A-Z of Postnatal Fitness


A is for Abdominals The baby belly - top of every new mum’s hit list and the part of their body they most desperately want to fix after pregnancy. Restoring the core is one of the most important steps you should take during the postnatal period and you should start as soon as possible after giving birth. The abdominal muscles are made up of four layers which need to be strengthened from the inside out. The deepest and most important layer is called the Transverses Abdominis (TvA), which acts like a girdle around your middle. Make this strong and you will be making giant steps towards getting your waist back, having a flat tummy and an improved posture. The next two layers are the Internal Obliques and External Obliques. These allow you to flex and rotate and give you that much sought-after pinched waistline. Finally we have the Rectus Abdominis, commonly known as the six-pack. These help flex the lower back and also assist breathing.

B is for Baby Your beautiful little bundle of joy, your reward for 9 months of hard work. Unfortunately it will take at least another 9 months to fix the damage! Don't use the baby as an excuse though; go out for a walk with the pushchair or put on the Davina DVD. Your little one will love watching you jump around your living room! Although you may not feel like exercise as your time is so precious and you are very tired, however, exercise will re-energise you, help you sleep better, improve your ability to cope and give you some much needed 'me' time.

C is for Caesarean A c-section is a major abdominal operation so the first 6 weeks after giving birth should be seen as a healing phase. During this time the only exercises you should be doing are pelvic floor exercises (equally important for both c-section and natural deliveries) and when you feel ready, gentle lower tummy exercises. Under no uncertain terms should you be doing any lifting or impact exercise. Aim to stand up straight during the healing phase as it can become a habit to stoop to protect your stitches. However, the gently flex of standing tall will actually aid healing. Gradually build up exercise by beginning a light walking programme, starting with 5 minutes and building up to longer walks, preferably at least 30 minutes 3 times per week. Look after yourself during this healing phase and you will be back on your feet quicker. Do the opposite and you can set yourself back weeks.

D is for Diastasis Rectii Abdominal separation, a fairly common condition of pregnancy and the postnatal period, in which the right and left halves of the Rectus Abdominis muscle spread apart at the body's mid line fascia, the linea alba. A gap of more than 2cm (approx 2 fingers width) is considered to be a problem but can easily be corrected using the right exercises. Contrary to popular belief, abdominal crunches will not help you restore your pre-baby tummy and are more likely to make it worse! To help prevent or lessen the severity of diastasis recti it is best to focus on the TvA muscle, the body's natural girdle. Activate this muscle by breathing and pulling your tummy button towards your spine. Continue to hold while breathing out.

E is for Energy A good balance of regular exercise, healthy eating and plenty of rest will help keep your energy levels up. The right exercise can energise you, make you sleep better and help you to make better food choices. Look after your baby by looking after yourself.

F is for Feeding If you are breast-feeding, make sure you feed your baby before exercising so you are more comfortable. It has also been shown that vigorous exercise can mean a build up of lactic acid in your milk so wait 20 minutes after exercise before feeding again. This won't effect your baby at all, it may just make your milk taste funny!

G is for Glutes The big muscles in your buttocks... the rock that holds your pelvis, hips and abdominals together. Often these muscles are very neglected as we spend a lot of time sitting on them! Allow these muscles to work properly and they are a vital component to your whole body strength, particularly your back.

H is for Hips During pregnancy the hip flexor muscles (at the front of the hips) become tight due to the postural changes in your body - the growing uterus causes the pelvis to tip forwards. In addition, the body produces the hormone Relaxin, which softens the ligaments in your pelvis and other joints, to help you to give birth. This makes the whole pelvic girdle unstable and can often result in pain around the hips joints and pelvis. After pregnancy it is important to remobilise the hips and focus on stretching out the tight hip flexor muscles.

I is for Iron Once you have given birth, your iron requirements are greatly reduced. However, during this important rehabilitation stage it is important that your iron intake is adequate, as lack of iron can make you tired and more susceptible to postnatal depression. Try and eat plenty of iron-rich food such as red meat, fish and poultry. Iron is also in green leafy vegetables and pulses although it is harder for the body to absorb. Drink a glass of orange juice, high in Vitamin C, with a meal to help absorb more iron.

