5 tips for returning to exercise after pregnancy

We all know how important exercise is to our health. I can attest to the endorphin rush from a good workout, and crave that post-run euphoria. Or at least I used to.

When I got pregnant two years ago my doctor advised me to keep my heart rate below 140, which meant a dramatic shift in my exercise regime. And since having my son I’ve hit the sidewalks sporadically, but not with any consistency. The net effect is that I can feel the difference in both my physical and mental well being, and it’s not a good difference.

The good news is that each day gives me a new opportunity to make the right choices. I’m registering to run a 10k at the end of February, and using the Couch to 5k app to track progress for the first eight weeks.

I recently spoke with Jace Duke, manager for Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Athletic Training Services, about returning to exercise after pregnancy. He offered these five tips.

Talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program. Tell him or her why you want to exercise, and what activities you had in mind. Do you want to improve cardiovascular health? Lose weight? Gain strength and flexibility? Your doctor will help make sure you are in good enough shape to start exercising, and then you can design a program to meet those goals.

 

Progress gradually. Make sure your exercise plan increases the strain on your body incrementally. Also, take note of your environment. You might not look forward to your second workout if your first run is at noon on July 4th.

Wear the right shoes. You don’t need to spend $150 on high-tech shoes, but you do need to have shoes that are appropriate for your exercise, and they need to be replaced whenever you can see wear.

Your body is a machine that depends on fuel, and that includes hydration. Just don’t make the fatal calculation that a 30 minute jog is license to eat anything you want for the rest of the weekend – espeically if weight loss is one of your exercise goals!

Listen to your body. You will probably be sore the day after a workout. You might be even more sore the second day. This does not necessarily mean you are injured or sidelined. Jace has a helpful way to identify injury from soreness. “God gave us two of most of our body parts. If you are experiencing symmetrical pain, you are probably just SORE. If you are experiencing asymmetrical pain (your right calf feels strained but your left calf feels just fine) you might be injured.”

Even if you are injured, though, you never have to stop exercising entirely. You might need to modify your activity. You might be sidelined from running, but you can walk, or bike, or swim. The key is to always stay active.

Does high-intensity interval training live up to the hype?

When it comes to exercise, people usually subscribe to the notion that “more is better.” Many health organizations recommend at least two hours of moderate exercise a week, claiming that ramping up to five hours or more confers even more health benefits.

What if the key to getting the most out of exercise wasn’t the amount, but the intensity? What if you could get as many (if not more) benefits from as little as a couple minutes of exercise a week as opposed to several hours?

It may sound like I’m a television fitness guru that’s trying to sell you a series of DVDs, but I’m not. What I’m talking about is high-intensity interval training or HIIT. The time commitment is low and the benefits are real.

The time commitment is low and the benefits are real for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) Click To Tweet

How do HIIT and traditional exercise differ?

Exercises such as jogging, walking or cycling are usually given shorthand names like steady-state cardio or aerobic exercise. Their key features are that the intensity is low to moderate and the time commitment is usually 30 minutes or more a session.

In contrast, HIIT is characterized by extremely short periods of all-out intensity (such as sprinting) followed by timed rest periods. Watch this clip from an episode of BBC’s Horizons series. It shows how short, but intense HIIT can be:

 

Why you may want to cut back on long-term steady-state cardio

Doing things like going for a short, daily walk or participating in a yoga class is great for your health. Research reviews continually show that regular physical activity is helpful in managing and preventing chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

However, when people commit large portions of time to steady-state cardio activities (think Iron Man participants and endurance athletes), the health benefits start to taper off and negatives can be the unfortunate result.

While lots of cardio may seem healthy, consistently overdoing it may result in negative health effects Click To Tweet

Studies from the Mayo Clinic, Journal of Applied Physiology, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise and the European Heart Journal have found endurance athletes show abnormal thickening of heart valves, a potential sign of heart failure.

That same population has been found to have highly-elevated levels of cortisol (a stress-response hormone), increased C-reactive protein (a sign of inflammation) and exhibit symptoms like immune system deficits, sleep difficulties and mood disturbances.

What are the benefits of HIIT?

Whereas too much long-term steady-state cardio can have negative effects on an individual’s heart, low volumes of HIIT (around three sessions a week) can improve heart artery stiffness and cardiovascular functions.

