walks instead.
"Women who love to run can't wait to go and do it, but they end up hurting themselves because of that ligament laxity," Bryne says. "Most women don't know what that is and they're running and their ankle gives, and they have no idea why."
If walking and stretches start to bore you, consider joining an exercise group, says Jennifer Lungren, the owner of the Arlington-Alexandria FIT4MOM franchise in Virginia. Lungren teaches one-hour Stroller Strides classes for moms and their children who remain in a stroller.
Mothers can do a number of exercises with their baby such as walking lunges, jumps, squats, and "football feet," which is quickly running in place on your toes in front of your child’s stroller, she says.
"My favorite is getting down in front of the stroller and reaching in and tickling the baby while doing your "football feet," Lungren said. "It's great for Mom and you're interacting with your child at the same time."
Whatever you do, remember that ideal weight loss shouldn't happen fast, experts say.
"Having a baby is one of the most taxing things the human body will go through," Lungren said. "Just as that baby was patiently growing for nine months, it can take nine months to grow those muscles and get your body back in shape."