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Mother and her baby at home exercising

Before you became pregnant, you probably had the body-weight equation pretty much figured out: If you gained a few pounds over vacation or during the holidays, you ate a little less and exercised a bit more and off they came. Simple.

For many women, the weight gained during pregnancy is very different. Sure, for the first few weeks after giving birth there’s some significant weight loss. But then, for many women, the pounds seem to hang on – and on, and on. Soon you’ve got a toddler on your hands, and the term “baby weight” no longer seems to apply.

It doesn’t help that the supermarket checkout is full of magazines with photos of slender celebrities clutching their newborns. One glance at their flat tummies and slim thighs can make the rest of us feel like a different species.

It’s tempting to cast about for quick fixes. But the thing you have to keep in mind is this: Baby weight isn’t just due to one lifestyle change, like extra food around the holidays or a new job. Rather, it’s the result of a simultaneous quintuple whammy: Pregnancy and birth change your body composition, muscle tone, eating habits, lifestyle and emotional context, all within an incredibly short period (nine months to be exact). Try to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight without addressing all five, and you’ll probably find yourself floundering.

Realistic Expectations

Your first assignment: A reality check. Getting your body back to its previous form is not as easy as celebrities like Kate Hudson might make it seem. “After they have a baby, many women have unrealistic expectations about losing weight,” says psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, author of Change Your Mind, Change Your Body: Feeling Good About Your Body and Self After 40. “They often see celebrities and people in the news who have a baby and three months later look better and thinner than before they had the baby. That’s not very realistic, because the celebrities have multiple resources – people who cook their meals, personal trainers, and that sort of thing – that the average woman doesn’t have.”

So what is average? In a study involving nearly 500 women who’d recently had babies, researchers at Cornell University found that 40 percent of the women had returned to their pre-pregnancy weight or less at two years postpartum; of those who retained some of their pregnancy weight, the average was an extra 4 pounds, which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up. The average gain after a second baby would be 8 pounds, and a belt-busting 12 after the third child. That’s worrisome.

The solution to baby weight isn’t a fad diet or crossed fingers. First, take stock. Understand how your body and life have changed, then set a course to get back to the basics of weight loss: more exercise, better nutrition, fewer empty calories and a positive attitude. Set an achievable goal of losing 1 to 2 pounds a week, but don’t freak out if it doesn’t happen, particularly at first. Stick to a healthful diet and consistent exercise habits anyway.

Even your baby will benefit. Research at the University of Michigan found that women who exercise vigorously, beginning at six weeks postpartum, were better able to adapt to the changes of motherhood than nonexercisers.

It’s no wonder: Movement lifts mood and metabolism. Consider your workouts an opportunity to learn about your new body, and your new life.

Something Lost, Something Gained

OK, it’s time to get pragmatic. Look at what you gained during pregnancy and why. Then you’ll better understand the steps you’ll have to take to lose baby weight.

Start by going back to the day your baby was born. We’ll assume you were in the normal weight range before your pregnancy. If you gained a reasonable amount of weight during pregnancy – 25 to 35 pounds – giving birth will help you automatically lose anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds during the first six weeks postpartum. During the birth itself, you’ll lose the weight of the baby, the amniotic fluid and the placenta. Over the next six weeks, you’ll gradually lose the weight of the extra fluid that’s enlarged your uterus and breasts and boosted your blood volume, says Sharon Phelan, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The extra weight that hangs around after six weeks is most likely body fat. “A woman’s body fat may increase by 8 to 10 pounds during pregnancy if her weight gain is within the ideal range,” says exercise physiologist A. Lynn Millar, PhD, professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.

There are a number of reasons you gained this weight. First, your body is predisposed to store fat, particularly in the hips, buttocks and thighs, to nourish the baby during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, Phelan explains. “There’s a theory that women tend to gain weight in these areas due to the increased estrogen and progesterone levels [of pregnancy],” says Phelan.

