How to get back in shape the healthy way
Losing your pre-baby weight is not only about what you eat, but how you eat it. Brigid Moss investigates a healthier way for new mums to get back into shape
If you’re reading this with the top button of your jeans undone, we can assume that, unlike the celebrities who ping back into their jeans and are (annoyingly) happy to share their perfect post-pregnancy bodies on Twitter, you’re finding it a bit of a trial to shift the baby weight.
But are you being too hard on yourself? Anna Cannon, a midwife who specialises in the postnatal period says ‘Pregnancy lasts nine months and it takes another nine months for your body to recover. Becoming a mother means your body will change, and it’s not something you should feel sad about.’ Fertility acupuncturist Emma Cannon agrees: ‘Women make the mistake of wanting to go back to “normal” quickly but your body isn’t “normal” after you give birth.’ Your hormones will be out of whack, and the first six weeks after birth is a time to bond, not diet. You also need to be signed off by your GP before you start exercising, especially if you had any interventions.
That said, you do want to be healthy and fit so that you can care for your baby. The important thing is not to rush things. Gynaecologist Michael Dooley advises, ‘Make little adaptations to your lifestyle and set achievable goals.’ Here are the five big questions to ask yourself to help you get on your way.
Are you breastfeeding?
If so, the good news is there is evidence that nursing will leave you slimmer in the long run. ‘But while you’re doing it, you will probably feel hungrier than normal,’ says Emma. Don’t even think about weight loss at this time – it’s about eating well and regularly. ‘While you’re breastfeeding, eat to your hunger,’ says Anna.
How much sleep are you getting?
Not enough!’ is usually the answer. There’s not much you can do when you’re feeding in the night, or a child is sick or teething, but aim to get six hours minimum. Why? Because sleepless nights affect your appetite hormones, which means you’ll eat more, and the wrong stuff, according to research. A recent study from the journal Sleep showed that women who got less sleep simply didn’t feel as full. So try to get more, however you can: sleep training, bribing a partner for a lie-in or borrowing a relative so you can nap.
What are you really eating and drinking?
A slice of carrot cake at a café, a few Jaffa Cakes to keep you going, a large glass of white once the children are in bed. You’ve probably got plenty of eating opportunities that you didn’t have in your pre-baby life. Without feeling you’re depriving yourself (that will only make you even more likely to eat the wrong thing), think about some sugary foods you could cut down on. This is the key to the low GI diet. Dr Marilyn Glenville (author of Fat around the Middle, , £9.99, Kyle Cathie), says is especially suited to mums because it keeps your energy even.
The science behind low GI? It’s all about the hormone insulin, which processes sugar and promotes fat storage. ‘During pregnancy, the way you process insulin changes,’ says Marilyn. You may not have got full-blown gestational diabetes, but the way you process food may make it more difficult for you to lose weight. Sugar and white flour lead to energy hits that get you through the next few hours, but then you dip… and crave another quick hit. Eating low GI will break that cycle.
‘What you’re trying to do is lose weight slowly, keeping your blood sugar steady so you’ve got the energy to look after a baby or child.’ It’s really about three things: cutting down on sugar; reducing ‘white’ foods made with flour; filling the gaps with fibre from wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, plus some good quality protein with every meal or snack.
How stressed are you?
‘Stress is the reason a lot of women hang onto fat, especially round the middle,’ says Marilyn. ‘It could be down to not sleeping, but also juggling more than one child or the stress of motherhood.’ Anna agrees: ‘The transition to being a new mum takes some adjusting to.’
What happens when you’re stressed? Your body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, providing instant energy, says Marilyn. This is useful for, say, scooping your child up just before he sticks his fingers in the plug socket, but your body can’t tell the difference between that kind of urgent, one-off stress and the usual ongoing ones (your baby throws your home-made purée across the room, your partner forgets to buy nappies, your toddler empties your bag on the floor of a busy café). If you don’t burn the cortisol off with action or exercise, it hangs around in your body, increasing your appetite and making you crave sugary foods. Find a small thing that works for you, whether it’s having a child-free bath at night, five minutes of meditation, more sleep or getting out of the house for a weekly exercise class. Also, it might sound trite, but funny books, films and friends who make you laugh do help.
How much exercise are you doing?
If you’re at the stage where it’s an effort to leave the house, you may scoff at the thought of exercise. But there are simple things you can do.
‘One of the best ways to burn more calories is to carry your baby in a sling,’ says Anna. ‘I’d estimate around 200 a day. The baby is reassured and comforted and you’re carrying a weight that’s getting bigger every day.’ She also rates postnatal yoga, aqua aerobics and simply walking.
When you do start exercising, get advice from an expert as you won’t be as structurally strong as you were before pregnancy. Personal trainer Tim Weeks, who specialises in training women, says that post-birth, it takes 14 to 18 weeks to get back to pre-pregnancy state. Here’s his timetable:
After the birth Take six weeks’ rest (eight if you had a C-section). Daily walking is a good idea, but rest is key.
For the next four weeks You can start rebuilding your body structurally, starting with your bottom. Do strength-training exercises (see how to start off below, and sign up for more information at timweeks.co.uk) to rewire all the muscles surrounding the pelvis, linking them back to the brain as well as non-impact exercise such as light swimming and walking (including hills), while pushing the pram.
For the next four weeks Up your strength training by including more stomach, leg and bum work. And increase the impact of your aerobic exercise, such as doing jogging with intervals (eg alternating running and walking) or classes such as boxercise.
How to begin to rebuild your body
‘These exercises may be boring, but if you can master them, it’ll give you a solid basis on which to build your fitness and strength,’ says Tim. Do them while you’re watching TV, lying in bed, cleaning your teeth, etc, and repeat each one for three minutes every day. Think about having independent control of each bottom cheek and try not to use your thigh muscles at all (check them – they should be relaxed).
-Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Squeeze your bottom cheeks together and release. Then do alternate bottom squeezes, left cheek and right cheek.
-Do the same squeezes, sitting on a chair.
-Then do the same standing up.
Brigid Moss is Red magazine’s Health Director and author of IVF: An Emotional Companion