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“My daughter once told me, ‘Mum, you do everything for us. You should do something for yourself,” recalls 4-time Paralympian Ina Forrest, reflecting back on the early days of her wheelchair curling career. Over the years, Forrest has come to appreciate how her involvement in sport has modeled important values for her children, including how to set goals and support each other to achieve them. This #MomsGotGame.

“Being younger in an all-women’s league has shown me that you can play hockey and be a mom. It wasn’t ever in my mind that I couldn’t do both. Seeing others do it helped relieve some of the pressures of motherhood.” Learn more about women’s’ experiences returning to sport after childbirth and tips for creating inclusive sport spaces for new moms in the SIRC blog.

Olympic bronze medalist and former world champion mountain biker Catharine Pendrel gave birth to her first child, Dara, 6 months before she represented Canada in Tokyo for her fourth Olympic Games. In the lead up to the Games, Pendrel discovered that she’s actually a better parent when she makes time for physical activity. “It felt good to have time to myself and to be really focused on my training. And I could do it guilt-free,” she says. This #MomsGotGame.

Kids don’t have to be the only ones getting active during their organized sport activities. Training sessions provide an ideal time for moms to get active too! Creating opportunities for parents to engage in individual or group exercise during their children’s sport practices is one way sport programs can enhance sport moms’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Becoming a mother is an exciting milestone in a woman’s life. Once you welcome home a baby, nothing is ever the same again. While the transition to motherhood comes with many ups and downs, engaging in physical activity is a great way for new moms to protect their physical and mental health. For more information, see  Moving women forward, a blog post about becoming active after childbirth.

As a research team, we’ve been exploring postpartum women’s perspectives of physical activity engagement. To fully understand the challenges that new mothers face, we went to the experts: mothers. We asked moms, who were 6 to 12 months postpartum, for advice they would give to other new moms about being physically active.

In this blog, we outline key considerations for new moms based on the advice of the postpartum women in our research. We also offer tips for returning to movement with the aim of optimizing physical and mental health during the postpartum period.

1. Reframe physical activity as something that benefits your mind and body

Small amounts of physical activity, even 10 to 15 minutes worth, can benefit both your physical and mental health (Teychenne et al., 2020). Many women discussed how challenging it is to start being physically active. Yet once they started, physical activity was invaluable to their mental health. They recommended mothers reframe physical activity as something they do for both their minds and bodies. Researchers have found that being active outdoors, and preferably in nature,  can be even more beneficial (Gladwell et al., 2013).

Exercise can also be empowering for mothers. Motherhood comes with many personal and societal expectations that can feel overwhelming (Bean & Wimbs, 2021), and the responsibility of caring for a newborn and other children can be consuming. Making time for oneself through physical activity can calm negative thoughts and provide a break from caregiving responsibilities, giving space for moms to feel accomplished, powerful and connected to their bodies (Lloyd et al., 2016).

Movement tip for new moms:

2. Take it slow when jumping back in

Returning to physical activity postpartum should be a gradual process. Many of the mothers we spoke with shared that they hadn’t returned to their pre-childbirth levels of physical activity. Despite receiving clearance at the standard 6‑week, post-partum check-up, they didn’t feel ready to resume regular physical activity.

The women we spoke to also said they managed expectations of how much physical activity they could do by listening to their bodies. While they were excited to move again, physically overextending themselves led to pain and delays in recovery. Checking in with their healthcare team was also an important part of their return to movement journey.

Movement tips for new moms:

3. Be creative: Don’t wait for the “stars to align”

For many mothers, making the time for physical activity after childbirth requires flexibility and creativity. Before having children, the women in our research were accustomed to exercising in structured ways. These mothers had expectations of returning to their pre-baby routines, leading to stress and demotivation when those routines were hard to manage.

When the moms in our research reframed physical activity from structured exercise to “moving your body,” they found it easier to be active. Instead of waiting for the “stars to align,” they integrated movement into their daily routines by napping their infant in the stroller so they could get a walk or run in or through engaging in housework, errands and childcare. Likewise, allowing for flexibility around when, where and how they engaged in movement helped to follow their infant’s unpredictable schedule. Doing so lessened feelings of guilt or stress during times when the moms missed scheduled exercise or when it looked different than originally planned (Dixon, 2009; Lloyd et al., 2016).