Second, if you eased off of your exercise program during pregnancy, you probably lost muscle mass. Muscle loss can lead to fat gain for a very simple reason: Muscle is very active tissue – 1 pound of muscle burns 35 calories a day, whereas a pound of body fat burns just 2 calories a day.

So not only did your body add fat as insurance for the baby, you now require fewer calories just to get through the day than you did before you became pregnant. Eat the same amount as you did back then, and you’ll gain weight.

Your New Shape

Of course, added fat is just one aspect of a new mom’s new shape. You also lost muscle tone during pregnancy. Your abdomen and pelvic muscles, particularly, stretched. These muscles won’t naturally become taut again, either, without your help. It can take months for them to tighten back up and for your skin to regain its normal texture, says Felicia Greer, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at California State University, Fresno.

How long, exactly? Well part of that depends on you (see below). But genetics also play a role. “A lot of women will never truly get back to their pre-pregnancy physiques even if they do lose most of the pregnancy weight,” Phelan explains.

“It’s not fair,” she says, “but it’s a reality. There are just certain people who have elastic tissue that springs right back into place – then there are other people who never get it back no matter what they do. It may have to do with how big the baby was, where you carried it, and the skin you inherited from your parents.”

Get a Better Body

Terrific. The good news is there’s still a lot within your control. To get close to your sleeker, smaller pre-pregnancy shape, you’ll have to build muscle and watch your food intake. This is basic weight-loss 101 – diet and exercise – with one major twist: a baby to look after.

Still, if you work the program, it’ll work for you. In a recent study involving 540 women who gave birth to single babies, researchers at Cornell University found that three things predicted how much extra weight each woman retained one year after giving birth: the amount of weight the woman gained during pregnancy; the frequency with which the woman exercised after having the baby; and her nutritional intake.

If you get good nutrition and do at least some physical activity, you can expect to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week. “If it comes off much faster than that, it will go right back on just as fast,” Phelan cautions.

If you have a considerable amount of weight to lose, set your sights on dropping 10 percent of your current weight. “More than that may be unrealistic for some people,” says Raul Artal, MD, professor and chairman of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at the School of Medicine at St. Louis University.

Track Your Diet

Getting your diet on track is essential, not just for caloric control but also for nutritional value. You’re going to need lots of energy, and you should keep your vitality and immunity high – both for your own sake, and your baby’s.

“If you’re breastfeeding, you need to consume 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day,” Phelan says. “If a woman is not breastfeeding, her caloric intake can drop down to 1,500 to 2,000 a day, depending on her size and activity level.” But Phelan emphasizes that the fewer calories you take in, the more you’ll need to focus on getting dense nutrition. You’ll do best with a healthful diet that’s high in energy-rich and satisfying complex carbohydrates (such as vegetables, legumes and whole grains), high-quality protein (including dairy products), healthy fats and at least 11 cups of water a day – more if you’re exercising strenuously.

Remember, a proper diet supports your metabolism, balances mood, maintains a healthy hormonal profile and keeps your energy high enough to handle all the new demands of motherhood, plus your fitness pursuits.

When it comes to your eating habits, “it’s important to be consistent and to establish a structure,” says Molly Kimball, RD, a sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. Keep a food diary one or two days a week – that’s the easiest and most precise way to really know how much you’re eating. Kimball recommends eating three meals a day, plus two snacks. “Don’t go more than four hours without eating,” she advises, “because eating frequently keeps the metabolism up and the body in the mode of burning fat instead of storing it.”

Monitoring your diary will help you guard against bad habits to which new moms often fall prey. The primary ones: snacking on starchy fare, skipping meals then becoming ravenously hungry later, and finishing the food on their kids’ plates. “It’s OK to throw food away,” Kimball says. “As I tell clients, it’s better in the garbage than on your butt.”

After the birth of her first child, Lisa Waller, a marketing consultant in Atlanta, ran on the treadmill four or five times a week before heading to work. When her daughter was born in 2002, that habit flew out the window. “I was extremely challenged – and still am – to find even 15 minutes to myself each day; plus, I was eating things that were quick and easy but not that healthy,” admits Waller, who struggled to lose the last 10 pounds of pregnancy weight the second time around.

