8 Things Nobody Tells You About Exercising After Childbirth

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
As someone who strength-trained, ellipticized, and stair-climbed her way through pregnancy, I knew I’d be itching to hit the gym as soon as my OB gave me the post-delivery go-ahead. Now to be clear, I wasn’t trying to go into labor with a visible six-pack or anything (though I have no problem with uber-fit pregnant people. You do you.), but I am someone who lives for the gratifying feeling of peeling a sweat-soaked sports bra over her head after a hard workout. And my desire to return to my regularly scheduled fitness program had little to do with “baby weight” or “getting my body back” or any of those other annoying-AF, problematic, pressure-ridden ideas, and almost everything to do with the exquisite stress relief I feel from working out. Plus, it gave me a chance to hand the baby over to my husband (or, with Baby #2, the mail carrier, the InstaCart delivery person, or whoever happened to be around) and enjoy some spit-up-free alone time.
But of course, just like exercising during pregnancy is a little different from your pre-preg regimen, things can change all over again once you give birth. Of course, we’ve all read stories about how your post-pregnancy bladder is more likely to leak during the same 5K that you finished dry just nine months prior. And, sorry, I’m not here to repair your bubble and tell you that’s not true; it is. (You’ll learn more about that ahead — lucky you.) But in reality, there’s a lot more to exercising after childbirth than managing untimely leaks. Much of it is exactly the same. Some of it is different. Read on for eight ways your workouts might change, and how to deal, from me and other new parents who’ve BTDT.
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You might need a pumping pit stop.

You might need a pumping pit stop.

Anna Young made headlines last September when a photo of her walking and pumping in the middle of a half-marathon went viral. I’m not a hardcore runner, so I never had to strap on my Medela mid-race, but I definitely dealt with a few milk-related matters when I was a nursing exerciser.

Initially, I fretted over whether working out would diminish my supply; it turns out that’s just an old wives’ tale. Then I wondered if exercise would negatively impact the taste of my milk; again, it turns out that the everyday breastfeeder need not worry about this. (The American Academy of Pediatrics says that if a woman works out strenuously enough, lactic acid may build up and possibly affect the taste of her milk, but even so, “your baby would likely not reject it.”) And yes, there were times when I didn’t properly time my workout to our little one’s feeding schedule, and I stepped off the StepMill about a cup size larger than I’d been when I got on. But that was nothing a quick locker-room feeding couldn’t fix.

If you are looking to do lengthy runs, though, there are ways around the milk issue, albeit complicated ones. Jennifer Wozniak, a 39-year-old physician from Eagen, MN, started training for her first marathon six months after her second daughter was born. “My husband would meet me for breaks on my long runs so I could nurse her. It was totally a pain and, yes, I would think, ‘This is crazy!’ But it made me feel proud of and grateful for the incredible things my body could do, and it solidified my love of running because it forced me to have time for myself, which felt like such a luxury.” She also endorses wearing a supportive nursing-friendly sports bra, and staying well hydrated.
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You might forget you have a baby entirely.

You might forget you have a baby entirely.

With the right workout, baby-obsessed thoughts blissfully disappear for a moment — it can even start to feel like the good old days when the only person you had to worry about changing after a workout was yourself. Not surprising that two parents I spoke with sung the praises of the church of SoulCycle: “It’s dark, awesome music is blaring, and your body moves so fast that you can't really think about anything other than not dying or hurting yourself on the bike for 45 minutes straight,” says New York City-based lawyer and mom of two Stacey Lager, 40.

Another parent told me that the grapefruit candle-scented SoulCycle environment is ideal for a cathartic good cry. “You have this emotional, mental and physical high, and the room is so dark that people next to you think you just have sweat dripping down your face. When I leave class, I leave all the baggage I came in with me behind. It’s like a gift to mothers” who feel like they never have a moment to themselves, she says.

Challenging, varied classes like HIIT do the trick for others, like Jonna Reilly, an attorney from Northbrook, IL with three kids. “I work out much harder than I did in my 20s — not because I have to, but because the harder I work out, the more space that’s taken up by ‘Omigosh-I-can’t-breathe-I-have-to-climb-this-hill,’ which leaves no space for that mom-voice. It’s all about survival and pushing my body,” Reilly says. The freedom from those maternal pressures, she says, is liberating, and keeps her coming back.
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Or maternal thoughts may take over.

Or maternal thoughts may take over.

I recently caught myself in the midst of an enthusiastic lecture about the benefits of breastfeeding, delivered en route to a group fitness class. My audience: two young non-parents who — when I snapped out of my milk-focused reverie — I realized were uninterested at best, horrified at worst.