Movement tips for new moms:

4. Grant yourself grace: Practise self-compassion

The women in our research described motherhood as a rollercoaster, with many “ups and downs.” It’s important to allow space for patience and grace while returning to movement because postpartum bodies are healing and adjusting to a new routine.

After giving birth, a safe return to physical activity happens slowly and with caution, which requires some patience (Evenson et al., 2014). Mothers often report feeling frustrated, stressed or confused about returning to exercising (Currie, 2004). Part of this process includes replacing the “bouncing back to pre-baby body” mindset with focusing on physical movements that your body is currently capable of.

But remember, you’re not alone on this journey! In addition to consulting with medical professionals about returning to movement, connect with other mothers to hear and share stories. These connections can be critical in combating the guilt and self-doubt that often (and unfortunately) go hand-in-hand with motherhood.

Movement tips for new moms:

5. Leverage support from your loved ones 

The people closest to new mothers, including spouses and family members, see and may also experience the various changes that happen when a new baby arrives. Most moms agree that this support system is critical.

Family and friends are important sources of emotional support. For example, women often need to reconsider what it means to be physically active during and after their pregnancies. This can be as much of a mental shift as a physical one. During this period, loved ones can offer encouragement and compassion as you navigate the transition. They can also help you to be accountable to your physical activity goals (Bean & Wimbs, 2021). Take a read of another blog post to see how team sport can also be a great source of support for postpartum women.

But emotional support only goes so far. Other types of support are needed to minimize the barriers that new moms face to being physically active. Other types may include childcare and household support, such as running errands, doing chores and preparing meals. When family and friends take on childcare and household responsibilities, then the mental (and physical) load for mom is reduced, which allows mom the time and energy to meaningfully engage in movement (McKeown, 2021).

Movement tips for new moms:

From one mom to another…

The return to movement doesn’t need to be a daunting task. When you focus on your well-being, listen to your body, get creative, practice self-compassion and lean on your support system. You might find that moving your body is easier than you think. This way, moms can be happy and healthy, helping their babies be happy and healthy, too.

This article was originally published by The Conversation on March 20, 2022

The Conversation

The birth of a child is a momentous occasion in a woman’s life. It may also be one of the most challenging transitions that women face, requiring adaptation to identity and role while undergoing a unique physiological transformation.

Physical activity after recovery from birth can be helpful. Women who engage in postpartum exercise tend to have better mental and physical health outcomes. Benefits of exercise for new moms include weight loss, improved aerobic fitness, improved mood and increased social connectedness. However, physical activity rates tend to drastically decline after pregnancy.

Despite the potential positive impact that physical activity may have during the postnatal transition, little academic attention has been given to helping women return to exercise after the birth of a child. As an interdisciplinary research team in sport and physical activity, we have been working to address this gap by exploring women’s postnatal physical activity experiences.

Women’s questions about postpartum exercise

Mother with baby on her back as she does a core exerciseWe asked women what questions they had about physical activity engagement within their first three months postpartum. What they shared about their physical activity engagement parallels what has been identified in research: mothers’ physical activity is reduced with the birth of a child, and primary barriers to engagement include a lack of opportunity.

Women’s questions were fuelled by feelings of uncertainty and confusion about their return to physical activity, asking: How much physical activity should I do? What intensity of exercise is safe for me? What type of physical activity should I engage in? How do I engage in physical activity with my newborn? How will I know if I’ve pushed my body too hard?

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology states that women should slowly return to physical activity after giving birth and work their way up to the general physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity per week. If women have had a surgical birth or tearing during a vaginal birth which required stitches, it may take longer to become active.

Most women were curious about strategies and recommendations for physical activity after the birth of a child, including finding the time, energy and motivation to exercise.

Based on these frequently asked questions, we provide recommendations for supporting women in engaging in postpartum physical activity for two relevant groups:

Since both groups are actively invested in improving community health and well-being, we hope to outline how they can work together to provide accessible, equitable and meaningful physical activity opportunities for postnatal women.

