The transition to parenthood is a challenge for all parents, but it is especially difficult for mothers recovering from pregnancy and childbirth. This recovery often takes place behind the scenes of taking care of the constant needs of a new baby. This maternal burden can leave mothers feeling tired and overwhelmedincreasing the risk of anxiety and postpartum depression.
As mothers of young children ourselves and/or researchers who aim to better understand women’s postpartum journeys, we can understand the challenges mothers face in managing physical activity after the birth of a child. . We want to share two strategies that we (and broader research findings) have found useful for (re)learning to practice physical activity in the new maternity ward.
Our recommendations incorporate both a physiological indicator of recovery (heart rate variability) and a psychological indicator of well-being (compassion towards oneself).
Navigating Postpartum Physical Activity
Despite the potential benefits of physical activity for new mothers, few women engage in physical activity after childbirth. The mother we spoke to in our research often cited lack of education on how to resume physical activity after childbirth as a barrier.
Naturally, postpartum women don’t want to overwork themselves after their bodies go through pregnancy and childbirth, while experiencing fatigue and recovery. The first step is to help mothers learn to progress in physical activity in a flexible and adaptable way.
For example, if a mother had an unusually poor night’s sleep due to frequent waking of the infant, she may consider engaging in low-intensity physical activity or resting that day to allow for recovery. Comparatively, if a mother has had a decent amount of sleep and feels restored, she may wish to engage in more challenging physical activity.
Incorporating physiological feedback into physical activity planning can help understand how the body is recovering (or not).
An example is heart rate variability monitoring, which is frequently used by athletes to determine training load because it provides physiological feedback regarding athlete recovery. Heart rate variability has also been used to safely prescribe exercises pregnant women.
Heart rate variability is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat.
Heart rate variability monitoring is a quick and easy way to assess the body’s state of stress. It could be used by new mothers to determine if their body is physically and mentally prepared for physical activity and to help them decide on the appropriate intensity for their current state.
This personalized health information can reduce some of the fear that new mothers experience when they understand if their body is ready for exercise and enable self-education on physical activity prescription.
For example, there are many leisure activities that increase heart rate and are beneficial for mental and physical health, while putting less strain on the body, such as walking, stretching, playing with children or gardening. These activities could be done on days when heart rate variability is lower than normal.
How to measure heart rate variability
While the most accurate way to measure heart rate variability is through electrocardiograms in the lab, tools exist that allow us to measure it at home. Various heart rate monitors are commercially available and smartphone apps can be downloaded to record heart rate variability from heart rate monitors, track heart rate variability over time, and give heart rate recommendations. intensity of physical activity according to the results.
One important thing to remember about heart rate variability is that it is an individualized measurement. What is “normal” for one person is not necessarily so for another. For example, most smartphone apps will ask you to record your waking heart rate variability for one or two weeks before making recommendations for physical activity intensity.
The role of self-compassion
Self-compassion means treat each other with the same kindness and concern during difficult life events as you would for a friend.
Self-compassion can not only improve physical and psychological health, but may also influence physical activity in the postpartum period. It has been found that new mothers who adopt a self-compassionate lens feel less guilty about taking time off from motherhood duties. With this self-compassionate lens, mothers are more comfortable taking the time to engage in health-promoting behaviors such as physical activity..
Given the many mental and physical health benefits that mothers can derive from physical activity, there is a need for actionable and meaningful ways to guide mothers through participation in physical activity in their current life situation. .
Integrating knowledge about heart rate variability and self-compassion can lead to meaningful and informed engagement in physical activity.
On a day when heart rate variability is lower than normal, mothers might wonder if it’s more important to focus on rest and low-intensity movement to allow for recovery, rather than engaging in exercises that can be more stressful on the body.
Reframing expectations about postpartum physical activity through a lens of self-compassion can lead to improved physical and psychological well-being and engagement in long-term physical activity.