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I recently gave birth to my first child and I’m finding it harder than expected to get back into shape. How can a new mum like me bounce back from their postpartum body?
Jillian Michaels: One of the all-time most frequent questions I get is “How do I lose the baby weight?”
First of all, give yourself a break. You just built a human and it sounds like you are in your “fourth trimester” – the crucial three-to-six-month period after birth when many of the physical, psychological, emotional, and social effects of pregnancy continue.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that has an underlying expectation of women to look just like they did pre-baby ASAP. We literally go from talking about how beautiful the baby bump is and how pregnant mommies glow to saying “wrap things up, tuck away the evidence, and apologise for the mess,” as was so well put by Kate Baer.
And this is absurd. Of course, you will eventually want to “bounce back” – key work being eventually.
Focusing on weight loss immediately after giving birth is not advantageous. You will be in the process of healing from delivery, exhausted, and possibly breastfeeding. Adding weight loss to your plate is a recipe for heightened stress, a decrease in breast milk production, and an even higher risk of postpartum depression – in other words, totally counterproductive. Yes, we have all seen the Hollywood actresses and rock stars that drop crazy amounts of weight seemingly overnight – but God only knows what kind of a toll it’s taking on them in other areas.
So, my first piece of advice is to give yourself a year off to slowly return to your postpartum weight and level of fitness.
There are two or three basic goals to achieve in the first few months after giving birth.
Our primary goals in this “fourth trimester” time period should be as follows:
- Nourish your body in a way that facilitates your healing
- Keep your energy levels up
- If you’re breastfeeding, maintain your milk supply so you can make sure you pass the optimal amount of nutrients on to your little one
Side note: I use words like “healing” because it is true, in so many ways. Healing encapsulates the physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual changes you’re faced with right now.
The word isn’t meant to scare you. It’s meant to validate anything you may be dealing with postpartum – whether it’s experiencing postpartum depression, recovering from cesarean sections or episiotomies, having feelings of resentment, or noticing a decrease in libido – and assure you that it’s all normal and all will be OK. But there is simply no need to put extra pressure on yourself to “bounce back” quickly, and trying to do so could compromise all of the above.
When you’re ready to start shedding the baby weight, it’s pretty straightforward.
Now, that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the how-to of bouncing back is actually pretty straightforward. Baby weight is the same as any weight you want to lose, from a physiological perspective. That means stored fat, no matter how or why you gained it, can only be burned off one way: eating better and moving more.
So, exactly how much less should you be eating and how often and intensely should you be moving post-delivery?
You must create a calorie deficit to lose weight – roughly 3,500 calories to lose a pound, or 500 calories every day in a week, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But you shouldn’t go for fast and dramatic weight loss at this time in your life. Even if you aren’t breastfeeding, you will still need enough calories and nutrients to fend off fatigue, mitigate postpartum depression, and aid in recovery from pregnancy and delivery. So if you aren’t breastfeeding, 1,600 calories a day with unlimited green vegetables is as low as I would recommend you take your diet for at least three months postpartum. Then, if cleared by your doctor, you can go to 1,400 after that, provided you have more than 10 to 15 pounds to lose.
If you are breastfeeding, things get a bit more complicated. Are you looking to shed excess pounds that were gained, or simply maintain your weight? When I say excess, I mean over 10 to 15 lbs. Remember that your body needed to add roughly 9 pounds of fat for breastfeeding purposes. So if you have gained 20 or more pounds of excess fat, then, yes, you are going to want to lose it – safely, and in a reasonable time frame that doesn’t compromise your health, your sanity, or your baby’s milk supply.
If you are breastfeeding, you will want to eat no less than 1,800 calories and you will want to lose no more than two pounds a week. In helping many women get back in shape after having a baby, I have found pretty unilaterally that when new mothers drop more than two pounds a week, the milk supply can be compromised.
If you are only 10 to 15 pounds or so away from your pre-baby weight, this should come off naturally as you continue to breastfeed and exercise over the next three months, without reducing your calorie intake much at all. You could eat anywhere from 2,000 to 2,300 calories a day, going toward the higher end on days you exercise.
And here’s how you should ease back into your workout regimen.
Now, in order to determine what you should be doing for exercise, how many times a week, and for how long per session, we need to first establish what your delivery was like.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it’s OK to slowly resume exercising as soon as you feel up to it. As a general rule though, it’s strongly recommended that no matter the manner of your baby’s birth, six weeks off any strenuous training is a must. The body needs time to heal.
If you were fit during pregnancy and had a complication-free vaginal delivery, most doctors will allow or even recommend light cardio activity (think biking, incline walking, or swimming), stretching, resistance training with light weights, or modified body-weight exercises during the first six weeks. Again: This is only for those who had a complication-free delivery and had a decent level of fitness prior to and during pregnancy.
Now, once those six weeks have passed, you should start to acclimate a bit, and anyone can begin to steadily push the up button on your regimen with light resistance training and moderate cardio.
If you had a diastasis recti, or had an episiotomy, C-section, or another procedure, you must speak with your doctor about what is safe for you to do after giving birth.
Once you have hit the three-month postpartum mark, you are generally in the clear to exercise in any way you choose, provided you have had no healing complications and have been diligent about your steady return to fitness.
Keep in mind that many women are not feeling 100% until around six months post-delivery. So during this time period, as you think about returning to more aggressive types of fitness, keep your intensity level at about 70% of what it was pre-pregnancy. That may mean cutting back on your running speed or the amount of weight you’re lifting.
On a final note, be gentle, kind, and patient with yourself. Follow the above guidelines if cleared by your doctor and take a year to slowly acclimate to life’s changes while returning your body to its pre-baby state.