The secret to fitness after having a baby

<i></i>
 Photo: Getty Images

As a sleep-deprived new mum, it can be hard to make exercise a priority - no matter how beneficial it might be. If you've tried - and failed - to commit to a mums and bubs yoga class, or even a regular pram walk with a fellow mama, you're not alone. We've all been there.

As it turns out, the answer to getting more physical activity post-baby might be simpler than you think. A new study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, suggests that when it comes to exercising after birth, taking a more flexible approach, rather than trying to stick to a structured routine, might be the best way to make it happen.

As part of her research, Emily Mailey and colleagues from Kansas State University held workshops for women who had given birth between six weeks and 12 months earlier. Study participants wore accelerometers for a week to measure their level of activity before the workshops, immediately after the workshops, and again six months later.

Mailey also measured mums' perceptions of their obstacles to engaging in regular exercise - barriers which can seem insurmountable when you're adjusting to new motherhood.

"Even people who were really active before having kids tend to decrease their physical activity after having kids because they prioritise the baby's needs first," Mailey explained in a statement, adding that as part of the workshops, they covered the topic of guilt and the idea that doing something for yourself is not "selfish".

"It actually might help you be more patient or have more energy for your kids," Mailey said.

Mothers in the workshops were divided into two groups. The first group received general advice around increasing their physical activity, as well as some guidance relating to common barriers they might face. Mums were also told to do any activity of their choosing, something they enjoyed, including exercising with their baby.

Finally, they were encouraged to set realistic and measurable goals.

Mothers in the second group were given the same advice, but it was centered on a "regimented running program", three days a week for 30 minutes at a time. 

Advertisement

"I went into the study to see if the running program would help new mums find success with getting back into exercise," Mailey said. "It seemed to me that it would be especially appropriate for new mums because it laid out the steps they need to be successful."

In fact, Mailey found the opposite was true. 

Mums who were left to choose their own exercise increased their activity slightly more than those in the running group. 

Reflecting on the unexpected finding, Mailey noted it may have been due to two factors: the type of exercise prescribed for the structured group (some people just hate running!) and the time it required.

"I was surprised by how many people said finding a 30-minute block of time that they can dedicate to exercise was too difficult," Mailey said.

As such, she says, when it comes to exercise and new motherhood, flexibility is key. "If you've identified that mornings are when you exercise and your baby's been up four times during the night then it's probably not going to happen," she said.

For Mailey, when it comes to postpartum exercise it's about not having an all-or-none mindset. For example, if you'd planned to exercise in the morning and it didn't happen, rather than thinking, "better luck tomorrow", mums should aim for a walk at lunchtime instead.

Mailey also advises that mothers don't need to commit to thirty minute blocks of exercise, if that's simply not possible.

"Maybe all you can do is fit in five minutes here or do 10 minutes there," Mailey said. "By changing your mindset so that everything counts, you can build it into your day and it's more feasible than these 30-minute chunks."