When her daughter was 6 months old and her son was in preschool, Waller started walking with the baby in the jogging stroller three mornings a week, then eased into running and playing tennis once or twice a week. She also made a concerted effort to clean up her eating habits: by snacking on nuts, sunflower seeds and water instead of sugary colas and cereal; and by having salads for lunch and grilled chicken or fish and vegetables for dinner.

“It has been a long, hard road back to a fit body and lifestyle,” she acknowledges, “but now I’m down to my ideal weight and I feel great.”

Plan Your Exercise

Exercise is essential to postpartum weight loss: You will burn calories as you work out, and you’ll increase your metabolism over the long term as you build calorie-burning muscle. “The only way to maintain muscle mass when you’re trying to lose weight is to exercise,” Greer says.

You’ll need to spend time almost every day of the week, either exercising aerobically or strength training. Once you get the green light from your doctor to begin exercising (usually at the six-week postpartum checkup, if not before) start with low-impact exercise. Walking is easiest: Put the baby in a stroller or jogger and simply go for a 10- to 20-minute walk at a comfortable pace three or four times a week. If you prefer, spend the same amount of time swimming, riding a stationary bicycle or using the elliptical machine at the gym.

“Let your workouts slowly progress from there,” Millar advises, “but don’t increase your mileage by more than 10 percent or your time by more than five minutes per workout per week. This will help you prevent injuries and burnout from having begun too hard and fast.”

During the first three months after giving birth, avoid high-impact sports. The effects of the ligament-loosening hormone relaxin, released during pregnancy, may take three months to disappear. In the meantime, your risk of injury may be slightly increased.

Keep in mind, too, that it may be difficult early in the postpartum period to do high-impact activities, such as an intense aerobics or kickboxing class, because of the possibility of urinary leakage or stress incontinence. Perform Kegel exercises several times a day by contracting and relaxing the pelvic muscles that surround the urethra and vagina, and you’ll begin to restore strength, making it easier and more comfortable to eventually do jumping, jarring activities.

Support Yourself

While exercise will not interfere with your ability to breastfeed (neither the quantity, quality or taste of your milk will be affected) you may still find it uncomfortable to exercise when you’re top heavy. Try exercising right after you nurse, when your breasts are smaller, and wear two sports bras to prevent movement, Greer suggests.

Lycra tights, even body-slimmer undergarments, can also provide extra support in the abdomen and lower back. The constant pressure can be a reminder to think about alignment as you walk or jog.

Also begin a regular strength-training program, with your doctor’s OK. Strength training will build and preserve muscle, which tones your physique and boosts your metabolism. For the first three months, use weights you can lift easily to avoid injury from loose ligaments. Include exercises for the major muscle groups in the chest, upper and lower back, arms, abs and legs, Greer says. Start with one set of 10 to 12 reps and gradually work up to three sets of 15 reps two to three times a week.

Creative Time-Management

If the idea of adhering to a regular workout schedule sounds impossible given the constant demands of the baby, don’t worry. It can be done; you’ll probably just have to get creative about it. Consider joining a gym that offers childcare, or swap babysitting duties with friends or neighbors so you can take turns exercising. As noted, you can also invest in a jogging stroller and hit the road with your little one; or consider buying home-exercise equipment or exercise videos so you can work out while your child is napping. You might also check with your health club to see if it offers infant childcare services.

After giving birth to daughter Natalie in July 2003, Victoria Pericon struggled to lose the last of the 61 pounds she’d gained during pregnancy. “After months of eating pretty much anything I wanted as long as it was healthy, I couldn’t just turn right around and start eating so much less,” says Pericon. She finally decided to begin exercising. She walked the streets of New York for at least 30 minutes a day with her daughter, an effort that has paid off. “I’m happy to say that I once again have a flat tummy,” she reports.

