Our body needs sleep in order to function physically, psychologically, emotionally and cognitively. I realised this while suffering from pregnancy insomnia and to be honest 6 months later and no longer pregnant, with a baby that wakes several times a night, not much has changed, I’m still exhausted, no doubt a lot of mums can relate. As an exercise physiologist and lover of exercise it places me in a tricky position, especially when I have had some nights of less than 3 hours accumulated sleep. I have found myself asking the question, ‘can it really be good for me to move today? Is this really safe?’ I have been forced to look at this a little deeper to make the best choice for my health. I am pretty good at listening to my body these days but I am aware of the pressure that new mums feel to return to exercise and am weary of adding to that pressure with my social media content and personal journey. So how important is it to keep moving during this stage of life? Do we need to push through? Or do we need to give ourselves and break and slow down?
I think it is important to know there is no set rule here, nothing hard and fast, as one day might be very different from the next and one mother’s needs will be different to the next. For example, last week for whatever reason my children weren’t sleeping and for those mamas going through it, it passed, and this week we are in a good place. So it is safe to say that my exercise habits don’t look the same this week to last. The important thing is that we can return and we don’t completely fall off the wagon because motherhood is a physically tough gig and we need all the strength, fitness and health that we can to manage the load. Its all about prioritising and listening to your body. The benefits of exercise are enormous during our pre and postnatal lifetime and the recommendations of 30-60mins a day are widely publicised, but the same can be said for sleep! The current recommendations published in Sleep Health : The journal of the National Sleep Foundation recommend adults get between 7 and 9 hours sleep, additionally not recommending less than 6 or more than 10.
So perhaps a good rule of thumb when it comes to sleep and exercise is, have I accumulated 7 hours sleep in the last 24hours? Sleep is when the muscles and body goes through a process of repair from physical stress so a better sleep will result in better recovery, without that recovery there is a higher risk of injury and illness. We need to remember that during those early postpartum weeks we are very much in a state of recovery and sleep will only aid that recovery time.
So what does sleep deprivation do to us? – Increases neuromuscular fatigue and the perception of effort – Increased inflammation – Decreased immunity – Increased appetite – Decreased cognition & brain function – Decreased reaction time – Decreased mood and patience – Increased cortisol levels – Increased weight gain – Increased recovery time – Increased risk of injury
Add all that on top of the other motherhood demands and we can have major depletion!
I had an interesting chat late last year with Pear Exercise Physiology Owner and Exercise Physiologist Esme Soan on Sleep and she brought up that sleep deprivation is just one aspect of postnatal depletion which is such a valid point. Postnatal depletion is a condition encompassing both physical and mental exhaustion from the demands of early stage parenting that can last for some years after giving birth. It can be referred to as the combination of baby brain and fatigue. Esme states ‘Mum will always be compromised’ bub, breastfeeding and parenting will all become a priority and the one thing that gets compromised is mum’s health. To the point that if Esme sees a client struggling in a class due to sleep deprivation, she will take them into the back room for a rest during class. Now I think that is exactly what the role of a women’s health care provider is. Kudos to Esme and Pear Exercise Physiology.
Where does exercise fit in? As seen above, mum’s health as a whole really needs to be assessed. The benefits of exercise are many but we also need to know when to call it. Doing short bouts, lighter load and aerobic exercise over high intensity when really fatigued is definitely the way to go. Exercise will most certainly help the quality of sleep but we really need to be getting that sleep first. Sleep and exercise are both important for our health, but let’s keep in mind that without sleep you can’t exercise. We need to remember that we need to take care of ourselves and our children which can be very physical in itself. My top tips for exercise during times of sleep deprivation – Keep it simple, when you don’t get much sleep toss out any high intensity and strength workouts and opt for a walk to the coffee shop, or even go to the shops and do a few laps with the pram. That is still moving. – Try to be flexible with your exercise plans – if you have a set routine you are much more likely to feel guilty if you don’t do it so be realistic and be kind to yourself. Don’t set an alarm, let your body rest if it needs it. Remember this isn’t forever, so when the sleep regression passes and you are getting longer stints over the night then you can and will be able to get back into it. – Meet with a friend and walk to coffee or during bubs awake time. It can be really hard to mother when you are exhausted so meet up with another mamas and get some fresh air during a gentle walk and catch up. – Put the weights and strength sessions off until when you are feeling energised, your technique will be compromised so lifting heavy weights can be counterproductive and unsafe. – Work with a qualified health professional such as an Accredited Exericse Physiologist, sometimes its much easier when someone else makes the call and can watch your technique. – Keep it short, break it into 5-10min sessions throughout the day. My online program, Mummy & Tummy Pilates is a great bonding activity with your baby and offers short 5-10mins sessions which is often my go to on days where I just can’t do too much, sign up here. – Opt for a gentle core and stretch session. Recovery sessions are just as important as higher intensity sessions so if you are really struggling why don’t you do a gently stretch and meditation session to decrease your stress levels. – Document your sleep and how you felt before/during/after your exercise and you will start to see how much sleep is ideal for your body.
Things that can help with sleep Even though you cannot control your baby and the amount of times they wake up, there are certain things you can do to aid your sleep. – Routine for baby to aid predictability of sleep cycles – Consistent bed habits – going to bed the same time each night – Turn off your phone and TV 30mins before bed – Stretch before bed – Meditate prior to bed – Body scan after feeding to return to sleep – Reduce caffeine – Avoid high intensity exercising close to bed time – Avoid large meals right before bed – Reduce sugar intake – Keep the bedroom dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature
When should I stop exercising? (If you answer yes to any of the below perhaps have a rest and come back to the questions later that day or the next.) – My muscles and joints are aching and sore to the point I feel I have no energy – I feel a dizzy every time I stand up from sitting – I feel unbalanced and unstable when walking – I have a small amount of energy; I guess I could get through it. – I feel a bit nauseas and shaky from lack of sleep – I need caffeine to be able to get through a workout – I have a very physical day with the kids and not sure I can get through it When to choose exercise? There are times when exercise will really help your sleep habits. For example, if you feel like anxiety or mental health is keeping you awake rather than your baby you may find that exercising during the day will really help you get to sleep at night. When you are getting enough sleep but are feeling a little stressed, restless or flat, exercise is a great way to boost your mental health, sometimes depression can be dressed as tiredness so if you feel like you are clocking up enough hours but still feeling flat try getting out and moving and see if you mood and energy improves.
As an exercise physiologist working and living in the women’s health space I felt it important to take the pressure off new mums here. As exercise physiologists we are not in the fitness industry but are health care providers and provide evidence based interventions to meet specified health goals. Exercise is so wonderful for our health but a safe approach is so important particularly for new mums. Returning to exercise after a baby has several health benefits and so does getting adequate sleep. Make the right choice for you by listening to your body and choosing a safe mode of exercise will help with returning to pre-pregnancy exercise.