Losing Weight After Pregnancy

4 ways to fit in fitness and answers to your baby weight questions

New mother jogging with stroller in public park.
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Losing weight after pregnancy is difficult because having a baby changes your life — and your body. You may be surprised how much so and wonder why it takes so long for your belly to shrink, how to lose the baby weight, and whether your body will ever be the same.

If you look at some celebrity moms out there, you may think you should emerge from the hospital looking as though you were never even pregnant.

But, the reality is a little different. Having a baby affects every part of your body and, despite what's going on in Hollywood, it can take up to a year for your body to make a full recovery. Find out what you can do to help your body bounce back and lose the baby weight in a healthy way.

Why Do I Still Look Pregnant?

One of the first thing new moms notice after having a baby is the fact that they may still look several months pregnant for awhile after giving birth. This is absolutely normal. Remember, you had a baby in there for nine whole months. From the moment you give birth, your body starts working to shrink your belly back to its pre-pregnancy state, or something close to it, but it's a slow process. It takes about four weeks for your uterus to contract to its normal size, and many women will lose about 8 to 20 pounds during that first two weeks as the body gets rid of extra fluid.

It will also take time for your hips and pelvic area to shift back to their pre-pregnancy state, so it's normal for things to be out of whack after giving birth. You can find out more about what to expect after you have a baby in this About.com Pregnancy article, Postpartum Recovery - Rebounding After Childbirth.

How Do I Lose This Baby Weight?

Though you may be eager to jump into a workout program or diet, easing into light exercise is crucial for keeping your body safe and injury-free. Even the fittest moms may have trouble getting back to exercise. After all, having a baby is a major ordeal and something you'll need time to recover from. You'll need clearance from your doctor and, depending on what kind of birth you had, it may be 4 to 8 weeks before you can engage in serious exercise.

Breastfeeding can help you lose weight, requiring an extra 500 calories from you a day and helping reduce some of the fat you gained during pregnancy. If you do breastfeed, make sure you're giving your body the fuel it needs for that extra energy demand. Now isn't the time to go on a diet; restricting your calories too much can reduce your milk supply, and losing too much weight (more than two pounds a week) can actually release toxins that wind up in your milk.

The good news is, you can still exercise if you're breastfeeding.

Studies show that moderate exercise won't affect milk production as long as you're giving your body enough calories.

New Obstacles to Exercise

You may be eager to lose weight by ramping up your activity, but exercise can be tough during the first few months after giving birth. Just some of the issues you may face:

  • Exhaustion and fatigue — These are common after giving birth, especially if you're breastfeeding, which can deplete your energy. Be aware of your energy levels, and only do what you can handle.
  • Erratic schedule — For the first few weeks and months after you give birth, your baby's feeding and sleeping schedule may change constantly, making it tough to follow any kind of normal routine.
  • Time constraints — You may find that you only have a few minutes here or there for exercise. If that's the case, take advantage of the time you have, and don't be afraid to spread your workouts throughout the day.
  • Mood swings — As your hormones get back to normal, you may have some ups and downs, perhaps even dealing with postpartum depression. Exercise may help your mood, but you should talk to your doctor about the best way to handle your situation.
  • Guilt — Many new moms feel guilty when they take time for themselves for exercise. It's tough to remind yourself that you'll actually be a better mom if you focus on getting stronger. Doing so will also set a good example for your child.

Ways to Fit in Fitness

Exercise can actually help with some of these issues, and there are ways to make it easier to fit exercise into your life:

  • Split your workoutsShort workouts spread throughout the day are just as effective as continuous workouts.
  • Keep it simple — If you have a few minutes while the baby sleeps, take some laps around the house or trips up and down the stairs. Exercise doesn't have to be complicated, it only has to get you moving.
  • Find support — Talk to friends, family or neighbors about how they've handled having a baby and staying in shape. You'll be amazed at the creative ideas out there.
  • Focus on what's important — It's easy to get stressed out about losing weight, especially after inhabiting a body so different from the one you've been accustomized for most of your life. You will get back to normal, even if your body isn't exactly the same. Give yourself permission to enjoy your baby and your body, even if it's not what you hoped it would be.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests that, if you were active before pregnancy and had a normal vaginal birth with no complications, you may be able to start walking and doing basic strengthening for the abs, back, and pelvis as soon as you feel able. If you had a C-section, you may need to wait several weeks before starting any kind of activity.