No, I don’t spend every workout daydreaming about parenthood — as I said, one of the reasons I work out is to escape. But when you’ve got little ones at home, it can be hard not to think about them when you’re out and about, try as you might. For instance, sometimes, while doing squats, I think, “Oh, this is the same exact move I make when picking Shopkins up off the ground.” I’ve also found myself in CorePower Yoga, where I am often surrounded by women in their 20s with rock-hard, sinewy bodies and matching skin-tight sports bras and booty shorts, and feeling this maternal urge to cradle them in my arms and coo, "It's okay, you don't need to push yourself so hard. It’s society who holds you to such high standards; there are people who will love you for who you are on the inside."
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Or you might be consumed by guilt.

Or you might be consumed by guilt.

If the guilt you feel over not being able to breastfeed/using the non-organic sunblock/losing your kid in Target doesn’t get you, the guilt you feel over working out while that same kid languishes in day care will.

When those “I should be with my kids” thoughts start drowning out Beyoncé’s voice in your earbuds, “Stop should-ing all over yourself,” urges Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out and Never Say Diet Again and a mother of two young girls. “The shame and guilt you feel is our ‘never good enough’ mentality talking. Women wear many hats — spouse, mom, friend — and our mind has a way of making us feel like crap for 72 different things. Acknowledge that the thoughts are just words, then call them out and say, ‘Actually, what I’m doing is prioritizing health and fitness, and I’m helping my kids by being here.’”

When a child sees her parent sweaty from a run or bike ride, she or he learns, “My mom knows how to put herself first sometimes, and she cares about taking care of her body and mind.” Those are stellar lessons for a little one to internalize.

That’s what helped new parent Maria Carter-Ewald, 32, a community relations director in Hamburg, MI, make the difficult decision to return to teaching Zumba classes (on top of her 9-to-5 job) after her daughter was born. “I was in tears, talking with my husband, trying to decide if I should teach again. We made a pro/con list, and there were so many pros: stress relief, extra money for our family. But it seemed like two less hours with our four-month-old, when my time is already so limited.” Ultimately, they decided she needed to do it. “I feel like I’m my best self when I’m leading a class. My husband pushed me to give up the mom guilt.” She started back in January.
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You might want to ease up on the crunches.

You might want to ease up on the crunches.

Plenty of new moms attack their abs with full force, banging out crunches in an effort to eradicate their “mummy tummy” (a phrase that is just waiting to be retired, btw, if anyone has any ideas). But if you have a diastasis recti (DR) — a separation of the two large bands of muscles running parallel from the top to the bottom of the abdomen — crunches can actually backfire.

“Almost all women develop a diastasis while pregnant,” says Lesli Lo, a physical therapist specializing in women’s health at Northwestern Medical Group ‪in Chicago. “As the baby grows, so does the uterus, pushing the intestines and other abdominal organs up and the abdominal muscles out.” In most people, the muscles slowly move back into position during the year following delivery (though they never fully knit back together.) “But in about a third of women, a space the width of about two to four fingers remains,” Lo says.

To do a DR self-check: Lie down, knees bent. Place your fingers a few inches above your belly button, pointing towards your feet. Lift your head a few inches off the ground: Do you feel one to two fingers sinking downwards between the rectus abdominus muscles? If so, you have a small diastasis, but probably nothing to worry about. More than two fingers, Lo says, and your DR may put you at risk of back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction (not to mention a distended look).

Your health care provider can confirm you have a DR; ask her for guidance on how to successfully rein it in. The regimen likely won’t include crunches, FYI, since they can actually make things worse by pulling the two sides of the "sick pack" apart. Instead, DR-targeting exercises are usually quite gentle and focus on strengthening the transverse abdominus muscle, which corsets your lower torso and supports your core.

If rehabilitative exercise doesn’t do the trick, you may actually need to look into surgery. It’s pricey (around $5,000) and typically isn't covered by insurance, but it will help close up your DR and should bring relief to any back pain you’ve been experiencing.
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You don’t have to wait six weeks.

You don't have to wait six weeks.

Six has long been the magic number in terms of waiting to exercise after baby comes. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) now says that women who experienced a healthy pregnancy and a normal vaginal delivery can return to exercise a few days after giving birth, or — and this is important — as soon as they feel ready. They don’t necessarily mean immediately jumping back into Rx CrossFit WODs, but easing in with simple and safe exercises for your core and back, and good old walking, is a safe bet if you’re raring to get active again. And some people are! Others just want to chill, heal, and rock athleisure full time while their gym membership stays on hold. It’s up to you.

