Heal Before You H.I.I.T.!

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H.I.I.T. workouts are THE bomb, right? They’re fast-paced, challenging and downright addictive! They have definitely gained in popularity, especially among women, and have been touted as a good option for those looking to sweat and burn off a few calories!  However, high intensity and high impact exercise is not always the best fit for everyone, especially the post partum population.  Whether mom is 6 weeks, 6 months, or 6 years since having baby, here’s why just jumping back into high impact training after baby may not initially be mom’s best choice of exercise.

Pregnancy is an exciting time in a woman’s life, characterized by so many physical and emotional changes.  It has been accurately described as a marathon event on the body yet many women rush through the recovery phase without paying much attention to changes that have occurred. The truth is that no matter how much of a “child birthing rock star” mom might be, pelvic and/or abdominal injury occurs during labor and delivery.  Pelvic muscles can tear, ligaments often overstretch, and connective tissue is stressed. When trauma occurs to any other joint in our body, we immediately kick into protective mode. We know almost instinctively to rest, and, over time, resume load on the injured area. Through the healing process, we periodically re-assess our symptoms and scale our movements based on lingering symptoms until our problem resolves. Sometimes we even engage in specific exercise programs to build back strength, coordination, or motion.  Rarely, however, do we implement these same strategies to our pelvic or abdominal region when recovering from pregnancy.  

So, what’s the big deal? Why is the post-partum recovery phase so important for women? Most women seem “fine” after pregnancy, right? We hear it all the time: “Wow, she bounced back in no time!”, or “She’s killing it at the gym just 6 weeks after having a baby!” Unfortunately, mom’s apparent function does not always correlate with her actual function. 

Did you know that women…

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These are significant numbers and can create huge issues for women if not addressed early and properly.  Clearly, these are not easy things to talk about and, understandably, most moms don’t sit around chatting about pain, prolapse, and peeing after (and way after) pregnancy.  In fact, many women feel it’s normal to pee, have pain, or separated abs and just carry on with activity in spite of their symptoms.  Sadly, these symptoms are red flags of core dysfunction and will likely progress if not addressed.

Most women are in the dark as to how to resume exercise after pregnancy.  Very few are educated on post partum exercise progression, with most told to “take it easy and do Kegels”. At 6-8 weeks, moms are often “cleared” by their physicians to exercise and jump back into activities such as H.I.I.T. jogging, biking, and yoga, super anxious to lose their baby weight and feel strong again. Here’s the thing, though.  Normal core function is dependent on mom’s ability to manage intra-abdominal pressure when she moves. In a healthy core, this is pretty much an automatic response that we don’t have to think about. However, many, MANY women are lacking the ability to control intra-abdominal pressure changes properly due to muscle, joint, or ligament damage that occurs during delivery. (HINT: that’s why some women pee when they jump!)  And, the higher the impact or change in extreme movements for mom, the more control is needed. Repetitive movement with a poorly balanced system inevitably leads to greater dysfunction.

The good news is that there are postural strategies, exercises, and behavior modifications that can help safely restore the core to help ensure stabilization of the trunk and pelvis with exercise and movement.  The abdominal muscles involved in the initial post partum recovery phase include the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and multifidus and are considered our “deep core” muscles.  Most people have never even heard of these muscles!  Proper function of the deep core system requires collaboration and coordination of all four of these muscles. In other words, just doing Kegel’s is NOT enough!  Re-training these muscles requires exercises and movement strategies that are very different than the core exercises we all know and love (i.e. planks and crunches).  In some cases, the traditional ab exercises can actually trigger dysfunction or progress an existing dysfunction.

I don’t believe most women are intentionally returning to activity or sport pre-maturely. I feel in most cases, moms are following the current standard of care before resuming exercise, and are not aware that core re-training programs are even available.  Leaking is NEVER normal, pelvic organ prolapse is treatable, and the sooner low back, hip, or pelvic pain is addressed, the better the outcome. 

As fitness professionals, we need to do a better job educating and screening moms before they return to sport or activity after baby. As moms, we have to do a better job speaking up and asking questions, and seeking help if we experience symptoms. Pelvic health PT’s are excellent resources for women with pelvic dysfunction and are highly trained to make appropriate exercise recommendations. In a perfect health care world, all women would be screened for core dysfunction after pregnancy. But for now, educating women on safe fitness options, encouraging them to seek help if symptoms persist, and supporting them in their decision to heal prior to returning to high impact training is a good start!

For more information on specialized post partum recovery classes, please visit www.epochphysicaltherapy.com.  New A.B.C. After Baby classes starting in November!

Post by Julie Yunaska, MPT, CPT