J is for Jubblies Breasts usually increase by at least one cup size during pregnancy and postnatally, especially if you are breast-feeding. Because your breasts will be much heavier, it is vitally important that you wear a supportive bra, especially when exercising. A sports bra specifically designed for exercising will give you the support you need and minimise discomfort.

K is for Kegels Everyone should be doing their pelvic floor exercises, none more so than postnatal females. During labour the pelvic floor muscles will have become very overstretched and exercises to get these back in shape should be the first thing you do after giving birth. They will not only help with incontinence and haemorrhoids but also aid your postnatal recovery. Find a trigger in your everyday life that will help you to remember to do them; boiling the kettle, feeding your baby, brushing your teeth.

L is for Lower Back Many postnatal females have lower back problems beyond pregnancy, usually due to the hormone relaxin that is still in the body causing instability in the ligaments and joints around the hips and pelvis in addition to weakness in the core and glute muscles. Your posture takes a while to get back to normal and you spend a lot of time lifting; the baby, a car seat, a pushchair, a toddler, all of which can exasperate a problem. In most cases exercise can be used to both alleviate these aches and pains and also restrengthen the weak muscles over time. Consider your posture at all times when walking and lifting and if possible treat yourself to a massage to soothe the aches and pains.

M is for Mobility Keeping mobile keeps you young. We spend so much of our time sitting that most of us are unable to move properly. For example, during pregnancy, the hip flexor muscles can become very tight due to the extra weight in the pelvis. Here we often find that the lower back compensates for this, causing pain and discomfort. It is important to spend a little time each day working your joints through a full range of motion. Start at the top with the neck and work down to the ankles.

N is for Nutrition "You can't out exercise a bad diet". Most of us know what we should and shouldn't be eating but most of us find this difficult to adhere to. However, small changes can make a big difference. It's difficult when you are tired and you have a baby to look after to remember to eat properly but all it takes is a little preparation and some forward planning. Always start with a filling and nutritious breakfast, this will set you up for the whole day and prevent hunger later on. Drink at least two litres of water daily. Eat as many fresh, natural products as possible daily; fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish. Eat little or no refined carbohydrates; white sugar, white bread, white pasta, cakes, biscuits. Eat more wholegrains; brown rice, brown bread, oats. Cut down caffeine; no more than three cups of tea or coffee a day. Cut down alcohol; no more than two units (one drink) per week

O is for h2O Water is the one thing that we can not live without. Keeping well-hydrated is one of the most, THE MOST, important things you should be doing for yourself. Two litres of plain, fresh water per day should be your aim (preferably filtered or bottled). It is difficult at first, you will probably find it a struggle to drink that much water during the day, with frequent trips to the WC! However, it does get easier as it becomes a habit. Aim to drink a glass first thing in the morning before anything else.

P is for Plank The Plank exercise is a static exercise that works your whole core, particularly the deep stabilising muscles. You use your arms to raise yourself off the floor and hold the whole body straight and rigid, like a plank of wood. You can do it anywhere, you don’t need any equipment and it only takes a minute. What’s more, it is more effective than sit-ups and crunches because these work only the superficial abdominal muscles. There are three variations of the plank that target different areas of the core; the basic plank, the side plank and the sky diver. The plank is highly effective core exercise however, do not attempt the plank if; you have diastasis recti, are still recovering from a c-section or have lower back problems.

Q is for Q Angle This is the angle between your hip and your knee. A "normal" Q angle is 14cm for males and 17cm for females. Females usually have a higher Q angle due to their naturally wider pelvis. Your Q Angle will increase during pregnancy as your hips widen to give birth and may never return to their pre-pregnancy state. Unfortunately a higher Q angle can often result in knee pain. This is why it is important that a postnatal exercise programme redresses the balance of pregnancy and post-pregnancy induced changes, and restore the 'ideal' posture. It is essential to learn how to utilise the the deep stabiliser muscles in the core and re-align the body through the strength and stretch of opposing muscles.

R is for Relaxation Relaxation is an important part of good health, vital for maintaining clear-mindedness and overall wellness. Make time for it every day, and develop a relaxation technique that deeply relaxes you quickly. Find a way to make some 'me' time every day, whether it is a hot bath, an exercise or yoga session, reading a book or magazine or just a quiet lay down.

