The changes that your body and emotions go through before and after childbirth can sometimes seem overwhelming, making you feel like you’re powerless to manage them. However, there is no need to feel that way – there are many steps that you can take during and after pregnancy that will boost your physical and mental health. To get some insight, we spoke to Elizabeth Frost, who runs Mama Baba Fit online exercise classes. A personal trainer who specialises pre and postnatal exercise programmes, Elizabeth is an expert in strengthening and conditioning for mums-to-be and new mums. She passed on some useful prenatal and postnatal tips to help you prepare and rejuvenate yourself along the journey.
The correct set-up for your prenatal pelvic floor
Pelvic floor exercises are well-known to help your body cope with the weight of a growing baby. Pelvic floor muscles start at the front of the pubic bone and extend all the way to the back of the spine. If these muscles are exercised pre-birth, it helps the pelvic organs to stay in place and avoids stress incontinence caused through the weight of the uterus (it can also prevent incontinence post-birth). Performing your pelvic floor exercises pre-birth will also accelerate the repair of the muscles post-birth. Stronger pelvic floor muscles can also increase sensitivity during sexual intercourse and orgasms.
If all that sounds like the answer to your pregnancy prayers, the tricky bit is knowing how to perform pelvic floor correctly. If it’s not done right, you could waste a lot of time and energy.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, pelvic floor can fit seamlessly into your daily routine and can be performed without thinking – so naturally and easily that other people won’t notice you’re doing it!
These easy steps will get you on the right track:
- Find a comfortable sitting position on a chair or a swiss ball (or standing if you prefer).
- Tense these muscles in a similar way to tensing the muscles when stopping a wee – the sensation is very similar, though we recommend that you don’t practice pelvic floor on the toilet!
- Once you’ve identified the feeling, the next step is to clinch the muscles in quick succession, between 10 and 40 times. We suggest you do this three times per day, depending on your current pelvic floor strength.
- When doing this exercise, do not hold your breath or tighten your stomach, bottom or thigh muscles at the same time.
- This routine should be maintained daily during your pregnancy and up to a year post-partum.
Keep active with cardiovascular training
Heading out for a jog is probably one of the last things on your mind when pregnant, but it’s well worth lacing up for a light workout. Whether it’s a gentle run or a relaxing swim, cardiovascular training is safe and extremely beneficial during pregnancy, as long as you don’t overdo it. Make sure you feel comfortable with the exercises. Don’t do them if you have a high-risk pregnancy or you have been advised against it by your doctor or midwife.
Moderate cardiovascular exercise can increase endorphins (the happy hormone) and energy levels, helping you to improve the quality of that all-important sleep in the evening. It can also play a role in preventing excess weight gain during pregnancy, keeping your heart strong and promoting muscle tone and strength. Your blood volume increases by 30% – 50 % during pregnancy, helping the little sparkle of joy to grow and develop.
The endorphin boost of cardiovascular exercise is also enormously beneficial post-birth. As many as 50 to 75% of new mothers experience the “baby blues” after delivery, lasting up to two weeks after birth. Post-partum depression is extremely common with 1 in 10 women experiencing depression within a year of giving birth. Once you get into a routine, maintaining regular exercise becomes a source of motivation that can lift your mood. If you can connect with other mums through exercise (walking or running together, or joining an exercise class) the fun, socialising and shared experience will also have a positive impact on your mental health. It’s important to find something you enjoy and it’s even better if you can involve your baby in your workout, making it a bonding ritual as well as a training ritual.
Be mindful of gestational diabetes
In the UK, around 16 out 100 women will develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes is caused when your body is unable to produce enough insulin (the hormone that helps control your body’s blood sugar levels). It can develop at any stage during the pregnancy but usually disappears after birth. You could be at a higher risk to develop gestational diabetes for the following reasons:
- If you have a BMI above 30
- If you have had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
- If one of your parents or siblings have diabetes
- If you are of Asian, black, African Caribbean or Middle Eastern origin.
The risk of developing it can be lowered if the condition is detected early and can be managed by your doctor. For most women, gestational diabetes doesn’t cause noticeable signs or symptoms, but increased thirst and more frequent urination are possible indications. Regular exercise can help prevent the risk of gestational diabetes before pregnancy – it makes the body more sensitive to the insulin that the pancreas creates, which helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Full body strength and conditioning
Whilst pelvic floor is a valuable part of prenatal routines, it’s also important to keep your general body strength up during pregnancy. As you’re exercising against gravity, using your own body weight to train gives you the ability to improve cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength at the same time. Additional modifications can make this more challenging. For example: take a standing squat and add a jump at the end, bringing motor skills and power into one simple exercise. Strengthening this way can prevent aches and pains when a growing baby puts additional pressure on the body and joints. It will also make your body better prepared for labour and birth. In judging a level of intensity that’s appropriate and safe, you should remember that each pregnancy is individual, and therefore it’s important to listen to your own body and understand the risks vs the rewards of exercise. During pregnancy, using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is the simplest way to measure approximately how hard you can work without compromising safety.
RPE is usually measured on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, 1 is sitting down and 10 is sweating and being unable to speak whilst exercising. Ideally, you want to be working towards an RPE of 4-6, which means you’re still able to speak but feel like you’re working out.
Resistance training is beneficial when your little one enters the world. You will appreciate building up the extra strength when the physical demands of motherhood consume those early days: carrying baby, pushing a pram on flat ground or uphill, lifting baba in and out of the cot. Resistance bands provide a safe and effective pre-and post-natal workout whilst also improving muscle strength, tone, flexibility and balance.
Working on core to repair diastasis recti
A common occurrence during pregnancy, diastasis recti is a partial or full separation of the rectus abdomonis muscles – better known as the six-pack! These muscles run down the centre of your stomach. The separation happens when the uterus grows and pushes the muscles apart, making them longer and weaker, and prone to damage if the wrong exercises are being performed. The spacing of the separation depends on each individual’s body. Separation takes an average time of eight weeks to contract back together for most mothers. Breastfeeding can also play a part in helping these muscles contract back together.
Diastasis recti usually creates a gap of between one and two fingers in width, but more important than the width of the gap is the lack of tension in the midline – the linea alba. If you have a separation, it’s nothing to worry about. It can be fixed by building your core muscles from inside out starting with transverse abdominis (TVA). This muscle helps support your body and acts like a band around the centre of your core. Most people don’t know this muscle is there, let alone how to use it! To identify a suitable core exercise for your body, I would recommend speaking to a midwife or an exercise professional that specialises in pre-and post-natal. I spend lots of time working on core during my sessions at Mama Baba Fit – our mums are amazed at the difference it makes to their post-pregnancy self.
A structured plan is ideal for pre and postnatal exercise
These tips are all helpful in isolation, but the best way to look after your body and mind is a structured plan that focuses on your objectives and the specific needs of your body. At Mama Bab Fit, everyone who wants to join our online classes has a free one-to-one consultation and completes a medical questionnaire. This process gives us the opportunity to get to know each individual and make bespoke adaptations to help them get the best out of their classes.
We recommend that you find a qualified personal trainer with the specialist knowledge to plan your pre and postnatal exercise routines. Better still, find an exercise class which provides a structured programme and gives you the opportunity to enjoy the experience with other mums and mums-to-be. Exercise is so much better and more effective when you’re having fun – that’s probably the most important tip of all!
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