Physicians and health-care workers

Young Mother doing Yoga at HomeIn Canada, the most common health-care experience for new mothers is a six-week followup with their physician or midwife. At this point mothers are told they can return to physical activity if their body has healed appropriately. Unfortunately, most women feel this support is inadequate, stating a need for more information from health-care professionals about guidelines for returning to physical activity.

So, how can physicians and health-care workers better assist these women? Women outlined how best to help them return to physical activity. Since all women do not experience childbirth and recovery the same way, opportunities for equitable and individualized care for postpartum women are essential. This means offering not only extended care beyond the six-week mark, but tailoring care for each woman’s recovery process and physical activity engagement.

Specifically, there is a need for physical activity education by midwives, physical activity counsellors or physicians. Women also recommended that access to a pelvic physiotherapist be a standard part of postnatal care.

It’s important to assess the pelvic floor after childbirth. It is a crucial group of muscles that helps maintain bladder and bowel control, supports internal organs and co-ordinates with the deep core, diaphragm and deep back muscles. These muscles do a lot of the heavy lifting during pregnancy and can be strained during childbirth, requiring rehabilitation.

Additional resources would be valuable to give women tools to develop confidence to return to physical activity. These include safe exercise choices and progressions during the postpartum period; nutrition, hydration and sleep guidelines; exercises that can be done with an infant; and information about child-friendly exercise spaces.

Such information could be packaged in multiple formats — such as pamphlet, website and phone app — and offered as part of the standard package when women are discharged from the hospital following delivery, or at a six-week physician follow-up.

Community leisure service providers

Women in our studies also desired more informational support to join local fitness and community centres. Such involvement meant the chance to meet other mothers and learn more about safe physical activity engagement postpartum. Yet, accessing these programs was often fraught with barriers.

In a study to be published in Health and Fitness Journal of Canada, we found postnatal women wished for individualized and affordable community programming, given the high costs of caring for a newborn. In interviews with mothers after a group exercise program, we found this form of programming to increase community connection, motivation and accountability.

Mothers also said that flexible childcare and attendance options — such as a combination of daycare facilities, classes that accommodate infants and online fitness classes — would support engagement.

Lastly, women spoke about how mothering social groups, resource-sharing between programmers and health-care providers, and maternity consultants for staff can help increase postnatal programming quality, and in turn, participation.

As a society, we can do better to support postpartum women’s physical activity engagement. When women are physically active, they feel physically and mentally well, enabling them to better handle the challenges of motherhood and be positive health role models for their children.

If you are interested in participating in a research study to better understand the experiences of mothers postpartum, please visit this page.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Disclosure statement

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Physical activity can be an important component of healthcare, but many physical activity guidelines don’t address the needs of postpartum women. An inclusive and safe exercise environment, accountability and exercising with other new mothers can help address the challenges women face with physical activity engagement after childbirth. Find an evidence-informed, step-by-step postpartum guide to returning to physical activity in the SIRC blog.

Women often find it challenging to return to sport after giving birth. To create inclusive sport spaces for new moms, consider how access to childcare and private, comfortable and clean breastfeeding or pumping spaces can be integrated into the venue or schedule of your sport program or event.

Move over dads, moms make great coaches too! Coaching allows moms to connect with their child outside of home and helps foster self-esteem among child athletes. As coaches, moms can become important examples of women in sport leadership positions and serve as positive role models for their athletes.

The postpartum transition (from childbirth to one-year postpartum) is among the most challenging identity shifts a woman faces. She’s navigating mental and physical health changes, while caring for an infant (Deave et al., 2008). Despite knowing this challenge exists, women have limited supports available to assist with their postpartum transition. That leaves many women disoriented about their postpartum body and how to move forward. This lack of support may be associated with high rates of anxiety and depression among postpartum women.

Physical activity has the capacity to reconnect women with their new bodies, while reducing mental duress. However, new mothers don’t receive enough education on how to safely resume physical activity after childbirth. Fatigue, stress and depression make it even harder to return to physical activity.

