Why is it so hard to get back in shape after having a baby? We should all have “no excuses”, right? Oh except hormones are out of whack and favor fat storage following birth, lack of sleep and utter exhaustion, barely having time to eat, high stress levels, and families with needs that must be met.
Yes, we have obstacles and excuses, many of them. But we can also use the rule of 80/20 – 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts – and make small tweaks to our daily actions and mindset that will change everything.
We don’t owe the world any excuses, but we do owe it to ourselves to be a priority in our own lives. When we don’t take the time to practice self-care, we have nothing to give to those who need us.
We can’t pour from an empty cup.
So how can you practice this self-care in a way that is efficient and not too time consuming? By working on these 10 basic principles of fitness and health after having a baby…
Don’t get too restrictive.
Cutting massive calories and being restrictive will not work during this time. Your postpartum body loves fat (particularly if you’re nursing), and if it thinks there is no fuel coming in, it won’t let go of the fat reserves. You must eat enough to let your body relax and let go of the additional fat stores.
Eat enough food and your body leaves “danger” mode, giving the signals to drop the fat as the energy demand increases.
Eating enough also means cravings and binges will cease (low calorie diets always end in a jar of Nutella for me), you’ll have the energy you need to function as a new mom, and you’ll feel great.
Restriction and dieting are two pitfalls that drop us into an unhealthy cycle, both mentally and physically. Being too restrictive can not only signal to your body to hold onto fat, it can slow your metabolism in the future, and cause food obsession and binge behavior.
Eat 3 core meals high in protein, veggies, and fiber
Make it a priority to always eat 3 core meals each day that are each high in protein, veggies (especially green leafy), and fiber.
I understand the temptation to skip meals when you’re busy with baby, work, kids, but this leads to a low blood sugar, which leads to overeating and binge eating later. Three core meals are essential in keeping your energy levels high and keeping blood sugar levels stable.
Another mistake many women make is not getting enough protein, vegetables, and fiber in these core meals. These three foods are hunger killers, and keep blood sugar levels stable for hours after consumption. Processed foods and simple carbohydrates basically dissolve in your stomach because they are fast-digesting, which can spike and then crash blood sugar: causing you to feel hungry and shaky very soon after eating.
Understand your hunger
Hunger doesn’t always feel like a growling stomach. So many of us are so familiar with the low blood sugar feeling that we don’t even recognize it as an issue. We blow off our constant obsession with food as being weak or having low willpower, rather than recognizing our body’s signal that it needs more fuel than it’s getting.
While emotional/stress eating does happen, more often than not I have seen my clients eliminate these grazing tendencies just by managing their hunger and blood sugar levels. When you are well-fueled, you can make better decisions about food and won’t have the constant obsession with eating.
Read more: You’re not weak, you’re hungry
You must balance your physical need for nutrition and exercise with your mental need for freedom and enjoyment.
It doesn’t take perfection to achieve postpartum fitness and health, and none of us live in a laboratory environment where every factor in our lives stays the same on a day to day basis.
Change is born from consistency: what you do 80-90% of the time. The other 10-20% is vital, so that you avoid that restricted, unbalanced feelings that can make you want to give up.
This looks like eating whole, healthy foods at 80-90% of your meals, and allowing yourself the freedom to enjoy the fun foods you don’t want to give up. It also looks like exercising consistently but not beating yourself up for missing a week here and there.
Read more: Take Control (Out of the Equation)
Be smart about exercise
First of all, take it slow and listen to your body. If you’ve just given birth, your body just expelled a large organ that was attached to your uterine wall, and you have a giant open wound inside. Healing is vital during these first few months.
When you do feel ready to exercise again, don’t choose exercise solely based on what is going to burn calories. This will set you up for failure. No one wants to do what they don’t enjoy, and while you might be able to get through it at first, it will just be a matter of time before you stop. Choose something you really enjoy, and try new things often to fight boredom.
After having a baby, you also probably have less time to work with, so be efficient with your workouts. HIIT style workouts offer a big effect in very little time, and almost any type of exercise can be done in this style (bike sprints, treadmill sprints, strength training intervals, etc). Even a 4 minute tabata will increase your energy, health, insulin sensitivity, and will be over before your baby wakes from his nap.
Make peace with your body
Of all the things I’m writing about, in my opinion, this one is the most important. How you feel about yourself and your body is what is going to drive all of the healthy or unhealthy behaviors on a daily basis.
If you hate your body, you will either punish it with exercise you hate or you will restrict your diet, or you will comfort yourself with food and avoid exercise. Neither of these things will help you feel good or reach any goals.
When you accept your body before you ever reach your aesthetic goals, you can begin the self-care mindset that allows you to make healthy choices for yourself. From this place, you’ll be able to solidify those healthy habits because they are good for you. This will ultimately lead to your best, healthiest body AND peace of mind.
Enjoy the process, forget the results
True passion for what you are doing is what drives you to do your best on a daily basis. This is why diets and punishing exercise programs are always short-lived for the majority of people. If it isn’t fun and we are only doing it for the results, it’s just a matter of time before we quit, because results take time and aren’t in our control.
Rather than thinking about the number on the scale or what you look like in the mirror, try shifting your focus to how you feel after a great workout, or what you feel like after a really healthy meal. These are both instant gratifications, available to us right now, today.
Results are completely out of our control: hormones, DNA, outside circumstances have more influence sometimes than we do. So rather than driving ourselves nuts trying to control what we can’t, we just try to shift our focus back to how good it feels to be healthy and strong. This will drive us to continue until before we know it, the results appear.
Self-care is the way to practice this process-oriented mindset. By waking up each day and asking, “how can I just take care of myself in the best way today?”, we will shift that focus to what will drive us forward.
Use external measurements of progress sparingly and only as tools
If you’re heavily relying on scales, calorie counting, step counting, and any other external measures of progress, you are probably completely missing out on the ultimate measure: your own body. These tools are formulated using big broad numbers and hypotheticals at best, and don’t take your individuality into account.
While they can be useful as a starting point, they divorce us from our body intuition. We may begin to ignore our body’s signals like hunger, fatigue, soreness, etc.
Make yourself a priority
Many new moms are under the mistaken impression that taking time for themselves makes them selfish, takes away from their babies and families, and isn’t absolutely necessary.
As caregivers of very young children who rely heavily on us, it is actually more important than ever to prioritize ourselves so that we can have the energy to be those providers for them.
It doesn’t mean that you need to take hours and hours to exercise, meal prep, and socialize. It only means that you meet your own needs in the same way that you meet the needs of your children, doing the best you can.
You deserve to feel good, and your children deserve to have a mother who feels good.
Everyone is happier when YOU are happy, so take the time to meet your needs and fulfill your desires.
Practice sliding scale self-care
Learning to prioritize yourself is not easy! We think that to make ourselves a priority we need to find hours when in fact all we need is small gestures.
Choose a nutrition, activity, and enjoyment/stress relief goals. Make them ACHIEVABLE for your current situation. The point is not to make a huge difference in your fitness or health, but only to get you into the habit of putting yourself on the priority list and build your confidence that you CAN do this.
Once life gets a little less crazy, you can scale those goals up to the next level and make a bigger impact.
This may be my longest article since I began writing while pregnant with my son back in 2013! Since then I’ve been able to personally coach hundreds of women, not to mention interact with thousands on the website in and our Facebook communities.
In so many ways, you have all made me a better coach, and so this article is my way of consolidating those experiences and giving back to this community of expecting and new mothers.
As always, I’m here for help and support if and when you need it. The early years of motherhood can be lonely, and we all need to lift each other up!