The birth of a child is an important moment in a woman’s life. It can also be one of the most difficult transitions women face, requiring adjustment to identity and role while undergoing a unique physiological transformation.
Physical activity after recovery from birth can be helpful. Women who practice postpartum exercises 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 connection. However, physical activity levels tend to decrease significantly after pregnancy.
Despite the potential positive impact that physical activity can 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 sport and physical activity research team, we have worked to fill this gap by exploring women’s postnatal physical activity experiences.
Women’s questions about postpartum exercise
We asked women what questions they had about engaging in physical activity during the first three months postpartum. What they shared about their commitment to physical activity matches what was identified in the research: mothers’ physical activity is reduced with the birth of a child, and major barriers to engagement include lack of opportunity.
The women’s questions were fueled 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 do? How do I engage in physical activity with my newborn? How will I know if I pushed my body too hard?
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology states that women should slowly resume physical activity after childbirth 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 a tear during a vaginal birth that required stitches, it may take longer to become active.
Most women were curious about strategies and recommendations for physical activity after childbirth, including finding the time, energy and motivation to exercise.
Based on these frequently asked questions, we provide recommendations to help women engage in postpartum physical activity for two relevant groups:
- doctors and healthcare workers;
- community recreation service providers (such as recreation programmers and fitness instructors).
Since both groups are actively invested in improving community health and well-being, we hope to describe how they can work together to provide accessible, equitable, and meaningful physical activity opportunities for postnatal women. .
Doctors and healthcare workers
In Canada, the most common health care experience for new mothers is a six-week follow-up with their doctor or midwife. At this point, mothers are advised that they can resume physical activity if their body has healed appropriately. Unfortunately, most women feel this support is insufficient, indicating that they need more information from healthcare professionals on guidelines for returning to physical activity.
So how can doctors and healthcare workers best help these women? The women described the best way to help them return to physical activity. Because not all women experience childbirth and recovery in the same way, opportunities for equitable and individualized care for postpartum women are critical. This means not only providing extended care beyond the six-week period, but also tailoring care to each woman’s recovery process and engagement in physical activity.
Specifically, there is a need for physical activity education by midwives, physical activity counselors or physicians. Women also recommended that access to a pelvic physiotherapist be an integral part of postnatal care.
It is 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 coordinates with the deep muscles of the trunk, diaphragm, and deep back. These muscles do much of the heavy lifting during pregnancy and can be strained during childbirth, requiring rehabilitation.
Additional resources would be invaluable in giving women the tools to regain the confidence to return to physical activity. These include safe exercise choices and progressions in the postpartum period; nutrition, hydration and sleep guidelines; exercises that can be done with a baby; and information on child-friendly exercise spaces.
This information could be presented in several formats – such as brochure, website and phone app – and offered as part of the standard package when women are discharged from hospital after childbirth or during a six-week medical follow-up.
Community recreation service providers
The women in our studies also wanted more informational support to join local fitness and community centers. Such involvement meant the chance to meet other mothers and learn more about the commitment to safe physical activity after childbirth. However, access to these programs was often fraught with pitfalls.
In a study to be published in Canadian Journal of Health and Fitness, we found that postpartum women wanted individualized and affordable community programs, given the high costs of caring for a newborn. In interviews with mothers after a group exercise program, we found that this form of programming increased community connection, motivation, and accountability.
Mothers also said flexible childcare and attendance options — such as a combination of daycare, infant-friendly classes and online fitness classes — would boost engagement.
Finally, the women discussed how social mothering groups, resource sharing between programmers and health care providers, and maternity consultants for staff can help improve the quality of postnatal programs and, therefore, the participation.
As a society, we can do better to support postpartum women’s commitment to physical activity. When women are physically active, they feel good physically and mentally, allowing them to better manage 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 mothers’ experiences after childbirth, please visit this page.