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Easing Into Postpartum Exercise For Better Energy & Mood

  • Author: Laura Torbett
  • Published On: Jan 4, 2024
  • Category: Exercise
Laura is a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher with over a decade in teaching embodied exercise. She is the mother of two wild and wonderful children and the movement enthusiast behind lunae, a roadmap of at-home workouts that mirror a woman’s menstrual cycle. Her mission is to help women in all stages of reproductive life feel at home in their bodies and develop a sustainable relationship with fitness.

I have a very deep appreciation for my postpartum days, but I didn’t always feel that way. I had two children in close succession (19 months apart) and the early days after my second were some of the most challenging I’ve ever experienced. He was born in March of 2020, days after the pandemic lockdown began. Looking back, that time can only be described as a moment-by-moment oscillation between the highest highs and lowest lows as we hunkered down in a Covid cocoon, a new family of four.

As a complete blessing in disguise, it was during that postpartum window that my relationship with fitness changed forever. In the depths of a hormone desert while perpetually sleep deprived, I distinctly remember trying to force my body to work out. I assumed that high-intensity exercise was the answer to my postpartum feelings of fatigue and low self-worth because it had always made me feel better in the past. The only problem was, it started to feel like an obligation and I rarely looked forward to it. In fact, it was about as far from self-care as one could get because I was breaking the cardinal rule of motherhood: take care of yourself first.

I share this story because I have heard it echoed by so many friends and clients who are eager to return to a previous version of themselves—be it physically, mentally, or emotionally. The truth is, that woman no longer exists. Whenever a baby is born, so too is a mother. Which is why it is okay to create a new way of moving through the world…especially when it comes to exercise. Postpartum is truly in a category all on its own, but I will do my best to identify the typical hormone landscapes that present and how you might best support your body with movement.

Immediate Postpartum (<6 weeks)

In the immediate postpartum window, estrogen and progesterone are in sharp decline. This can sometimes mimic the premenstrual transition that happens right before your period when hormones change abruptly and often bring low energy and mood. Adding to the mix in postpartum, you may not be recovering quite as well with irregular sleep rhythms and a newfound level of mental, emotional, and physical activity.

Movement Rx

This is a time for ‘flowcation’ mode with the only very gentlest movement (if any) and lots of rest. Think slow walks, low-intensity exercise, and gentle yoga. If possible, it’s best to enjoy movement around midday to early afternoon to keep cortisol levels in check.

Early Postpartum (6–12 weeks)

Remember that pregnancy, labor, and delivery represent some of the most intense physical work that a woman can do. This is why I suggest approaching any workout routine postpartum with a beginner mindset because exercise might feel very different after giving birth. Take it slow and be ready to make any modifications your body needs. Between 6-12 weeks postpartum, hormones will be largely dependent on whether or not you’re breastfeeding…

Actively Breastfeeding

While regularly breastfeeding, hormones like oxytocin and prolactin facilitate the production and release of milk. These hormones typically bring a sense of ease, contentment, and intimacy. Your body is busy producing nutrient-dense breast milk, so it’s okay if you don’t have a whole lot in reserve for exercise. Not to mention that you’re burning between 500-700 extra calories a day!

Movement Rx

Try to incorporate between 15-30 minutes of daily movement, even if it’s a simple tummy time session that you do with your babe. This is still a time for the low-impact and low intensity mentioned above, but you can start to incorporate more strength work, pilates, and core integration. Again, keep a beginner’s mind and start with bodyweight practices or very light weights. To make the most out of your sweat sessions, make sure you’re topping off the tank before and after with 15-30 grams of high-quality protein and a comparable portion of carbs. Give your body plenty of time to recover in between workouts.

Pro-tip → Don’t skip the core and pelvic floor rehab! This is critical for a safe return to exercise and can help you develop healthy movement patterns as you take on greater challenges postpartum. You can sample lunae’s postpartum practices here and access the full series by joining the lunae collective!

Not Breastfeeding

In the absence of lactation, hormones will likely return to ‘baseline’ levels in this 6-12 week period. This is when you can start paying attention to energy levels and biomarkers as indicators of cyclical hormone fluctuation.

Be on the lookout for arousal in mind and body, egg white and plentiful cervical mucus, etc. to indicate that your body is trying to ovulate. You might track your basal body temperature or better yet, test regularly to identify an LH surge. (You can get inexpensive test strips on Amazon!) Even when egg release doesn’t happen, you can take advantage of this rising energetic time.

Again, this is not the time for all-out efforts or marathon sessions, but you can more safely move through the arc of your cyclical rhythm while you await your first postpartum period.

Movement Rx

When your energy levels support, begin incorporating more resistance training and conditioning workouts between walks, core integration, and gentle practices mentioned above. Though you may not be officially cycling yet, I recommend building intensity for two weeks like you would in your follicular phase and then tapering down to low-intensity workouts for a week or two. If your period still hasn’t shown, you can always cycle with the moon phases or stick to low-intensity sweat sessions like you might in your luteal phase. More on this below!

Late Postpartum (>12 weeks)

After the 12-week mark or once you’ve weaned your little one from breastfeeding, it’s likely that your body will start some form of cycling again—gearing up to ovulate for instance, even if you still don’t get a period for another few months. During this time, there are a few ways you gradually start incorporating greater intensity and training volume by ‘cycling’ your workouts. As always, pay attention to your energy levels and be ready to dial back as needed.

  • TWO-PHASE CYCLE: As mentioned above, this approach involves working hard for two weeks in performance mode (as you would in follicular and ovulatory phases) before shifting to lower intensity/recovery for two weeks in preservation mode (like luteal and menstrual).
  • MOVE BY THE MOON: Work with the moon cycle as a map where you build effort and intensity during the waxing phase from new moon to full moon. Then shift to lower-intensity workouts during the waning phase with rest or recovery practices around the new moon.

Regularly Menstruating

Once your cycle returns for good, you can resume normal operations with regards to exercise with a newfound respect for what your body is capable of. In the early months and years of motherhood, my workout philosophy is always less is more. Your time and energy are now distributed between a growing number of competing priorities. Make sure you’re staying well-resourced and not dipping into burnout with excessive exercise.

Go With The Flow

The main caveat for postpartum is that your day-to-day life will naturally be more unpredictable. You won’t always get a great night’s sleep and a piece of your heart now lives on the outside. Be gentle with yourself and try not to set rigid expectations just yet. Any movement is good movement no matter what time it happens!

Laura Torbett

Cycle-informed workouts are the cornerstone of the lunae collective. If you want to learn more about living in alignment with your menstrual cycle while optimizing food and fitness to mirror your hormones, you can learn more at the lunae collective website.

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