Postpartum fatigue is real. And it sets in fast. A new mother knows all about the rigours of labour and delivery, and what it does to the body. At a time when a woman is at her weakest, a whirlwind of responsibilities sucks her into its fold. This results in anything from restlessness to agitation to anger to anxiety. On the physical end of the spectrum, muscle pain, abdominal cramps, and bleeding leave her exhausted. The postpartum period, which is roughly six weeks after childbirth, is one of the most difficult phases of her life. Postpartum fitness can make it easier but the limited awareness and lack of understanding surrounding it, make this crucial time after childbirth, a largely neglected area.
Why is it not taken seriously?
The lopsided idea that mothers need to be ‘perfect’ keeps women away from prioritising their health, according to Suchita Swamy, a Delhi-based sociologist. “It is believed that the more you sacrifice, the better mother you are.”
The other factor is that new mothers are simply not told enough about what to expect post-birth, including the role of fitness. Many linger in confusion about when to exercise and how much to exercise.
Mental fitness is hardly on anybody’s radar. This is when postpartum depression affects 10 to 25 percent of new moms. “I see so many women in complete denial of their situation. They are clearly anxious but they completely dismiss it,” says Swamy. By denying short-term treatment, women fall into the ugly trap of long-term physical and emotional ill-health.
Why do you need it?
Most importantly, being fit boosts energy and you know the importance of energy and stamina in a new mother’s life. Regular exercise will help you lose weight faster. Secondly, the antidepressant effect of exercise on a new mother is significant. “Even a 10-minute walk is good to begin with. Throw in some stretching or breathing exercises. Light aerobic activity is helpful and so is yoga but consult your doctor before you start,” says Swamy. If nothing else, start doing little chores around the house.
Things you may not be aware of
The first time you start exercising, you will not feel like yourself. Your core strength is at its lowest for obvious reasons and you may experience what’s called exercise leakage, which is uterine incontinence. “Don’t be embarrassed. When the baby moves down the vagina, the pelvic floor stretches considerably and remains that way for a while. This causes leakages when any kind of pressure is put. It is best to empty your bladder before you work out,” says Dr Aruna Kalra, senior gynaecologist and obstetrician at CK Birla Hospital, Gurgaon. It is only natural that the sphincters muscles, in addition to those around the urethra, urinary bladder, the anus become loose and need time to strengthen.
Another thing not told to new mothers is that they are prone to injuries. This is again because of tired muscles and tissues that have undergone tremendous stretch and stress. There is significant calcium loss post-birth, which makes the bones brittle.
Hyderabad-based Kavita Chopra remembers crying for no reason from minutes after birth up till three weeks. Every time she saw her baby, it made her question her decision to have a child. Then her milk supply suddenly stopped. Chopra was at sea. She felt overwhelmed and alone, and because she was never told about postpartum depression, it came as a shock to her that she was suffering from it. “I refused to see a phychiatrist. I thought I was mad. But once I got better after forced treatment, I realised how stupid it was of me to resist it. I wish new mothers were informed about the possibility of such events beforehand so we were not taken by shock,” says Chopra.
During pregnancy, the levels of estrogen and progesterone are higher than normal. Within a few hours of delivery, the levels of hormones drop back to normal. Such an abrupt change leads to anxiety, stress and even depression. “Also, stress is the main reason behind low breast milk supply. Certain hormones like cortisol rise due to such negative emotions that reduce the milk supply,” says Kalra, stressing that depression is easily controllable. Something as easy as a walk can regulate hormones, so get up and get going.
How much exercise do you need?
There is no standard to follow as everybody’s recovery period is different, but usually getting 150 minutes of low to moderate-intensity exercise is considered enough. Whatever you do, consistency matters. If you can focus on the muscle groups surrounding the legs, abdomen and hips, you will see better results. “Don’t forget to care for your mind by taking up mindfulness meditation, chanting, dancing, or journaling,” says Kalra.
How soon can you start?
Generally speaking, your physician will ask you to wait for six weeks. If you have had a C-section, the wait could be longer. Starting too early can cause distress to the already fatigued body. “Muscles and ligaments can get inflamed, the affects of which can last a lifetime. It is best to avoid high-intensity exercises such as running, skipping, jumping, and pulling weights for eight-ten weeks,” says Kalra.
Myths and realities
Myth You can resume all kinds of exercises post the four- to six-week mark
Reality While you can undertake light exercises such as walking, yoga and stretches, your body is in no position to do anything more than that
Myth You will have to live with some amount of urinary incontinence for life
Reality With specific exercises, it can be fixed
Myth Kegels are the best post-birth exercises
Reality Kegels are not enough because they essentially look at contacting the pelvic floor muscles. What you need are exercises that will also lengthen and relax the muscles.
Myth You will never get back to your pre-pregnancy strength
Reality By focusing on fitness, you can get to a shape even better than before
Myth It is not normal to feel low at a happy time like childbirth
Reality Post-baby blues are very common. It is a mental condition that can be addressed with therapy and medication.
Get on the Fitness Track
Seeing the lack of any specialised, research-backed post-birth fitness programmes in India, Mom.Bod.Strong was conceptualised by Hyderabad-based fitness coach Sucheta Pal. It is an online, self-paced programme to help women kickstart their fitness journey. “There is so much information out there and much of it is contradictory in nature so I worked on a specialised plan,” says Pal. Strength restoration, core stabilisation with the help of Transverse Abdominal (TA) and pelvic floor muscle exercises, connection breath technique, and healing the diastasis recti/ab separation, are part of her comprehensive post-pregnancy nutrition and lifestyle guide. Pal addresses everything brushed under the carpet: How to enjoy painless sex post-birth, how to become functionally fit, taking care of urinary or faecal leaks, being aware of conditions such as organ prolapsed, and diastasis recti. The programme also focuses on managing common issues that women face after childbirth such as hair loss, lack of energy, constipation or stress. You get coached on how to increase breast milk supply and supplements you may benefit from.
The next session begins on September 1 and one can register on suchetapalofficial.com/mom-bod-strong