Becoming a parent is a huge milestone. And while it’s a joyous occasion, it can also leave you feeling flipped upside down.
All of a sudden, your sleep schedule gets thrown for a loop. Your social life gets replaced with late-night feedings and endless diaper changes.
And if you were the one to carry the baby, your body might seem like something that belongs to a stranger. Pregnancy and childbirth can do a number on your abdominal muscles, your joints and your overall shape.
All of these changes can send your emotions spinning.
According to some estimates, about 15% of women deal with postpartum depression (PPD). Even among those who aren’t diagnosed with PPD, it’s not uncommon to feel extra sadness or anxiety during this time.
But that emotional roller coaster isn’t reserved for women. Fathers can experience it, too. Some experts think that about 10% of new dads face depression at some point during a partner’s pregnancy or after the baby arrives.
Amid all these feelings and changes, there’s something you can do to help yourself feel grounded again: exercise.
You might not feel like doing much except grabbing sleep where you can during the postpartum period, but moving and stretching your body can work wonders for your mood and your sense of self.
It’s also important to note that exercise doesn’t have to be about getting back your pre-baby abs or achieving the best shape of your life. Rather, fitness activities can be a way to get in touch with your body, channel your stress and clear your mind.
You’ve brought another human into this world, and that’s something worth celebrating. Exerting your body is a way to remind yourself just how amazing you are.
Disclaimer: the following is for information only and should not be used to diagnose or treat any condition. If you have specific questions about your health or physical activity, please ask your doctor.
Before you jump full force into traditional exercise activities like jogging and biking, give your body some time to adjust to the idea.
New moms especially might need this phased approach. Pregnancy and childbirth cause major changes to your abs and pelvic floor. Diastasis recti is a common postpartum condition in which there’s a gap between the two halves of the main abdominal muscle. It’s normal for the pelvic muscles to be stretched and worn out, too.
Your first postpartum exercises should gently target these areas. Restoring your core strength will make other fitness activities easier and safer.
For both your abs and your pelvic floor, building up strength usually involves engaging the muscles using a squeeze-and-release method. Pilates moves work well for many women, but ask your healthcare provider about what will be safe and effective for you.
It’s also critical to wait until your doctor gives you the all-clear. For vaginal births, that often comes after the 6- or 8-week mark. Moms who had C-sections will probably need to wait longer.
You might assume that walking is off the table after you first give birth, and that’s probably true for right at the outset. But most new moms can often start a walking routine fairly soon after delivering a baby. Some doctors say you can begin after two to three weeks.
And a walk in the outdoors could be just what your mental health needs.
Time in nature has been linked to better moods, lower stress levels and reduced irritability. It may also provide a boost for your self-esteem, which sometimes takes a hit during the first months of parenting. Plus, if you bring a friend or your partner along, you’ll get to chat and reconnect with other adults.
For your first few strolls, choose gentle paths, and opt for a shorter walk of about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Don’t be surprised if your feet or ankles swell. Afterward, rest with your feet elevated to relieve the swelling.
If you have a stroller or an infant carrier that’s designed for newborns, your baby can go on walks right away. Any stroller that you use at this point should hold the baby in a reclined position. A carrier must supply head support.
Remember to take it easy as you get back into physical activity. Your walking buddy might need to be in charge of pushing or carrying the baby. A new mom’s body may not be up for those jobs quite yet.
After walking for a while, you may be tempted to move a little faster. Once your body is ready, you could give jogging a try.
Some studies show a link between running and cognitive health. It seems that going for a jog may improve your memory, your focus and your ability to multitask. If you’ve been living under the fog of new parenthood, hitting the pavement could restore some clarity.
As with other forms of exercise, new moms need to take it easy at first. That’s because having a baby loosens your joints. This is an essential phenomenon during childbirth, but it makes it easier to get hurt afterward. Your joints may be affected for up to a year after delivery. Even if you were a pro runner in your pre-baby days, you shouldn’t push yourself quite as hard for right now.
New parents may be anxious to take the baby along on a jog, but newborns aren’t ready for that.
While jogging strollers are equipped with sturdy tires and shock-absorbing suspension systems, even these features aren’t enough to protect a tiny baby’s body during a run. Most stroller manufacturers recommend that your baby be at least 6 months. Some infants don’t have enough neck strength until 8 months or older.
Check with your baby’s pediatrician for specific recommendations.
If you’re anxious to get moving soon after having a baby, swimming might be an activity that doesn’t have to wait. Some healthcare providers say it’s safe to get in the pool just two or three weeks after having a baby.
A lot depends on how quickly your body recovers. It’s important for your vaginal bleeding to have stopped and any stitches to have healed. Always check with your doctor first to see what’s right for you.
What’s nice, though, is that babies don’t need to wait for their first swimming experiences. You can take them to the pool at any age, so new dads can start swim sessions right away. A tiny wetsuit will help your little one stay warm in the water. And at around 6 months, your baby might be able to start experimenting with a few strokes.
If you’ve been spending day after day staring at the same four walls as you soothe a fussy baby, taking to the open road on a bicycle could feel like freedom.
Biking is associated with positive mental health benefits. This type of exercise is great at getting your blood moving and distributing mood-boosting hormones around your body in the process.
Once cleared by the doctor, new moms can ride, but it’s smart to pick the seat carefully. Traditional women’s seats could put uncomfortable pressure on the parts of your body that just endured the trauma of childbirth. A men’s bike seat with an opening in the center could be just what you need at this point in your life.
Leave your little one with someone else for a while, though. Bike-riding has to be a solo activity at first. Your baby should be at least a year old before sitting in a bike seat or tagging along in a trailer.
There’s no need to feel guilty about leaving your bundle of joy in the care of someone else for a bit, either. Exercise can be great for new parents, as it can help clear the mind, but it’s just as important to practice self-care in those early weeks and months.
Sooner than you realize, the postpartum period will end. Until then, take care of yourself by sleeping when you can, eating as well as you can and moving your body in a way that works for you.