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How to build a base for fitness after childbirth

Woman walking with stroller3

July 30, 2019

With all the images of celebrities and Instagram influencers showing off their post-baby bodies, the pressure to get fit after having a baby can be overwhelming. Fitness is a great goal for all women, not just new moms, but after birth there can be a lot of uncertainty and challenges that make it extra tough. But it can be worth it. In addition to the standard benefits of exercise like stress relief, more energy, and better sleep, studies suggest that exercise can help prevent postpartum depression and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.

Related: 7 Postpartum Depression Myths Debunked

While it can be hard not to compare, what postpartum fitness looks like and how long it takes are going to be totally different for everyone. Factors like birth or pregnancy complications, family support, your financial situation, and how well your baby sleeps can all make things easier or harder to get (or get back) into shape. Some moms find that they can start working out days after giving birth, but for others it might be closer to 4-6 weeks. If you had a cesarean birth or any complications, it’s important to get the “okay” from your doctor. Either way, it’s best to start slow to allow your body to gradually regain strength. Remember that increased bleeding is a sign that you need to take it slower.

Depending on your exercise habits before pregnancy, you may need to make some changes to your routine. Even if you used to run marathons, you still might have to start with a walk to the mailbox. If you didn’t exercise much or eat well before pregnancy, now is a great time to start. Here are some suggestions for ways to build a base to get stronger, lose weight, and be healthier in the weeks and months following childbirth.


While primarily thought of as a way to lose the baby weight, proper postpartum nutrition can also help you recover from childbirth, regain muscle strength, and boost your energy. Before you start working out, it’s important to give your body the proper fuel. This means eating whole (non-processed) foods containing plenty of protein, iron, fiber, and other nutrients.

Related: How to eat well to boost your energy and recover faster from childbirth

While most people know they should eat well, it’s much harder to actually do, especially when you now have a tiny human to take care of. Here are some tricks to actually sticking with a nutrition plan.

  • Make it easy on yourself by buying healthy foods that don’t require a lot of prep (baby carrots vs. whole), or doing the prep all at once (hard-boiling a bunch of eggs), so that you have healthy snacks handy.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • If you have the budget, hire a postpartum doula who specializes in cooking.
  • Enlist help from friends and family.
  • Make small swaps (like swapping sugary cereal for oatmeal and fruit) to keep the changes gradual and sustainable.


One of the most well-known, although maybe exaggerated, ways to lose weight after childbirth is breastfeeding. It’s also something you can start doing right away. If you’re trying to shed pounds, breastfeeding may help you out to some degree. One study found that exclusive breastfeeding for three months resulted in greater weight loss at a year postpartum, and a higher probability of returning to pre-pregnancy weight or lower. This might be because breastfeeding moms burn an extra 500 calories a day on average, or because of related metabolic or hormonal changes. However, anecdotally, some moms find that they

One common concern for breastfeeding moms trying to get back into shape is if exercise will decrease their milk supply. But there’s no need to worry. Studies show that Regular aerobic exercise in breastfeeding women has great benefits without affecting milk production, composition, or infant growth. It might be a good idea to feed your baby before exercise to avoid the discomfort of full breasts. Also, make sure you’re drinking enough water before, during, and after working out.

Daily Walk

While the timeline for everyone is different, one of the first steps to returning to exercise is a daily walk. In the beginning, keep it slow, like a walk around the block or to your mailbox. If you had a c-section or a 3rd or 4th degree tear, you may have to start even slower and get the “okay” from your doctor. Eventually, you’ll be able to go longer and faster, and create a daily walk routine, where you bring your baby in a stroller or baby carrier.

The official recommendation from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. Moderate-intensity means that you’re going fast enough to raise your heart race and sweat, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. You can break out that 150 minutes any way you like. For example, you can go on a 30-minute walk five days a week. Or each day, you could do three 10-minute walks.

It may be harder if it’s cold or rainy, but if your walk is outside, there are extra benefits. The sunlight will help you and your baby be more awake during the day, and therefore sleep better at night. Another benefit is that walking outside has been shown to help reduce postpartum depression symptoms. Also, walking may help strengthen your core and reduce diastasis recti, if you have it.

Core Strengthening

Whether you developed diastasis recti or not, your core went through a lot with pregnancy. Strengthening these muscles will increase stability and reduce your chances for injury. If you have diastasis recti, it’s a good idea to work with a physical therapist to strengthen your deep core muscles and close the abdominal gap. If you did not develop DR or got the “all clear” from your PT, you still need to be careful about certain exercises. For example, crunches and other abdominal flexion exercises should be avoided for at least 6 months. Here are some of the exercises that are safe for the postpartum period.

Related: Why do I still look pregnant?

Belly Breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) - To belly breathe, lie down on your back with your knees bent. Put your hands on your abdomen and as you inhale, stretch your abdominal muscles outward (your hands should rise upwards) and hold for a count of 5. Exhale and pull in your abs and hold for a count of 5. Repeat 3-5 times.

Pelvic Tilts - Lie down on your back with your knees bent. Contract your pelvic floor and tighten your stomach and buttock muscles to tilt your pelvis. Flatten the small of your back against the floor and hold for a count of 2 to 3 seconds, increasing gradually to a count of 10. Relax and exhale. Repeat 3-5 times. DO NOT arch your back, stick out your abdomen or push with your feet to do this motion.

Heel Slides - Lie down on your back with your knees bent. Inhale and slide one heel down the floor, keeping your back flat. Exhale and slide your heel back, bending your knee and contracting your ab muscles. Repeat 3-5 times with each leg. Stay within the range where you can keep your back flat. If you find your back arching, it’s too far.

Slow and Steady

For the avid athlete, all of these activities might be frustratingly gentle. But that’s the point. You need to walk before you can run. And you need to heal from pregnancy and childbirth before you can get stronger and faster. These things take time. It took 9-ish months for your body to make these changes, so give yourself plenty of time to recover and rebuild. You will get there!


The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2019). Exercise After Pregnancy, FAQ131. Retrieved July 29, 2019 from

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2015). Physical Activity and Exercise During Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period, Number 650. Retrieved July 29, 2019 from

Poyatos‐León, R, García‐Hermoso, A, Sanabria‐Martínez, G, Álvarez‐Bueno, C, Cavero‐Redondo, I, Martínez‐Vizcaíno, V. Effects of exercise‐based interventions on postpartum depression: A meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. Birth. 2017; 44: 200‐ 208.

Sutter Health. Postpartum Exercises. Retrieved July 29, 2019 from

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