When you do get started with a workout routine, you'll want to focus on three different areas: Core strength, cardio and strength training.

1. Core Strength

Pregnancy can weaken some areas of the abs, not surprising when you consider there was a baby squished in there for nine months. You may be yearning to jump into an ab program complete with crunches and sit-ups, but your abs do need some TLC once your doctor has cleared you for exercise.

You may be wondering which exercises to do, and how much of them, in order to help lose fat around the belly. It's important to remember that you can't spot reduce fat from certain areas of your body with specific exercises. Getting flatter abs involves losing overall body fat with a combination of cardio, strength training and a healthy diet. Even then, you may still have a little fat around the lower belly. This is an area many women store excess fat, particularly after pregnancy, so try not to put too much pressure on yourself to get a flat belly.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't be doing ab exercises, because you do need to strengthen the muscles that have stretched and possibly weakened during pregnancy.

Some basic exercises you may want to start with include:

Make sure you get your doctor's OK before you do these exercises, and start with one set of 10 to 16 reps of each exercise 2 to 3 times a week, adjusting that to fit what feels right to you.

You can add sets or try more challenging exercises over time.

Keep in mind that if you have diastasis, a separation of the two halves of your rectus abdominis (the visible six pack), you may need to modify your ab exercises.

2. Cardio

Along with core strength, you'll want to incorporate cardio into your routine, but you may not be able to do the same activities or intensities you did before your pregnancy — at least, not for a while. High-impact exercises, such as running or aerobics, may not be comfortable as your body recovers. When you're just starting out:

  • Start slow and easy. Many new moms find they can tolerate walking, starting with about 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. If you can handle more, try getting some kind of activity in every day.
  • Stick with low-impact activities. If high-impact exercises don't feel good, try walking, swimming, working out on the elliptical trainer or other activities that aren't jarring on the body and joints. Over time, you'll find it easier to transition into higher-impact activities.
  • Work at a moderate-high intensity, a level 5 to 6 on the perceived exertion scale. Allow your energy levels to guide you in your workouts, backing off if you feel tired or vice versa.

As you get stronger, you may want to increase the intensity with interval training about once a week, which can help you burn more calories. You can also add a stroller to your walking routine, which is great for adding challenge while allowing you to walk with baby.

Experts have found that you can burn 18 to 20% more calories if you walk while pushing a stroller. Pushing it up a hill will burn even more calories, and there are even baby-friendly exercise groups you can join, such as Stroller StridesBaby Bootcamp, or Sara Holliday's Stroller Workout for Moms.

3. Strength Training

Strength training is an important part of your weight loss program, as well as your recovery. It can help you build lean muscle tissue, raise your metabolism, and give you the strength you need to take care of your baby.

Like the other activities, you'll want to start out slowly, even if you lifted weights before birth. Your body is still recovering, and it may be a little different than you remember. You might want to start with exercises to strengthen your core and stabilizer muscles while also working on your balance and flexibility. This Basic Ball Workout is a gentle routine that focuses on all those areas.

When putting together a workout, choose exercises that work multiple muscles so that you strengthen your entire body while saving time. A simple routine might include:

For each exercise, start with one set of 10 to 16 reps, using no weight or light weight, skipping any exercises that cause pain or discomfort. As you get stronger, you can add more sets, use heavier weights and/or try more challenging exercises. Here are some full workouts that you can start with:

If fitting everything in seems impossible, remember to keep it simple and take your time. Do what you can when you can, and give yourself permission to enjoy your new baby and your new life.

Sources

Anders, Mark. Wellness on Wheels. ACE FitnessMatters. Nov/Dec 2007.

Dada Su, Yun Zhao, Colin Binns, et al. Breast-feeding mothers can exercise: results of a cohort study. Public Health Nutr. 2007 Oct;10(10):1089-93.

Hyatt, Gwen and Cram, Catherine. Prenatal & Postpartum Exercise Design. DSW Fitness, 2003.

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