Healthy Motivation

So now you have the know-how. Next comes the tough part: actually doing this stuff. “It helps to always think of the benefits – the obligation you have to yourself, your family and your newborn to stay healthy,” advises Artal. If you fall off the plan, simply pick yourself up, regroup and start again. Setbacks and plateaus are part of the process. When they happen, that’s just your cue to re-assess and recommit.

“If you think of this as a way of life and incorporate activities you enjoy, you will be more likely to stick with it,” Greer says, which means you’ll increase your chances of shedding those unwanted pounds and, ideally, sticking with your fitness program long after the baby weight is gone.

The mental payoff of exercise will do you good, too. Study after study has found that working out regularly can improve a woman’s body image. It’s not just because you have endorphins and other feel-good chemicals coursing through your veins. It’s also because exercise offers a potent reminder of the amazing physical feats your body can do. Like having a baby. All of which is good to keep in mind, regardless of where your bathroom scale balances out in the long run.

Mommy Trap: How to Climb Out of Weight-Loss Snares

Lifestyle and emotional issues can greatly affect your eating and exercise habits after having a baby. If the weight hangs around, even when you feel you’re making an effort, ask yourself these questions:

Are you depressed? “Up to 10 percent of women have some degree of postpartum depression,” Phelan notes, and depressed women often eat to soothe themselves, which can thwart weight-loss efforts. Exercise is the best mood booster: Seek out other new mothers to walk and talk with; reconnect with friends who know you. Talk to your nurse-practitioner or obstetrician if your blue mood lingers.

Are you eating for energy? Even if you’re not depressed, taking care of a newborn can feel absolutely overwhelming, and noshing can be a way for mothers to try to pump up their energy or comfort themselves as they endure night after night of less-than-restorative sleep. If this is true for you, plan your snacks; have high-quality fruit, veggies, proteins and fresh water handy. Also, use moderate activity as an energy booster.

Is food your new friend? Many new mothers begin to feel lonely and isolated when they’re stuck at home caring for an infant, in which case they might also start eating for emotional reasons or out of boredom. Again, reconnect with old friends; trade childcare so you and your husband can date and talk.

Are you using breastfeeding as an excuse to “eat for two”? Breastfeeding mothers need to consume 300 to 500 calories more than their pre-pregnancy intake to produce enough good-quality milk for the baby and not collapse from exhaustion. Make those calories high-quality ones: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, healthy fats and lean proteins. Nursing mothers may be tempted to compensate for the extra-calorie expenditure by eating more and moving less. “Some women continue to eat for two,” says Raul Artal, MD, professor and chairman of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at the School of Medicine at St. Louis University. “Postpartum, that’s the wrong concept.”

The Post-Baby Workout Regimen

Wondering how to budget time for exercise, given your new baby-care duties? Here’s what an ideal postpartum workout schedule might look like, according to Felicia Greer, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at California State University, Fresno:

If you were sedentary before or during pregnancy:

  • Monday: Walk, swim or bicycle for 10 to 20 minutes at a brisk but comfortable pace. (You should be able to talk but not sing.)
  • Tuesday: Strength training.
  • Wednesday: Day off.
  • Thursday: Walk, swim or bicycle for 10 to 20 minutes at a brisk but comfortable pace.
  • Friday: Strength training.
  • Saturday: Walk, swim or bicycle for 10 to 20 minutes at a brisk but comfortable pace.
  • Sunday: Day off.

The ultimate goal: Aim to exercise for 30 to 45 minutes at least five days a week.

If you were previously active:

  • Monday: Walk fast, jog, bicycle or swim for 20 to 30 minutes at a fairly vigorous pace.
  • Tuesday: Strength training.
  • Wednesday: Walk fast, jog, bicycle or swim for 20 to 30 minutes at a fairly vigorous pace.
  • Thursday: Strength training.
  • Friday: Walk fast, jog, bicycle or swim for 20 to 30 minutes at a fairly vigorous pace.
  • Saturday: Strength training.
  • Sunday: Day off.

The ultimate goal: Aim to exercise for 45 to 60 minutes at least five days a week.

This article has been updated. It was originally published online on September 1, 2004.

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