Another week, another horror story about local postnatal exercise classes. This week it’s the online group course requiring women to practice burpees and star-jumps just 8 weeks after birth. Yes, that’s an online course, so no face to face supervision and no questions even asked about their physical condition following pregnancy and birth. Last week’s revelation was the mum & baby spinning class in the local leisure centre which left the babies so over-stimulated that they were unable to sleep or settle for days afterwards (just picture the lights and the loud music of a regular spinning class, and add a load of babies in carseats into that environment). The week before I spoke to a client who had hurt her wrist during a mum-fit class (different leisure centre, same company) while moving repeatedly between plank and forearm plank, a move usually reserved for bootcamp exercise programmes. The week before that I taught a woman who had undergone surgery to correct a spinal injury picked up during a buggy fit class a few years previously....
None of these stories are exaggerated, neither is the timeline. This is my own experience, during just one month, in one small town in West Sussex.
The fitness industry is largely unregulated. That may come as a surprise to the many millions of people who attend exercise classes each week in the UK. But believe me, there is no requirement for qualification to teach specialist classes such as those targeted at postnatal women. I should know, I’ve been teaching these classes for years (yes, I am fully qualified). If you aren’t convinced, ask yourself this: when was the last time you asked your yoga instructor to show you their certificate to prove their training? Or asked them how long they’d been practicing themselves? Or did the same of your buggy fit instructor at the local gym? My guess is never. After all we all trust that people wouldn’t run these things unless they knew what they were doing... would they?
No doubt many do know what they are doing. But sadly I’m becoming more and more convinced that too many instructors do not undergo anything like the correct training to work with postnatal women. Some are just winging it, others have the absolute bare minimum of knowledge, often completing a training course in a weekend.
Postnatal women are extremely vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. Their bodies have been weakened by pregnancy, by the birth itself (regardless of how long it took and whether it involved surgery), and by the ongoing presence of the hormone relaxin, which can remain in the body until months after breastfeeding finishes. Their body image is often negative, they might be feeling flabby, tired, and desperate to feel like their pre-pregnant selves (or ‘even stronger than before’ as some trainers will promise them). They are rich pickings for many fitness instructors with little or no knowledge or understanding of how to handle their delicate bodies.
The simple facts are these: some women can return to regular exercise 6-8 weeks after giving birth. But the vast majority cannot, and should not. Exercising too hard and too soon after pregnancy and birth can lead to a lifetime of stress incontinence, to pelvic organ prolapse, hernias, back injury, joint damage... hopefully you get the picture. Women need special advice and care during this time in their lives, not to be exploited for a quick return.
The fitness industry is not about to change any time soon. But we can educate ourselves about how to approach it, and use it much more wisely.
Please, if you have had a baby in the past year, or if you have any friends who are in the postnatal stage (up to 2 years after birth) or who are pregnant, remember this fundamental list of things to look for in a postnatal instructor:
Someone who asks how old your baby is, how many pregnancies you have had, and how far apart they have been
Someone who asks if you are still breastfeeding
Someone who performs a physical check for diastasis recti (separation of the tummy muscles) before any exercise begins
Someone who asks about your pelvic floor strength or whether you have any concerns in this area
Someone who asks about c-section scar healing or tenderness / numbness.
Ladies, please, if any of these things are missing BEFORE any exercise programme begins, walk away. Find someone who knows what to do with your incredible body at this time of seismic change, and who will help you return to full strength safely.
Kate is a mum to 3 young children and teaches 12 yoga classes each week, ranging from pregnancy yoga and postnatal classes, to hatha flow, vinyasa flow and restorative yoga. She has practiced yoga for over 15 years and completed over 400 hours of yoga teacher training. Kate qualified as one of the first Lushtums Teachers in 2014.