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a new mom exercises with her baby

When I was pregnant with my first child, I imagined my upcoming maternity leave as a welcome respite from the stresses of my job – an unhurried stretch of nursing and cuddling, interrupted only by some serious me-time that I’d use to get back in shape. Little did I know that the needs of a newborn would be so all-consuming that a trip to the gym would feel as attainable as a blast-off to Mars.

But after months of surrendering to the allure of the couch and Doritos, I realized that returning to some kind of fitness routine was probably the single most important step I could take toward being a happy new mom. Like me, most new moms discover that the time invested in exercising pays off. It’s a proven way to lose baby weight, plus it gives you more energy, elevates your mood and sets a healthy example for the entire family. And reestablishing a fitness routine may not be as tough as it seems, once you know how to spot – and then overcome – the most challenging obstacles.

1. Your new body isn’t like your old body.

Your body isn’t what it used to be – and we’re not just talking about added pounds and loss of core strength. “Postpartum is a state of transition and imbalance – physically, mentally, hormonally and emotionally,” says Bonnie Berk, RN, MS, founder of Motherwell Maternity Health and Fitness and author of Motherwell Maternity Fitness Plan. In addition to suggesting gentle cardio workouts, Berk recommends stretching and core-strengthening exercises like yoga or Pilates because they promote healing and prevent injury.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, sit-ups are the single worst kind of exercise for a new mom, says Erin O’Brien, a Los Angeles–based personal trainer who specializes in pre- and postnatal fitness. Because your abdominal muscles are still extremely weak, sit-ups distend the abdominal wall and create a bulging belly. Try alternating ab-strengthening exercises instead.

Nursing moms also will notice that their much larger – and heavier – breasts can make exercising painful. Lisa Druxman, MA, coauthor of Lean Mommy and Chief Founding Mother (that’s CEO) of Stroller Strides, a nationwide exercise support group for moms, suggests wearing a supportive nursing bra – or even two – and nursing immediately before your workout to empty your breasts. Just remember to remove your exercise bra when you’re finished; too much restriction can cause mastitis, a painful inflammation that can lead to infection.

Pregnancy and giving birth also can affect your thyroid. If you’ve been exercising for several months and see no weight reduction or improvement in your energy level, consider asking your doctor about having it checked.

2. You’re too wiped out to work out.

A new mom is often an exhausted mom. “Exercising should be about reenergizing,” says Druxman. “This can be a hard time for moms who were very physically fit, because they focus on their body and the fact that they can’t fit into their clothes. But we have the rest of our lives to be the size we want. Instead, focus on having the strength to enjoy motherhood.”

Many women do light stretching, modified core-strength exercises (e.g., bridge poses and gentle isolations of the abdominal muscles), Kegel exercises and moderate walking almost immediately after giving birth, but talk to your doctor about the right schedule for you.

Focus on baby steps. If you get winded walking around the block, go half as far next time. Build up gradually, and if you have been bleeding and it increases or turns bright red, scale back. Respect your body’s limits, and trust it to tell you what it needs.

Meanwhile, focus on eating healthfully. It may be easy to order pizza, but relying on takeout means settling for options that are often less than wholesome. Elisa Zied, MS, RD, a New York City nutritionist and author of Feed Your Family Right!, suggests an easy, satisfying alternative: plop some preassembled shish kabobs on the grill, or use them as the basis for a quick stir-fry.

Also, stay hydrated: Nursing moms need at least eight glasses of water a day. And reach for healthy snacks that will give you an energy boost, such as fruits, nuts, seeds and whole-grain crackers.

3. You’re feeling isolated or glum.

While roughly one in five new moms will suffer from full-blown postpartum depression, the overwhelming majority will experience some milder form of baby blues. “For women used to the camaraderie of an office, life with a tiny baby can be extremely isolating,” says Berk. If you’re feeling down, often the last thing you want to do is drag yourself over to the gym, but exercise is a proven way to lose the blues – and it can offer some much-needed social interaction.

Fitness groups like Stroller Strides, or Mommy and Me yoga classes, are a great way to get back in gear, not only because the exercise boosts your endorphins, but also because you’ll meet other moms. If group exercise feels too overwhelming, consider hiring a personal trainer. Remember to ask for help, even if it’s just having a friend watch the baby for 30 minutes while you go for a bike ride.

4. You’re time-crunched.

Nursing, laundry, more nursing, more laundry. Even if you have the energy for a full-blown workout, finding the time can be a challenge. Tune out your mother’s well-meaning advice about managing your time more effectively, and instead accept Berk’s suggestion that a new mom’s priorities should start with herself and end with housework. Instead of vacuuming, hit the gym. Many provide childcare – take advantage of it.

If you can’t make it to the gym, start working out at home with a virtual trainer. O’Brien’s Postnatal Rescue DVD requires nothing more than a television, a DVD player and a padded rug where you can practice her gentle 15-minute routine that’s designed to help you get your back, abdominals, buttocks, inner thighs and hips back in shape.

When it comes to postpartum fitness, every bit helps. Isolate your core when you lift the stroller out of the car or pick up toys off the floor. If you’re carrying your baby in a front pack, throw in a few lunges or squats, taking care to maintain your posture. Five minutes here and there will help, and before you know it, you’ll be shaping up to be a great mom, and a happy one, too.

This article has been updated and originally appeared as “New Baby, New Body” in the September 2007 issue of Experience Life.

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