Studies have shown HIIT to have many other benefits such as:

How do you perform a HIIT session?

Some online guides complicate HIIT, calling for things like mixing free weights with bodyweight squats. An effective HIIT session really can be as simple as the video clip above from BBC Horizons.

If you’re just starting and/or want to keep things simple, stick with one form of cardio, such as sprinting or cycling on a stationary bike. Then follow a template such as this up to three times a week:

How to perform a HIIT session

My Fitbit is keeping me healthy

I’ve always been generally active, but I just ran to run. That’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve found that when I have a goal in mind, I can push myself to run better, faster, longer.

The Fitbit craze is sweeping across Houston Methodist. All employees were given the opportunity to buy a discounted Fitbit and wow, have we jumped on it! It’s wonderful to see a community of people come together to proactively work towards being more active and also attempt to “beat our CEOs.” Amazingly, Houston Methodist employees are averaging nearly 8,200 steps a day.

Through this challenge I have been able to think more about the little stuff. How parking my car farther away from the office and walking a little more here and there can really add up. Here are a couple of other things I’ve learned from our Fitbit challenge:

Make it a challenge

My office has turned into an obstacle course. Do you have a multilevel building? Great! I work on the second level so I put my lunch on the third level and I use the bathroom on the first floor. When I go to grab my lunch or need to relieve myself, I take a little jog up and down the stairs. It’s a simple move that will really helps, especially, if you’re prone to a couple cups of green tea and have a small bladder, like myself.

Fitness trackers can make exercise more fun and help track progress toward health goals Click To Tweet

It takes the vagueness out of activity

The great thing about Fitbit is the little progress dots. You set a goal, you know where you are in reaching that goal, you know what you need to do and there’s an awesome light show when you reach your goal! Talk about accomplishment!

Make a game of it

You’ve probably heard of TV show drinking games where every time someone says a certain word, you have to drink. Take that concept and fit-i-nize it. For example: every time my phone rings, I stand up for the entire call.

Question yourself

Can you walk there? Then do it! Texas is a very car-centric state but we often drive 2 blocks to get somewhere when we could’ve easily walked. I understand Texas heat, believe me, but just take the time to ask yourself—can I walk there?

You vs. your goal

Every day you should try to meet, or even beat, your goal! As I get closer to finishing my goal, I find that I start walking more and more. If it’s bedtime and I’m 100 steps away, I will pace around the kitchen, walk around while brushing my teeth or do anything else to get those last 100 steps in.

Just buying a Fitibit won’t help you lose weight or become more active. You will still have to work at your goals, but a Fitbit—or any pedometer—might help to challenge you in a new way. 

Why running is so important to me

I have been running since I can remember. I was on a track team by the time I was in 3rd grade and since then, I have been running regularly, both competitively and for leisure. Running is one thing that never leaves my life for an extended period of time. During busy weeks at work or home, I may not run as often, but I will always continue to run.

I want to share a few of the reasons why running is so important to me. The physical health benefits are obvious, but I wanted to include a few other benefits of running.

It’s a family affair

Ever since I was young, I remember coming to the kitchen for breakfast and seeing my dad coming home from his morning run. To me, he looked refreshed, instead of tired, and happier when he was running. When my wife and I were dating, running was an opportunity for us to talk and spend time together.

Today, it continues to be a great opportunity for me to be outside with my kids, especially since I can exercise and spend time with my kids. My daughter regularly asks to go with me. Sure I go a bit slower since her short legs can’t keep up, but it allows me to set an example to her, just as my father was a good example for me.

It’s simple

Unlike other forms of exercise, there is no need to purchase an expensive gym membership, any sort of equipment, or join a sports team. All you need are clothes and a pair of running shoes.

I like the simplicity of running. There's no need to purchase an expensive gym membership or any sort of… Click To Tweet

All the fancy running gear that people try to sell you like heart rate monitors and GPS watches can be useful tools, but I try not to let the gadgets get in the way of what I truly love, which is keeping my feet moving.

You’re outside

There is something refreshing about being outside, whether I am in the middle of a city, or out in a rural area. All the stresses and cares of daily life seem to fade away when I am running through the woods, just putting one foot in front of the other.

No matter how busy my day gets, I always try to make time for a run. There are hundreds of reasons to run, but for me the sociality, simplicity and just being outside are what keeps the passion for running alive.