A month ago, a friend from work gave birth to her first child. She's a former college athlete, so with a few weeks left in her pregnancy she was already lining up her game plan for getting back into shape.
"I've gotta get my six-pack back again!" she said one day. Well I like fitness challenges, so I was quickly motivated as well.
Losing the pounds that accumulate on a woman's body during pregnancy is obviously tough. Adding to the challenge is the fact I'm a man and almost nothing about the complexities of the female anatomy post-pregnancy, however I've never had a problem consulting with people smarter than me to learn something new.
I assembled a "Dream Team" of the fittest moms I know and elicited their wisdom, feedback, and collective experiences after they gave birth to help my friend put a long term plan in-place that will help get her back to her "old self".
Comprising my Fit Mom Roundtable: a former Division I college field hockey player, a former college soccer player in the ACC, and two fitness instructors/triathletes. Clearly they know their stuff, but their shared experiences mean even more since they are "regular people". What I hope to do below, is aggregate what I've learned from them (as well as some other sources) in the hopes that in-addition to my friend, some other new moms can help collect the tools to either reclaim their lost six-pack - or find the one they never knew they had!
Also known as "Step One". The Most Important. Without this step, forget about reading the rest of the article until you've consulted a physician. Hopefully it goes without saying, but there's no such thing as a plan to get back into shape post-pregnancy until you've been cleared by your doctor.
This was an interesting finding for me, since if you've spent any time on my site you know that I place a premium on nutrition strategy for athletic performance, body composition/fat loss, and overall health. I was unaware that a new mom's diet had such a major affect on their baby due to breast-feeding. Odds are that if you're a new mom reading this, there's nothing you can learn from ME about breast-feeding (and the subsequent effects of your diet), so I'll try to stay in my lane and stick to things I know something about.
Once your focus shifts to your own nutrition for your plan to get back into shape, many of the same dietary strategies that would help keep you lean under normal circumstances. You'll want to do many of the same tactics like cutting back (or eliminating) those white starches like pasta, breads, pastries, and a few heavy dairy sources. A shift (or continued focus) towards lean proteins, healthy fats, and moderate-to-low carb sources is the way to go. Good news that there is no need to "re-invent the wheel" when it comes to dieting to lose pregnancy pounds.
As you have probably already learned the hard way, meal time becomes much less structured with a new little one controlling your schedule 24 hours-a-day. As my friend Jessica (former Div. I college field hockey player) pointed out, "grazing" (snacking on healthier foods throughout the day) is one way to keep your diet pointed in a positive direction even while the baby's appetite takes precedence over your own.
"I became a grazer and would grab a protein and/or dairy source as a snack whenever possible (nuts, yogurt, cottage cheese, slice of meat, etc.). I kept berries and spinach on hand and would grab a handful here and there throughout the day."
Jessica makes a great point that gets overlooked too often, if you keep good snacks handy, that makes it much less likely that you'll gravitate towards the "wrong" type of snack while you're trying to get back in-shape.
I'm a big fan of setting goals for fitness, both short-term and long-term. In this situation, the short-term goals need to be moderate, and the long-term goals need to be LONG-term.
The consistent response from my Fit Mom Dream Team was that their recovery time spanned from 6 weeks to 2-3 months, and even then, the first few workouts should be kept to some brisk walks of 20-30 minutes. Another good strategy (that solves two tasks at once) is to invest in a solid baby stroller that allows you to burn a few calories while getting the new baby outside the house for a little while.
Once you get past that introductory stage and can truly begin focusing on your legitimate fitness goals, scale weight is OK however it's only one factor in the grand scheme of returning to your old self (or even an improved version). You'll know once certain clothes begin to fit again, so those things will take care of themselves. But with regard to fitness goals, once you are able to get out and jog for 15-20 minutes, perhaps it's time to target a 5K run in the next 1-2 months. No worries about what the stop watch says, just focus on finishing and being involved in the competition aspect. Once you get moderately close to your old self, maybe you set a much longer term goal like a half-marathon or sprint-triathlon in the next calendar year.
Stephanie, a personal trainer/triathlete (and mom of two) here in Charlotte had the following advice for new moms:
"The cross training that triathlon offers is fantastic, and I would recommend it to everyone. Having goals is a huge motivator and really keeps you on track with your training. Every workout has a purpose, so it eliminates repetitiveness and boredom that so often occurs when people 'just lift weights'."
The Power of Routine
One of the biggest consistencies I found from the new moms was that their own workouts and bodies are now a distant second to the needs and care for their new little baby. That's obviously a good thing, however there does come a point where Mom needs to avoid neglecting her own health and fitness too. Still, workouts need to fit into the overall family schedule, so time flexibility is paramount. Rather than fall back on the sometimes valid-yet-insufficient reason of "I don't have enough time", you must MAKE time somehow.
