Mama Moves

After you give birth, exercise is the ticket to getting stronger, losing weight and relaxing into motherhood. Try our yoga-inspired postpartum plan.


"No exercise for six weeks," were my doctor's stern words when she agreed to release me from the hospital less than 48 hours after my son's birth by emergency C-section. Still groggy from anesthesia, I remember saying, "OK, OK, just let me out of here."

As the days wore on and my stitches healed, however, I got restless — and our dogs began demanding their daily outing. So, about a week after coming home from the hospital, I started walking a couple of blocks at a time. By the time week six approached, I was ready for step aerobics, and before too long I could run and ride my bike again, too. But this may not be the case for everyone.

When can I exercise?

"If you have an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, you could be back to your prepregnancy routine, including running, cycling or low-impact aerobics, within a couple of weeks," says Mona Shangold, M.D., director of the Center for Women's Health and Sports Gynecology in Philadelphia. "But you should never do anything that causes pain," she adds, "because that's the obvious sign that your body isn't finished healing."

Women who have an episiotomy or C-section usually have to wait longer—up to six weeks—until the soreness of stitches and surgery disappears (although the gung-ho Shangold says she was exercising within a week of her own C-section). Don't dive right into a pool, though: Shangold recommends that women wait at least three weeks (or until all bleeding has stopped) before swimming, because of infection risks. Before diving into any strenuous postpartum exercise, always consult your doctor.

Fitting in Fitness

But the question many new moms have about exercise isn't What should I do? but When can I do it? Between frequent baby feedings and never-ending laundry, it's not easy. The trick is to fit in a workout whenever you can, even if that's just five minutes here and 10 minutes there.

Fortunately, every bit of activity counts. Preliminary results from Project Active, an ongoing study at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, suggest that people who practice "lifestyle" fitness can lose as much weight as those who do structured 20- to 60-minute aerobic sessions three to five times a week. That includes walking from the far end of a parking lot to a store, vacuuming the entire house nonstop, pulling weeds and even walking around while you talk on the phone. Also, never underestimate the power of a good stroller walk or a dance session with baby.

Go for the Calorie Burn

You can incorporate muscle-building moves into your daily routine as well. Do calf raises whenever you change a diaper or a set of walking lunges as you move from nursery to den. Thirty minutes of these kinds of moderate activities will burn 150 calories for a 140-pound woman. Burn 150 calories a day until your child's first birthday and you will have lost 11 pounds without even changing your diet. Don't forget workout videos; you can do part of the routine when the baby's sleeping or amusing himself. Or maybe you'll be motivated by a new workout, such as the yoga-based strengthening program that follows.

"Childbirth is an overwhelming experience, physically and psychologically," says Shangold. Exercise is the perfect antidote.

Strike the Pose

"Energy explodes out of the body during birth," says yoga instructor Colette Crawford, R.N., founder of the Seattle Holistic Center. Yoga, some forms of which gently move the body into a variety of poses, helps bring the energy back.

"After childbirth, the body just aches," says Crawford, "and yoga can help get the spine back in proper alignment, decrease the feeling of heaviness in the legs and achiness and congestion in the back." Performing yoga poses also brings about a state of calmness, she says, because the mind is involved with the body's movements.

Crawford's postpartum workout combines familiar strengthening and stretching exercises for abs and legs with simple yoga moves called poses. If you've never done yoga before, some of the moves may seem unfamiliar at first. Continue to do them day after day, though, and your body will naturally stretch, adapt and move into alignment. But remember to take it easy: Your body will take a while to readjust to its former shape and balance. Start with the easy yoga-based exercises in "Back in the Swing" (page 99), before going on to the full postpartum workout at right. If you've had a C-section, make sure that all your stitches have healed and you get your doctor's permission to resume abdominal work (such as toe dips) or any other exercise.

Effective as it is for getting your body back to its prepregnancy shape and weight, this yoga routine also provides an opportunity for reflection and relaxation. With a new baby in the house, you can't get too much of either.

Six–Week Postpartum Yoga Program

You can start doing this program at 6 weeks after delivering (with your doctor's permission). Depending on how you feel, do the routine at least 3 times a week. If you've had a C-section or were sedentary during your pregnancy, do just 2 poses a week for the first 3 weeks, then try to complete the entire program.

Do poses in the order listed. Move slowly and precisely in and out of movements. As a warm-up, do Energy Breathing and Child's Pose from "Back in the Swing," and Cat/Cow with variations. While in each pose, do 3–5 energy breaths to start, progressing to 10 breaths in each pose. Return to normal breathing between poses.

If you did yoga regularly before pregnancy, you should be able to return to your regular routine after 4–6 weeks of practicing this postpartum program.

1. Cat/Cow

Kneel on all fours, hands under shoulders with arms straight, inner elbows facing each other, knees separated and in line with hips. Head, neck, torso and hips should form a straight line. Inhale, dropping shoulder blades as you look up toward ceiling and lift both tailbone and breastbone; keep neck relaxed. Exhale and round back toward ceiling as you tuck tailbone and look down at floor. Repeat 3–5 times with gentle rocking movement.

