As a mother and a fitness expert, I've always thought it unfair that a woman takes on one of her biggest physical challenges—motherhood—when she is at the weakest point of her life. In pregnancy, our bodies go through tremendous hormonal, anatomical, and metabolic changes. These changes may cause us to lose strength and cause new postural problems. Then, all of a sudden, we have this new bundle of joy to carry around at all times while we're sleep-deprived and still recuperating from childbirth.
In fact, many aspects of motherhood are hard on the body. The daily activities involved in caring for children, which are repeated from morning until night, are physically stressful. I know many women who experience more aches and pains post-birth than they did during pregnancy. That's why it's important for all mothers, and especially new moms, to work on functional fitness—in other words, to move properly and use the correct muscles in everyday activities. When we don't use functional fitness, we can't become stronger and we risk having pain and becoming injured.
Start your fitness program by teaching yourself how to do three common tasks—nursing, carrying your baby, and pushing a stroller—safely and effectively, using the tips below.
How to Nurse Your Baby
Babies eat a lot and they eat often. It's not uncommon for moms to hunch over and bring the breast to the baby, or even to hunch over when bottle-feeding. This hunchback position done repeatedly may lead to back pain and poor posture. Concentrate on using good biomechanics whenever you feed your baby. Sit erect and use pillows (some are specially designed for nursing) to bring your baby to the breast. Elevate your feet and take pressure off the spine with a footstool. Try to keep a neutral spine, the natural curve of your erect spine, and not round over your baby. Have necessary items such as water, phone, and burp cloth within reach so you don't have to twist or bend to get them while feeding your baby. How to Carry Your Baby
Babies like to be held, and of course we like to hold babies. But any time we carry extra weight, we risk injury and muscle imbalances, which in turn can cause pain. Do your best to carry your baby close to you and toward the center of your body. Try to avoid carrying your baby on your hip, a position that can lead to problems with your shoulder, hip, and spine. Focus on keeping your spine straight any time you carry your baby. Pull your shoulders back and support your spine by engaging (activating) your abdominal muscles when lifting or carrying your baby. How to Push the Stroller
A stroller ride is a great way for you and your baby to get out and about without you having to carry your baby's weight. However, proper form is essential to avoid injury and gain desired strength. First, make sure that you are pushing a stroller that allows for good posture. For example, if your stroller is too short for you, you will have to hunch over to push it. Keep wrists in neutral position, flat and not bent either way. Flexing your wrists may increase your risk of compressing a nerve, and could lead to or worsen a painful condition called carpal tunnel syndrome. As you walk, lead with your chest and pull in your abdominal muscles. Keep your feet and knees facing forward, and press your shoulders down and back (remember, your shoulders are not earrings). Avoid locking your elbows and hunching over—the two most common postural mistakes when pushing a stroller. Always push with posture in mind.
The Big Picture
As you're working on becoming stronger, don't forget to honor your body and appreciate all that it's gone through to create this little miracle. Continue to eat, exercise, and rest as if you were still fueling a life. You are—you and your baby depend on your good health. This is a time to replenish, not deplete. Focus on drinking lots of water, eating nutritious, whole foods, and getting moderate activity every day.
When you're beginning to exercise, begin slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workout. Special postnatal fitness programs or programs that focus on strengthening abdominal and back muscles like Pilates are excellent choices for new moms. Don't give up if you can't find the time or energy for a traditional exercise session. Instead, fit in short walks or a few stretches where you can. And it is never to soon to start Kegels—those exercises where you squeeze the muscles that stop the flow of urine—to help tone the pelvic floor muscles.
Your goal is to restore and maintain what may have been lost in the transition to motherhood. That tiny baby needs feeding, umpteen diaper changes, constant love and attention—and a strong mother who can do it all.