Had a C-section or complications? Ask your health care provider when it is safe to exercise again.
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Okay, yes, you will probably pee on yourself.

Okay, yes, you will probably pee on yourself.

It was a Friday afternoon, and I was racing through the supermarket, toddler in one arm, bagels and a bottle of wine in the other. As I cut through the diaper aisle, which eventually morphs into the sanitary needs section, a purple box caught my eye. “Helps stop leaks,” whispered the subdued box of Poise Impressa Bladder Supports. I doubled back, intrigued but confused, and did some quick mental pelvic math: These looked like tampons, and tampons go in your vagina. Urine comes out of a totally different hole. I couldn’t help but wonder (cue mental image of Carrie Bradshaw clickety-clacking at her laptop)… How could a tampon keep a woman from peeing on herself?

It turns out that while these suckers look like tampons in the tube, once they’re inserted, the plunger is depressed and the tampon ejected, they pop open in a sort of double-diamond, champagne-cork-esque shape. The urethra and the vagina run parallel to each other, so the material inside the vagina presses outwards, narrowing the urethra so urine doesn’t dribble out.

According to the National Association for Continence, about 30 to 50 percent of childbearing women will experience urinary incontinence by age 40. So just know that if you fall into that very large group, options exist — you don’t have to just stick with black leggings and hope for the best. You could go the champagne cork tampon route (some women find that a plain old-fashioned tampon helps, too), or wear a pad and use the washroom before exercising, but upping your Kegel game will probably offer the best bang for your buck. Visit the American Physical Therapy Association’s Section on Women’s Health website to find a women’s physical therapist near you; she can help you train your pelvic floor so you can get back to training your abs and quads.
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You may exercise with a different purpose.

You may exercise with a different purpose.

In my teens and 20s, I sweated with a singular goal in mind: to make my ass tighter and higher. Yes, I knew cardiovascular exercise was beneficial for my heart, brain, sleep, blahblahblah. If I’m being honest, though, I did it for the calorie burn, the toning, the size 28 jeans I wished I could fit into. That’s just the truth, even if it’s not exactly body-positive.

At 34, when my husband and I started trying (unsuccessfully) to have a baby, exercise changed in a serious way. Gone were the punishing workouts, replaced with long, meditative walks and fertility yoga. I remember lowering into Chair Pose, arms outstretched in the air, my instructor asking us to set an intention and picture it floating between our hands. I imagined a baby hovering just above me, and pursued it, class after class; my version of Happy Baby Pose.

Once our baby arrived (a direct result of IVF and not, I believe, yogic baby praying), I was back at the gym within just a few weeks, but again: not because I wanted to shed the baby weight. I was desperate for some Me Time, away from the diaper blow-outs, sleep training, and thank-you notes, and exercise offered a precious 30 minutes of escape. I could even read a tabloid or watch Project Runway at the same time and feel some semblance of the woman I was before parenthood. Plus, getting sweaty ensured I’d take a shower, something that doesn’t happen on the regular in those early postpartum weeks. My workouts weren’t long and grueling, simply because I didn’t have time for them to be. And I realized that 30 minutes on the elliptical is plenty.

Read on for a few other quotes from parents on how having kids has changed their workout motivation:

“Pre-baby, my exercise used to be a preparation for a race or, honestly, a way to help fulfill my vain desires to achieve toned abs or arms. Now, I'm all about fitness as functionality: Will my squats and lunges give my legs the strength to carry a backpack of work/baby gear and a 15-pound baby up to our 3rd floor walkup? How many pushups and bicep curls will I have to do to be able to shove that ridiculously heavy stroller into the trunk of my car?‬” — Theresa Hill, 33, an office manager in San Francisco

“When I'm sprinting on the treadmill and I want to quit early, I think of my Ob/Gyn telling me to keep pushing and counting down from 10. If I can push out a baby, I can keep running!‬” — Katie Morrison, 31, a full-time mom in Libertyville, IL

“Whenever I am working out and find myself doubting I can finish, I always imagine my girls watching me. I want them to know that women are strong and can do anything they [want to]. Just the thought of giving up with my girls watching me pushes me through.” — Maureen Burgess, 38, a teacher in Bloomfield Hills, MI

“I dedicate every single yoga class to my children, and to my role as their mom. And then I spend the entire hour completely focused on myself. ‬‪Yoga has literally made me a better parent. I'm calm, centered, relaxed, focused, mindful, and physically fit as a direct result of it. ‬It sounds cheesy, and I didn't believe it until I actually started practicing, but it changed me.” — Lindsey Perper Davanzo, 39, a therapist in Buffalo Grove, IL