After having my first child, I was well versed in the mental health challenges that can happen from a lack of postpartum support. As an exercise physiologist, I knew about the benefits of physical activity. But even with expertise in this area, I was overwhelmed by the lack of direction for returning to movement. After 4 days of labour, an emergency caesarean and a post-operative infection, the only advice I received was at my 6‑week obstetric follow-up appointment: return to exercise gradually.

Mother with baby on her back as she does a core exerciseThis blog post aims to bring light to the benefits of physical activity in the postpartum period. It also highlights the need for further support in returning to physical activity after childbirth. We’ve drawn on our research examining the benefits of an 8-week outdoor group exercise program for new mothers and the broader literature focused on physical activity after childbirth. We also provide an evidence-informed, step-by-step postpartum guide to returning to physical activity.

Exercise as medicine in postpartum

Advocating for physical activity as a component of healthcare isn’t new. In fact, Exercise is Medicine® was established in 2007, as part of a movement to change the way healthcare is delivered and chronic disease is prevented and managed. However, there’s little focus on maternal mental and physical health. And that’s despite there being many time points when intervention and support could be achieved through infant follow-up care. The concern is that physical activity levels decrease following childbirth with few women meeting the physical activity guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (Evenson et al., 2012). Research has also shown those physical activity guidelines lack postpartum specificity, in that they don’t relate specifically to these women (Evenson et al., 2014).

Given the challenges new mothers face and physical activity’s potential benefits, we aimed to assess the benefits of outdoor physical activity for new mothers. We designed a program involving outdoor group exercise for postpartum women, because the COVID‑19 pandemic restricted indoor exercise during our study period. All 21 participants had experienced childbirth less than 9 months before the program began. They could attend the outdoor classes twice per week for a 40-minute, group fitness class TONETM. Created by Les Mills International (Auckland, New Zealand), TONETM aims to strengthen core musculature, improve aerobic fitness and balance and increase muscular endurance. To reduce potential barriers to engaging with this exercise program, participants could bring their baby to the group fitness classes.

Mother and baby in outdoor swimming pool of tropical resort. Kid learning to swim. Mom and child playing in water. Family summer vacation in exotic destination. Active and healthy sport for kids.We interviewed the mothers in our study to better grasp the challenges they faced with physical activity engagement and the role the program played in their mental and physical recovery. The new moms in our study described returning to physical activity as overwhelming. They were navigating their new bodies, different schedules (or lack thereof!) and fatigue. There were parallels to my experience with postpartum.

For example, a mother stated her fear of being unable to return to physical activity:

“After I had my C-section, I felt like I was never going to move again… basically they follow you very closely [after] you have a baby and then they wish you the best… and you’re like okay, I just had major surgery but, um, what should I do?”

Our program was described as a required component of postpartum care, necessary to help mothers find their path to return to physical activity. Specifically, women described the need for an exercise program with other new mothers. One that created an inclusive and safe exercise environment, provided accountability and allowed them to gain confidence exercising with their baby.

Participants described access to a supportive physical activity program as essential. A participant stated:

“I think it should be mandatory for all new moms… it should be like you need to take postnatal exercise classes…so we can build some confidence… I’m more confident now. I’m emotionally strong, I’m physically getting stronger.”

A guide to becoming physically active after childbirth

Mom walking with strollerThis advice is based on our research findings, my experience as an exercise physiologist and my knowledge of the broader literature on the benefits of physical activity postpartum on mental and physical health. We strongly advocate for an increase in education about and opportunities for new mothers to return to physical activity. We also suggest the following evidence-informed, step-by-step, postpartum guide to returning to physical activity:

Lastly, to further reduce barriers, it’s vital that postpartum programming provides childcare during physical activity or allows women to bring their babies. Ensuring women are set up for optimal success as they navigate their identity in motherhood will have benefits for the whole family.

In conclusion, there’s a need for further education and support in the postpartum period. Physical activity has many benefits for new mothers. Additionally, group-based, supportive exercise for new mothers creates a socially supportive environment and accountability for them. New mothers should be given more specific guidelines on learning to return to movement, after childbirth and beyond.