Embracing changed bodies through Pilates
As women’s mental health and wellbeing is brought to the forefront of modern day lives the danger of pushing postnatal women to return to exercise too quickly, and for the wrong reasons, is clear. However, the subtle pressure on women to regain their pre-baby shape still exists. From celebrity post baby transformations to Instagram influencers and their postnatal exercise and diet regimes – ‘get your pre-baby body back’ messages are prevalent and these messages are visible to new mothers via the likes of Instagram at any hour of the day (and more likely, any hour of the long night).
Pilates is a fantastic support for newly postnatal women, with mums and bubs and tailored postnatal classes available in many studios. These classes have helped many women reconnect with their bodies after childbirth, and often helped guide them to a healthier body/mind connection. As an industry we can contribute to stemming the flow of unrealistic and unhealthy messages targeted to postnatal women, by catering to their unique needs and embracing their changed bodies.
However, there is often a rush from these clients to move back to their regular classes or programs, whether for the sake of progression, difficulty level, or circumstances such as mobile babies no longer being able to attend mums and bubs classes. We know we can’t keep women in postnatal classes forever, so how can we best support these women back into their regular Pilates space?
A woman’s body is forever changed after pregnancy and the early years of child rearing. Questions like “how long will I be postnatal?”, “how long do I have to come to a postnatal class?” and “when will I be ready to go back to my normal classes or exercise?” are often answered by well meaning instructors and health professionals with “6 months”, “12 months” or “when your abdominal separation heals”.
What isn’t taken into account with these answers is the fact that the changes to a woman’s body during this time can be everlasting. These changes can be exacerbated by rushing back to exercise and taking on poor compensatory strategies for day to day movements when looking after children.
There is an obvious “initial” postnatal period – mums with young babies, who may be breastfeeding and child-wearing. We flag these women for special classes with modified exercises to target their abdominal separation, to strengthen their arms and back for the added load of motherhood, and to release and relax their shoulders and necks to counteract the postural problems presented by carrying and feeding a new baby.
What’s not so obvious is the enduring change that can be present in a mother further along – be it 12 months or 12 years later. For example, relaxin – the hormone responsible for loosening ligaments in preparation for childbirth – is present in a woman’s system until 3 – 6 months after a baby is weaned from breastfeeding. With some women choosing to breastfeed well after their child’s first birthday, there’s a chance some of the clients that we expect to have recovered due to age of their baby, are actually still experiencing side effects such as loosened connective tissue within the pelvis and abdominal wall.
Diastasis recti – the separation of the rectus abdominis – can remain present decades after childbirth, particularly when it hasn’t been properly addressed or when inappropriate exercises and activities have been performed. Long term separation of the rectus abdominis muscle and the associated weakness of the abdominal wall can contribute to back pain, pelvic floor dysfunctions and hernias. It can compromise posture leading to further musculoskeletal issues throughout the body. Problems that many of our female clients complain about daily, may have carried on from their pregnancy, regardless of how long ago they gave birth. That’s right – your regular reformer client attending your 9.30am class after school drop off, or your favourite mat client showing off photos of her new grandchild could both be suffering from issues caused by the changes their body went through during their pre and postnatal phase of life.
Pilates provides the perfect platform to address the changes that can occur to a woman’s body after pregnancy and childbirth, even years down the track. The key here is assessment from a specialist (get a great women’s health physiotherapist in your network to refer clients to!) and working in collaboration with them and the client to create a tailored approach to their Pilates practice that is built on a foundation of strength and realignment, and progresses in difficulty when appropriate.
Of course, our clients aren’t practicing in one on one environments all the time, so it’s critical we work with them – guiding them with mindful cueing, and giving ample opportunity for them to develop a keen sense of body awareness, so that they can take this tailored approach with them into group environments.
In group environments, we can ensure the safety of our female clients by enquiring about their history, offering modifications and alternatives where required and deepening our own understanding and knowledge of women’s health and the changes experienced due to pregnancy and childbirth.
By acknowledging the long lasting changes we as women go through to birth and raise our little ones, we can create meaningful change in the lives of our clients – allowing them to move freely, breathe deeply and embrace their changed bodies with love, respect and confidence.
by Pamela Lam, PAA Member
An instructor note from the PAA:
If you have clients who are returning to Pilates after a pregnancy it is essential that you conduct an updated screening and assessment with them before they resume. If there are any issues of concern refer the client to a women’s health physiotherapist for assessment and clearance to attend, if appropriate. As Pamela has recommended above, ‘build a relationship with a great women’s health physiotherapist in your network to refer clients to’ as this can often be a two way relationship.
For those instructors seeking deeper knowledge and skills in pre and postnatal Pilates there are several PAA approved professional development workshops available to cater more specifically to these clients.