When I was pregnant – and when my SPD would allow it – I did some pregnancy pilates through an online course by pregnancy and postnatal fitness expert Dr Joanna Helcke. With the help of some fellow pregnant and new mamas, I’ve compiled some questions about pregnancy and postnatal fitness, which Dr Joanna has kindly answered.
1. What’s your top tip for gently getting back into exercising after having a baby?
My top tip when it comes to rebuilding postnatal fitness is to ensure that you get the fundamentals in place rather than rushing in at the deep end. What do I mean by this? Pregnancy places significant strain on the body, especially the abdominals which become hugely stretched and weakened, the lower back which bears the load of your growing bump, the pelvis which carries your extra body weight and the pelvic floor which has the job of “holding up” your baby for 9 months. So your first fitness job postnatally, is to spend at least 6 months strengthening and restoring these key weakened areas: pelvic floor, abdominals, back, posture and pelvis. Once ALL these foundations are in “full working order” your body will be ready for the “deep end” of fitness whether it be competitive sports, marathons or high impact exercise such as HIIT.
2. Does your advice differ depending on whether mum exercised before/during pregnancy or not and whether she had a vaginal or caesarean birth?
Yes, but only to a degree: whilst it is true that some people sail through pregnancy, labour and birth, this is still not a green light to jump straight back into your pre-pregnancy fitness regime if it was high impact – such as running – or if it placed a strain on vulnerable areas of the body – such as kettlebell training. The basic rules of building postnatal fitness remain the same: work on those fitness foundations which I mentioned earlier, ensuring that you restore them the safe way for a postnatal body, and then bring in your cardio and resistance work gradually and incrementally. Finally, once you have passed the 6 month postpartum mark, start to build in impact work and intensity, all whilst listening to how your body responds. Someone who enters pregnancy with a high degree of fitness should still, ideally, follow this process but due to muscle memory fitness levels will build up more quickly. Following a C-section you need to wait longer before you can start “formal” forms of fitness but the foundations – namely working on rebuilding pelvic floor strength – can be started almost immediately.
3. I used to run prior to this pregnancy, but my sickness was too bad for me to continue, what sorts of exercises will help prepare my body to start running again?
Your first job is to get the foundations of fitness in place: strengthen your pelvic floor muscles as these will have suffered during pregnancy and running places a great deal of strain on this area; rebuild your abdominal strength and if you have an abdominal separation make sure that the abs work you do is tailored specifically for this condition; work on building up strength in the muscles that surround the pelvis (bottom, things and hamstrings). Once you have been given the green light to exercise by your GP I would like to encourage you to build your running fitness using low impact techniques: start off by power walking with the buggy and try to include hills in these walks. If you have a swimming pool nearby I would suggest taking up deep water aquajogging: it mimics the movement pattern of running, is low impact and will translate into running fitness when the time is right.
4. What’s the best way to keep fit and active when you have SPD/PGP during pregnancy?
This is a hard one and depends to a great degree on how bad the pelvic girdle pain is. In pregnancy the main aim is to manage and not aggravate the condition so it is very much a case of putting in place certain measures that will minimise the pain, such as sleeping with both the knees and the ankles supported and slightly separated by pillows so that they are in line with your hips; getting in and out of bed and the car with your feet firmly together by swivelling on your bottom; and not walking too far if you find this makes matters worse. In terms of exercise, again depending on the severity of the condition, it is a case of adapting things so as not to irritate the pelvic girdle area. This usually means that exercise which involves taking the feet wider apart than hip width should be avoided. A clear example would be breaststroke – try crawl instead. Through a very careful process of trial and error – preferably under the supervision of a specialist in pregnancy and postnatal exercise – you will be able to ascertain what exercises you can and cannot do.
5. Is it okay to start certain exercises during pregnancy if you’ve not been exercising previously? If so, what do you recommend?
During the first trimester your body is busy laying down the foundations of pregnancy and given this, the advice is to avoid taking up any new forms of fitness, regardless of how gentle they might be. I would, however, make an exception when it comes to walking for fitness: walking is a functional part of our lives and so if you wish to take up walking specifically for exercise then I see no problem with this. Once someone has safely entered the second trimester of pregnancy, new forms of fitness can be introduced but these should be tailored for pregnancy by a fully qualified specialist in this field who keeps up to date with new developments in this field. I would encourage people to look for fitness offered by members of the Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to maintain high standards in the pregnancy fitness industry across the UK. Fully qualified members will be offering many forms of fitness that they specifically tailor for the perinatal period, from aquanatal through to pregnancy pilates.
You can find full details of Dr Joanna Helcke’s online fitness classes on her website, which is a goldmine of brilliant advice. Thanks to Dr Joanna for answering my questions, I hope that if you’re a pregnant or new mum, you’ve found this information really helpful.