Add for warm-up only: On all fours, inhale and lift right arm out to side and up to ceiling; exhale as you bring arm down. Repeat with left arm. Then, on all fours, inhale and lift right arm forward and left leg back and up to hip height; exhale as you bring arm and leg down; then change sides. Stretches back muscles; opens chest; gently tones abdominals.

2. Eagle Pose

Sitting cross-legged on floor; cross elbows in front of chest, entwining forearms and pressing palms together. Inhale and lift elbows to shoulder level, moving forearms away from face. Exhale and release. Do 3–5 times. Stretches upper back; increases shoulder flexibility; releases tension.

3. Cow–Face Pose

Sitting cross-legged on floor, place back of left hand behind you along center of spine, fingers pointing up. Inch hand up as far as possible without pulling shoulders forward. Then, stretch right hand overhead and bend elbow, placing right palm down on back. Keeping head and chin lifted, try to clasp hands together; if you can't, hold a belt or towel between hands. Hold for breathing cycles; then switch arm positions and repeat. Releases shoulder tension; increases flexibility; opens chest.

4. Downward Facing Dog

Start on all fours, hands aligned with shoulders. Lift hips so your body forms a "V," and walk feet back until arms and legs are straight, feet hip-width apart. Inhale, pressing hands into the floor. As you exhale, keep lifting hips toward ceiling and distribute weight evenly over feet and hands; widen and relax shoulders. With each exhalation, stretch legs by bringing heels down toward floor and chest closer to legs. If preceding is too difficult, place the back of a chair or support against a wall; put hands on seat just slightly ahead of shoulders. Strengthens abdominals, legs, back and shoulders; designed to improve circulation and digestion; has both calming and energizing effects.

5. Extended Side–Angle Pose

Standing with feet together and arms at sides, separate legs about 4 feet apart and extend arms up and out to sides at shoulder height. Turn left foot in slightly and turn right foot out 90 degrees, keeping right knee in line with toes and heel in line with arch of left foot. Exhale and bend right knee until it's aligned with right ankle, making a 90-degree angle. Then bend at hips and place right forearm on inside of right thigh (if you're very flexible, you can hold ankle; see "To Progress," below). Press left foot firmly into floor, inhale and stretch left arm up and overhead, following same line as torso. As you breathe, deepen stretch in right thigh; hold for 3–5 breath cycles. Straighten right knee and return to standing position; switch foot positions and repeat on other side.

To progress: Instead of resting forearm on thigh, place yoga block or large book on floor near right ankle and place hand on it. Strengthens legs; stretches sides of torso and inner thighs.

6. Toe Dipping

Lie face up on floor. Bend knees in toward chest until they line up with hips and calves are parallel to floor. Contract abdominals so back is firmly against floor; relax arms by sides. Lower left foot toward floor; toes will just touch floor. Bring left knee back in to meet right and repeat, alternating with right foot. Keep back on floor throughout movement (abs will have to work hard to maintain this position). Always return legs together before lowering one leg. Begin with 5 reps (toe dipping with both legs); then add 5 reps a week until you can do 25. Strengthens abdominals.

7. Supine Hand–to–Big–Toe Pose

Lie face up on floor with left leg extended, toes up. Bring right leg straight up, in line with hips. Wrap rope, strap or towel around arch of right foot and hold with both hands as you bring leg toward chest. Keep head, shoulders and back in contact with floor and don't flatten or arch lower back; keep belly relaxed. If you're flexible enough, stretch right hand up to hold big toe of right foot while holding towel in left hand. Breathe evenly for 5 cycles; then switch legs and repeat. Stretches lower back and hamstrings; relieves sciatica pain and hip stiffness.

8. Bridge

Lie face up on floor with knees bent and feet on floor, hip-width apart; relax arms by sides. Inhale and contract buttocks strongly, lifting tailbone and hips toward ceiling and breastbone toward chin to open chest. Lift as high as you can, and maintain position. Hold for breathing cycles. Slowly lower upper back first, then lower back, touching tailbone down last. Do pose 3–5 times. Strengthens lower back, buttocks and legs; opens chest; helps stabilize sacrum.

9. Restorative Inverted Pose (also called "Legs up the Wall")

Sit with left side to wall, bringing buttocks as close to it as possible. Swing legs around and place feet on wall; lie back on floor. Walk feet up wall until legs are straight but relaxed; heels alone should touch wall. Stay in this position up to 15 minutes; practice deep or energy breathing throughout. If you want more inversion, place rectangular bolster or 3 folded blankets against wall. Center hips on bolster or blankets, keeping buttocks as close to wall as possible; relax arms by sides. Come down by lowering legs to left side; sit up slowly. Improves circulation; increases energy; induces calm.