S is for Squats Love them or hate them they are a great exercise for working your whole body, primarily the big muscles in your thighs, hips and bottom. Squats strengthen your knees and ankles and all the supporting tendons connecting them. They help your balance and keep you mobile. Squats also strengthen your core as both the muscles of your abdomen and your lower back are utilised to hold and balance the weight throughout the movement. This strengthens both your posture and balance, as well as assists your body in performing everyday physical tasks. Finally, if the big muscles in your body are strong and lean, this increases your metabolism so you burn more calories at rest.

T is for Transversus Abdomnis The Transversus Abdomnis (or TvA for short) is the deepest lying abdominal muscle and probably the most important. Forget the 6 pack, this is just the icing on the cake. Make the TvA strong and you will have that flat tummy and pinched waist you always dreamed of. The TvA is a natural "girdle" around your middle and supports the abdomen and lower back. If you don't know where your TvA is or what it feels like to contract it then try this. As you breathe in, pull your tummy button towards your spine. As you breathe out, continue to hold your tummy in. This is your TvA working. Repeat this exercise throughout the day especially when you are walking or lifting.

U is for Unfit You may be feeling unfit after having a baby but actually pregnancy has an amazing training effect on your cardiovascular system. Your heart and lungs have been worked out really hard to grow and support your little one for 9 months. The amount of blood circulating around your body increases, increasing blood pressure and resting heart rate, making the heart work harder. Your lungs will have been taking in more air per breath to assist the heart and send more oxygenated blood around the body. This is why, with the right balance of exercise and nutrition, you can take advantage of this training effect and be fitter and healthier than ever before.

V is for V Sits Once you have restored a base level of strength back in your core, try this simple but effective exercise for toning the abdominals, the obliques and the lower back muscles. V Sits are very physically demanding but done regularly can reduce fat and increase core strength in your torso. Begin in a seated position, contract your abdominal muscles and core, and lift your legs up to a 45-degree angle. Reach your arms straight forward and maintain good core posture and a strong spine. Hold this "V" position for several seconds to begin. As you get stronger, hold the position longer. Return to your starting position slowly. Just before you reach the floor, stop and hold the position for a few seconds. Repeat this entire movement several times.

W is for Walking Simply the best postnatal exercise. It's free, it's safe, you can take baby with you and the fresh air will do you both good. As soon as you feel able to after giving birth, begin by doing a gentle daily 10 minute walk, gradually building up to doing three 30 minute power walks per week. For it to be really effective you need to make sure you get the heart pumping. The best way to do this is to walk up a hill. Not only will you really get that heart rate up, which will burn fat and tone that wobbly bottom, but it will also help to strengthen the muscles surrounding the pelvis that are still weak from pregnancy. How about trying a Buggy Workout class and join like-minded mums?

X is for X Training Variety is the spice of life as they say so why not add something different to your fitness regime. During the postnatal phase make sure you go for an activity that is low impact, until you have built up strength in your hips and pelvis once again. Swimming is an excellent form of postnatal exercise as there is no stress on your joints. When you're feeling a bit stronger why not try Zumba. Check out your local classes.

Y is for Yoga & Pilates Both these type of classes restore the strength of the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor muscles, help to reduce fatigue, energise the body and calm the mind, improve posture and open the chest, strengthen the back and shoulders and re-establish core stability. Above all else they offer a rare chance for peace, quiet and to truly relax! Most classes can be easily adapted for postnatal but make sure you let the instructor know that you are. Better still, do a class specifically aimed at postnatal. Try and find a class with fewer numbers so that you get more one-to-one attention from the instructor. A good yoga or Pilates class with an experienced teacher is an excellent form of postnatal exercise however, if done incorrectly can do more harm than good.

Z is for ZZZ's Sleep. One thing you need most for your health and well-being but one thing you probably lack most. It is important for your postnatal recovery that you get enough, good quality sleep to ensure that your body balances out fat-burning hormones, reduces stress and levels of cortisol, which make the body cling to fat. Not sleeping properly disrupts the hormone leptin, which controls appetite and metabolism, so when you are sleep-deprived you will tend to eat more. Unfortunately when babies are born they take a few weeks, months, maybe even years to learn to sleep through the whole night. Try to stock up on as much sleep as possible, taking 15 power naps during the day and making sure you get an early night.