Exercise at home
At home with a baby and struggling to find ways to get back in shape? Follow fitness expert Lisa Yates' advice for getting fit without stepping out your front door.
As a busy mother, it's not always easy to arrange a trip to the gym and, while pushing a buggy is a great exercise option, it's less appealing in the middle of winter. But just look around and you'll realise you have a 24-hour gym on hand already. Exercising at home has some great advantages:
- You can exercise in privacy (no need for lycra, your trackies will do fine).
- No one will know or care that you haven't actually done your hair or even had a shower.
- You can choose a time that fits in with your baby's sleeping routine. No need to wake him to fit in with the gym's schedule.
- You can work at your own pace. No insanely energetic instructor shouting at you, when you had only four hours sleep the night before and think you may be about to pee your pants.
Pelvic floor WOF
That said, let's talk pelvic floor first. If you have recently had a baby, or even if your children are a little older, it is important to ensure your pelvic floor muscles are strong before doing any home-based exercise. I see many women who have unknowingly caused a prolapse or incontinence doing sit-ups or high-impact exercise (running) too soon after birth. So if you ever suffer from urinary leakage, urgency to get to the toilet, heaviness or dragging in the vaginal region, then please see a women's health physiotherapist. Go to www.continence.org.nz and ask for a list of registered practitioners in your area.
If you aren't doing your pelvic floor exercises, then start now!
Let's get started
The most common question I get asked by postnatal women is how to firm their tummies after pregnancy. The following exercise is a great starting point and suitable to do from day one after the birth. It helps to strengthen your deep abdominals and pelvic floor muscles.
Core basics: Lie on your side with knees bent and tummy relaxed. Take a slow, deep breath in and allow your tummy to expand. Relax and let it go. Repeat four or five times, ensuring you are relaxed. Breathe in again then, as you breathe out, draw your pelvic floor muscles in and up (as if trying to stop a wee or wind in your back passage), gently hold this for a few breaths and then relax completely.
Now, try once more, this time put your fingers just in from the bony part of the hip (over your undies). Then, as you squeeze and lift the pelvic floor, see if you can feel the lower abdominals gently contract. This is great, as it means you are getting your abdominals and pelvic floor working together. Once you have mastered this, the options are endless. Try engaging your core when you do the following "mummy" activities:
- Changing baby on a change table.
- Getting children in and out of car seats/cots/baths.
- Picking up shopping bags, loads of wood, groceries, toddlers.
If you think of how many times you do these activities daily, you'll be getting lots of incidental core exercise while reducing the risk of injury to your spine and pelvic floor - bonus!
There are plenty more opportunities for doing functional exercises as you go about your daily routine.
Busy mothers do a lot of squatting - picking up toys, hanging washing and picking up more toys. However, many of us take the easier or "lazy" option; leaning forward from the hips, which places excessive and unnecessary strain on the lower back. If you want to get stronger, leaner thighs without the gym, try the following:
Split-stance squat: Stand tall with your right foot slightly in front of your left, feet hip-width apart. Stand with a gentle curve in the lower back, then start by engaging your core and floor (as earlier). Now hold this while you squat, bending your knees and allowing your left heel to come off the ground. Repeat five to eight times. Relax and repeat on the other side.
Got the hang of this? Try and use this technique every time you:
- Pick up anything off the floor (This could mean lots of squats for some).
- Get the washing out of the basket (think how many you could do with one load).
- Get things out of low kitchen cupboards.
But wait there's more…
Many women think gadgets are a great motivator for exercise (look in your garage or under your bed to see if you are one of them). The truth is there is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to exercise or sustainable weight loss. If the machine looks like it is doing all the work, then it probably is.
However, if you are keen on exercise equipment then I recommend you hire before you buy to ensure the investment will pay off.
Treadmills are a popular choice for women to use at home. You will need to consider if you have enough room because they do take up a lot of space. Some machines are more suited to walking than running so make sure you choose one to suit your needs.
Exercise bikes are also a good choice and may be more appropriate if you find you have some bladder weakness following childbirth.
Take a lesson from the kids
You can save your money and reduce your carbon footprint by using equipment that is already lying around the home.
Skipping: This is a fabulous, all-body cardio workout and has the benefit of really increasing your heart rate for added fat-burning. It can be done in the smallest of spaces and after five minutes you'll be amazed by the sweat you can work up. If you have school-aged children and want to be a wonderful role model challenge them to a skip-off to see who can go the longest without tripping over.
Step: If you have ever done a step class you'll know the benefits of steps for the thighs and bottom. Just find a step and see how many step-ups you can do before stopping. Change the starting leg every 20 steps, and if you want to work your arms as well, then grab some light weights (or tins of beans) to give your arms a workout.
Trampoline: Don't let the kids have all the fun - get in on the action and enjoy some quality time with them while getting a fabulous cardio and lower leg workout.
Hula hoop: Remember how much fun the hula hoop was? See if you can still work it like a 12 year old. This exercise is great for the waist and also for loosening the muscles in the lower back.
Backyard circuit: If you want a real challenge (think boot camp at home with the kids), then set up a circuit and rotate between skipping rope, squatting, stepping, the hula hoop and jogging on the trampoline. Start with three minutes on each station and see if you can complete two to three full circuits.
I promise you will be sweating and feeling virtuous by the end of it.
A word of caution before doing any of the above - skipping, stepping and jumping are all high-impact activities which can put a lot of strain on the pelvic floor. If you have recently given birth or if you have any bladder symptoms or pelvic heaviness with these activities, then please see a women's health physiotherapist before getting stuck in.
Exercise DVDs are a great option for those requiring extra motivation to exercise. This is an economical, convenient way to ensure a complete body workout with expert guidance but at a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer. Ideally, find a programme designed specifically for the needs of a post-baby body. The exercises should be low impact and address important areas such as correct posture, the pelvic floor, the deep abdominals and the back and buttock regions.
You'll get the best result by scheduling a regular time for workouts. Be strict, schedule sessions in your diary each week and take the phone off the hook to avoid interruptions.
If you have trouble sticking to your plan, you could even invite a friend to join you. Exercising with a friend has the double bonus of therapeutic conversation at the same time as raising your heart rate for added calorie-burning.
You may have to shift the coffee table out of the way to give you a clear 1.5-2 metres in front of the television. If you have wooden floors, a yoga mat can help increase comfort and prevent bruising.
Lisa Yates is an experienced physiotherapist with a special interest in women's health and postnatal fitness. In her spare time you might find her skipping on the trampoline with her two girls or trying to hula like she did in 1987.