Keeping it real: Slow and steady is key to postnatal fitness
When it comes to postnatal fitness, taking things slowly and steadily is the key, writes Claire O'Mahony
When you're pregnant or a new mother, the internet can be the most amazing tool ever. It's there when you're not sure if something is 'normal' or not, and it's a gateway to a global community of parents who are going through the same experiences. Where it can be extremely unhelpful is if it creates pressure to be the perfect mother and causes you to compare yourself unfavourably to others - something that can often be the case when it comes to losing baby weight.
Studies have indicated that extended periods on social media can contribute to negative body image. And naturally, when you're still wearing your maternity jeans three months after giving birth, and you're being bombarded with images of celebrities and selfies of those who have, allegedly, 'bounced back' into shape, it can be difficult not to be affected by these visuals of perfection.
But it appears that the tide may be turning, even in celebrity circles, when it comes to post-partum bodies, with fast recovery times no longer being celebrated. Singer Pink recently posted "Week 6 post baby and I haven't lost ANY WEIGHT YET!!!! Yay me!!!! I'm normal" on her Instagram page while singer Geri Halliwell, who previously battled an eating disorder, insists she will not be a "fanatic" about getting into shape after giving birth to a son, Montgomery, in January.
Leonie Lynch - a Limerick-based functional exercise specialist in prenatal programming and postnatal assessment - wants to change the conversation about post-pregnancy bodies and encourage women to move towards the idea of "bringing your body back" instead of "getting your body back". Her philosophy is to acknowledge that this is arguably the greatest physical change a woman's body will go through, and to take small steps to further you every day, alongside better nutrition.
"People think that if they don't get their body back in six weeks, there's a problem with them or they're not doing it right - or they're not living up to this ideal - and you can see the mental stress," says the fitness expert, who is mother to Beau (three) and Robyn (one month). "This idea of getting your body back within a certain time frame is so unrealistic and it's so detrimental to women's health."
Postnatal exercise is very important for new mothers, and its physical and mental benefits are well documented. Gentle exercise after a normal delivery is recommended (remembering that all exercise and diet changes should only be made after consultation with your doctor), while it's advised that any high-impact exercise should begin after the six-week postnatal check-up.
But there can be several issues that a new mother may need to take into account when returning to exercise, including incontinence, diastasis recti (where the abdominal muscles split), prolapse, tears, a weak pelvic floor and constipation. "It's about taking the time needed, and my mantra is 'progress, not perfection'," says Lynch, whose Pilates-based postnatal courses will be available online at leonielynch.com in early April. She focuses on correct breathing; functional movements such as squatting and pulling; and the third stage, when participants are ready, is to add resistance training. "You treat the body as a whole entity, and it's not 'getting rid of the belly'. The worst thing you can do when you have a baby is planks and crunches," she says. "You also need to get your alignment right. Women are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding so you're hunched over and that doesn't allow the body and the pelvic floor to heal."
Pregnancy and postnatal fitness expert Dr Joanna Helcke says that, from her experience, the mothers she works with have rather more realistic expectations than one might think. "More often than not, those who were physically active pre-pregnancy will get back into some form of modified fitness routine quite soon after their little one has arrived. What I have also noticed is that a significant number of women catch the 'fitness bug' either during or after pregnancy. They may well have been relatively inactive before falling pregnant and then decided to take up pregnancy fitness for the sake of their baby, only to become hooked… hopefully for life. Having said that, underlying this there is often an unspoken desire to lose the 'baby weight' in time for going back to work," she says.
Where unrealistic expectations are more likely to arise, Dr Helcke finds, is in relation to the massive life change that having a baby brings. "I notice that many first-time mums-to-be think that their little one is somehow going to fit around their life, including when it comes to exercise. The reality is, of course, that postnatal fitness has to fit around the baby, and finding time is a huge challenge. Having said that, I truly believe that where there's a will there is - most of the time - a way. There are so many fantastic postnatal mother-and- baby fitness classes and online programmes available these days."
However you choose to tackle postnatal fitness, doing it steadily and slowly is the best route, is the expert message.
"You've gone through an amazing thing -you've grown a child, you've carried a child, you've delivered a child, and now you're starting to rear a child and the battle scars should be shown. The goal in the end should be to have a fit and healthy body," concludes Leonie Lynch.