In the pregnancy and postpartum fitness area there are a plenty of arbitrary rules thrown around that have very little research to back them up. Waiting 6-8 weeks after having a baby is not one of them.
“When can I go back to running/working out?” is the question I get asked the most and one I understand both on a personal and professional level. After giving birth to each of my children, aside from desperately wanting to sleep, I wanted to RUN. As a lifelong athlete, I feel most like myself when I can move freely and sweat liberally. And while I was fine to modify my exercise during pregnancy to accommodate how I felt or how big I was, I eagerly awaited the day when I could return to track workouts and marathon training.
Science tells us that our tissue takes 6-8 weeks to heal properly and create a sufficient amount of scar tissue when damaged. There is not one woman who delivers a baby, either vaginally or by C-section, who doesn’t have damage to her tissue. Aside from surgical incisions, episiotomies, and perineal tearing, there is the damage to the pelvic floor musculature from pushing during labor. And for my C-section moms, too much pressure on the abdominal wall during this time can lead to a hernia.
The bleeding that happens postpartum (lochia) is a good indication of where you are with some of the healing process. It should become lighter and more pink before you consider exercise beyond walking around and daily care of yourself and your baby. Raising your heart rate and increasing blood flow in the form of exercise while you are ACTIVELY BLEEDING is highly discouraged.
A common issue I see with my active moms is a woman who gave birth, went back to heavy workouts far too soon, and who is coming in to see me a year later because she has developed pelvic organ prolapse, incontinence, or hip/back pain. Come to find out, she was running two weeks postpartum and her symptoms went from zero “I feel great!” to terrible “how did this happen?” slowly over the year.
If you are breastfeeding, your metabolic needs are changing rapidly immediately postpartum. Hydration becomes a never-ending battle and nursing moms are often ravenous in the first weeks/months. Your body is still trying to keep two humans alive. Layering on workouts while your body is adjusting to new needs creates an additional energy deficit during an already exhausting time.
Which leads me to the biggest reason why you should wait six weeks to work out: YOU NEED SLEEP. Your body is working SO HARD to heal during this time and healing takes a tremendous amount of energy to do right. Plus, your beautiful bundle of joy is likely not letting you sleep for more than 2 hours at a clip, so you’re already sleep deprived. Add onto that jumping into hard workouts right away and you are just asking for trouble.
Here’s what I recommend: Take it easy. Go for walks. Wait for the bleeding to subside. Wait for the soreness to go away. If you’re feeling super antsy, maybe try some light cycling (if you can sit) or a gentle workout with super-light resistance on the elliptical. Maybe some gentle breathing exercises to re-introduce your abs to what it means to move inward. If you feel ok carrying your baby in a carrier, try some walking around your neighborhood that way.
The guidelines for exercise during pregnancy are meant to be just that: guidelines. But there is science behind the 6-8 week waiting period before returning to intense exercise postpartum. Get the all-clear from your Ob, ask for a PT prescription, and then start the rehabilitative process with a pelvic floor physical therapist.
You have time to get back into shape. You have time to lose the baby weight. If you push yourself too soon, you might inadvertently take yourself out of the game for much longer than 6-8 weeks. Take those walks to clear your head and move your body, but remember that it took nine full months for your body to create a life, you can give it at least 6 weeks of rest after performing a miracle.