Your Postpartum Body and Getting Back in Shape—Safely
Your Postpartum Body and Getting Back in Shape—Safely
“Baby weight is a good thing,” says Jamie Jones, a pre/postnatal corrective exercise specialist and diastasis core consultant, childbirth educator, and birth doula. Whether you embrace it, hate it, or a little of both, remember that “you need that weight. That weight is going to nourish you; it’s going to nourish your baby.”
Baby weight serves critical physiological and biological purposes: It keeps you and your baby healthy, fed, and growing. It keeps both of you supplied with the vitamins and nutrients you need for brain and organ function. It keeps you and your baby warm, thriving, and alive. You might hate it, but baby weight has kept our species alive for millennia. Respect.
Having said that, it’s very normal to miss your pre pregnancy body. And after a few months postpartum, you may be ready to do something about it. “The weight will come off if you’re in the right mindset, healing your body properly, and giving your body the time to recover,” says Jones. We asked the experts for advice on how to lose pregnancy pounds effectively—and safely.
It’s OK to want your old body back. “I often hear a little bit of shame around caring about [wanting to lose baby weight],” says Emma Bennett, a Santa Monica–based therapist, who specializes in working with postpartum women. “It’s important to normalize that it’s OK to want to feel strong, to want to regain a sense of ownership over your body post baby—whether that means starting an exercise routine, eating more nourishing foods, or making time for yourself.”
Start walking. Once clients are cleared for exercise, Bennett likes to pair talk therapy sessions with walks on the beach. “It’s helpful because we’re getting the blood flowing and we’re able to talk about their feelings,” says Bennett, pointing out the value of getting out of the house, especially if you feel guilty trying to carve out time for yourself. “Our main focus is postpartum mental health, and walking is an additional benefit.” And that benefit is a big one: Studies show that exercise can improve postpartum mental health. Early in the postpartum period, even a twenty-minute walk is an excellent way to get in the mindset of moving again—and prioritizing your own health.
Ease into working out. Take it slow. Really slow. That is the best way to set yourself up for fitness success because you are less likely to pull, tear, or injure yourself. Typically walking, waking up your pelvic floor with Kegels, and engaging your core muscles through gentle exercise are all safe shortly after delivery (you can find more on early postpartum movement here LINK), but always consult your health care provider first. Once your doctor clears you for exercise, Jones recommends prenatal and postnatal classes as a healthy segue back to your normal routine. “Diving too hard into cardio immediately will make you shed weight, but you can also lose the fat reserves you need to be able to feed your baby,” Jones says. Pilates, yoga, swimming, and cycling are good ways to ease in before you return to running or sports with lots of jumping, like tennis. For the vast majority of postpartum women, it takes six weeks to get the go-ahead to resume all exercise, regardless of the type of delivery, says Shamsah Amersi, an obstetrician and gynecologist based in Santa Monica.
Do not restrict your calories. “It’s tempting to limit calories postpartum to drop the [baby] weight, but when you eat at a deficit, you’re not just cutting calories—you’re limiting vital nutrients responsible for your recovery, future postpartum body composition, and metabolic health,” says nutritionist Lizzy Swick. “Short-term weight loss could have long-lasting impacts, and the key is not restriction but balanced plates of real food.” That means no juice cleanses, intermittent fasting, or any other diet that severely restricts your caloric intake. “If you aren’t breastfeeding, your calorie count and fat intake do not need to be increased postpartum,” Amersi says. You no longer need the extra calories you did while pregnant, and a nutrient-rich diet will help with energy and hydration as well as a healthy return to your prepregnancy weight.
Be patient. “It took you nine months to grow a human. Give yourself a minimum of nine to twelve months to lose the pregnancy pooch,” Dr. Amersi says. “The speed of [postpartum weight loss] depends on your genetics, how much you gained during pregnancy, and your activity level. Women who work out during pregnancy lose weight and body fat easier [after delivery].”
Focus on your abdominals—in the right way. Obviously, your abdominal area is the part of your body that changes the most during pregnancy, and it needs the most time to recover. “After delivery, the uterus is still enlarged from carrying a baby and can take six to eight weeks to return to its prepregnancy size,” says Amersi. It can take longer if you delivered twins or are recovering from a C-section. Gentle exercises called core compressions that engage your deep abdominal muscles have many benefits and are safe 24 hours after childbirth (or when your doctor gives you the OK). These breath-meets-Kegel-meets-core-engagement movements might seem like light exercises for someone who is used to, say, a bootcamp workout, but the key is doing them consistently and increasing reps over time. Core compressions can strengthen your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor and can prep your body for more intense ab workouts once you are cleared for exercise. One study found that sixty percent of postpartum women experience the abdominal muscle separation known as diastasis recti, and specific exercises that target deep core muscles may help. Doctors stress how important it is to avoid any frontal abdominal exercises—the ones that make your front abs bulge, like crunches—since these can worsen diastasis recti.
Don’t compare yourself to other mothers. The experts all agree on one key point: Comparing your weight loss or fitness progress to that of other new mothers is a bad idea. We all have different bodies, different pregnancies, different everything. Says Bennett, “You’re looking at external indicators [to determine] whether you’re good enough, and that is so highly illogical because you can’t compare yourself to anyone else.” If you are eating healthy, exercising regularly and with increased intensity and frequency and still not seeing progress, ask your doctor for advice or consider meeting with a postnatal fitness specialist or health coach.
Think about your next baby. If your family planning goals include another child, returning to a healthy prepregnancy weight before you conceive again is important. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to wait until you’re back at your prepregnancy weight to start trying to conceive, but the “Why lose it when I’m just going to gain it back again” excuse doesn’t set you up for a healthy second pregnancy. In fact, a healthy, mindful diet and regular exercise can help with fertility. In a study of over 150,000 women, researchers found that even modest increases in pre-pregnancy BMI between deliveries could increase the likelihood of health issues for both the mother and baby. In other words, try to get back to your prepregnancy weight before conceiving again, and keep up a prenatal exercise routine with every pregnancy.
Breastfeeding and Weight Loss: What to Know
Studies show that mothers who breastfeed tend to lose weight faster than moms who don’t—about one to two pounds per week—but that’s not true for everyone. Yes, you’re burning extra calories feeding your baby, but there are other variables that can keep the weight from falling off. Namely hormones: Breastfeeding increases the prolactin hormone and reduces estrogen, which can slow metabolism, and hormones caused by the stress of new motherhood can also cause weight gain. There’s also the appetite factor.
“You’re really hungry for a reason,” says midwife Christian Toscano. “You need more calories to feed the baby than you did to grow the baby, but often when people want to lose pregnancy weight, they start to restrict caloric intake.” This can have the opposite effect. “If the body thinks it’s starving, it’s similar to yo-yo dieting: The body is going to hold on to everything it has because it knows it has to make milk.” Breastfeeding mothers need around 500 to 700 extra calories daily (that’s about six pieces of fruit or five ounces of cheese or a really big bowl of pasta), and no less than 1,500 calories per day.