- Gather with other new moms you know and pick a time to meet and push the kids in the stroller together.
- If you've got a gym membership, print a group fitness class schedule and pick 4-5 classes per week that you'll attend like clockwork. See if the gym or YMCA has a child watch facility where you can drop the baby for an hour and jump into a cycle class or total strength/organized cardio class. Odds are you'll become attached to the group setting and probably meet a few new people along the way.
Mary Dare is another of the great fitness instructors (also newbie triathlete and mom of 3) at the Charlotte YMCA and she said the organization of the group exercise schedules plus child care was a huge pillar of her post-baby fitness plan:
"It takes time getting used to new schedules, and I think routine is important. Everyday, we went to the Y at 9:30 for an hour. This was my hour to myself, and fortunately, the YMCAs have great childcare. I scheduled all appointments around that time. Obviously things come up sometimes, but 4 out of 5 days we were there. Once my children were in Child Watch, I could focus on my hour to work out."
- If your husband also likes to work out, do like my friend Jessica and set a "your turn/my turn" rotation with Dad. If you watch the baby on Monday while he works out, on Tuesday it's your turn.
- You can also make things work at home with brief, but intense DVDs like P90X or the Jillian Michaels series.
The point is, MAKE time and make getting your workouts a part of your regular schedule somehow. Even if you can't go for a long jog or swim like you used to, a brief but intense session can still get the job done.
Celebrity Mom Perspective
While there are some celebrity new moms who spend 3-4 hours in the gym with their personal trainers, there are still quite a few that incorporated the same workout and nutritional philosophies that will give a "regular" mom the success she's looking for. One online article I found illustrated that several big names found success by using similar dietary tactics that I outlined above:
Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson, Elizabeth Hurley and Catherine Zeta-Jones all lost their post-baby bodies by following a diet that is low in carbohydrate-based foods (breads, pastas) and high in protein (fish, chicken, lean beef).
Jennifer Garner, mom to one-year-old Violet, tells People magazine, "It took me a long, long time. I just wasn't that motivated. I wanted to play with her. Then I got on the treadmill, stopped stuffing my face and lost the weight. I cut out croissants, bagels and muffins -- all the good stuff. And went back to having a salad once a day and protein." David Kirsch, supermodel Heidi Klum's trainer, tells Access Hollywood that the best way to lose the bloat is to cut down on "starchy carbs" like dairy and fruit for two weeks.
Workout philosophies varied among celebs (as they do among the rest of us) - Jennifer Garner and Gwen Stefani were big fans of higher intensity running, whereas Gwenneth Paltrow was more into moderate activity like yoga. Jada Pinkett Smithwas a bigger fan of higher intensities like interval circuits and resistance training to work off her baby pounds (which is what trainer/triathlete Stephanie recommends by the way). Pro Volleyball player and Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walshlost 36 pounds by consulting with other athletic moms like Mia Hamm and Gabrielle Reece for advice.
I saved the final key finding for last, since it seems to be the most important. You can't rush back into your fitness plan 100% without allowing for a few set-backs and injuries along the way. All of these aspects are important in their own way, but starting slow builds a solid base for more advanced training.
My friend Amy (half-marathonner and mom of two) was an ACC soccer player who went head-to-head with future Olympians at practice every day, but even she had to set moderate goals when first starting out.
"When I started walking I would take the baby out in the stroller just to get fresh air for the both of us. And then depending on how I was feeling/healing I would either increase the length of time or if I was feeling too sore afterwards, then I would take off a day or so, and then next time slow down. It really is trial and error."
Kerri Walsh acknowledged the difficulties of remaining patient in her interview:
"They're like: 'It's possible. Just give yourself time and be patient,' " Walsh said to the Times. "Which is truly the hardest part, being patient. I want to be fit yesterday."
Trainer/triathlete (mom of two) Stephanie also echoed the importance of resisting the urge to do too much, too soon:
"I went back to work 6 weeks after giving birth and I think that's when I started working out again. Lifting weights and light sessions of aerobic training. I was determined to compete again in triathlons for the next year. I wanted to start running again and get a really good foundation of winter training on my bike (I rode on my trainer indoors).
I probably did too much high intensity training too soon and paid the price with a lot of injuries. I was forced to scale back on my training and go about it in a smarter way. I hadn't giving my body enough time to recover from the pregnancy and child birth, and it was retaliating!"
The odds are that your body will let you know what it can and cannot handle once you begin activity again. The key is to listen and slow down when your body is asking for recovery time. Set realistic short term goals, and keep the longer-term goals far enough in the future that you allow for a few minor setbacks along the way.
If my Fitness Mom Dream Team can illustrate anything, it's that with realistic planning, flexible scheduling, smart nutrition, and perseverance, that six-pack that you've been missing will return again one day.
Just be smart and persistent, and it might be sooner than you think.