Everyone is built differently, and although we’re aware that there is a conversation going on around gender and sport, we are interested to find out more about working out when you have to take into account monthly cycles, hormone levels (and how those are affected by stress) and generally how women (who have busy lives) should work-out. We got in touch with Rosie Stockley, pre & post-natal exercise specialist and founder of MamaWell UK (and PT to Vogue Williams) to ask her a few questions…
- When it comes to managing stress and hormones what is better in general – HIIT or LISS?
One of the most important questions to ask yourself when exercising is “does this support my needs and goals?” We all have varying goals from wanting to run a 10k, to toning up our legs and wanting to lift a certain weight. Our exercise choice should support that. When it comes to our needs, this is where choosing the right type of exercise to support our hormones, energy and stress levels is vital and this can change throughout our monthly cycle, or even from morning to night. HIIT promotes the body working at an intense level for a short time, before recovering and repeating. When we use this high intensity approach, the body will produce hormones such as adrenaline, testosterone, endorphins and cortisol as it reaches a ‘crisis’ point, before recovering again as your rest. This could be a great way to encourage a metabolic demand which is great for fat burning, but if you’re already under stress in your daily life it may be less than ideal.
I would recommend LISS or even low impact exercise that involves deep breathing and slow movements as a great alternative. Steady state cardio won’t necessarily give you the metabolic burn, but you are strengthening your heart and cardiovascular system, and it can be really great for your mental health as you reach a meditative state. Low impact work such as yoga is great for the parasympathetic nervous system, something that is neglected in our fast paced stressful lives. This will support our digestive and central nervous system and allow us to restore.
- Does exercising have beneficial effects on keeping hormone levels in check?
Exercise is great for controlling metabolism and our hormone levels, as well as promoting positive mental health. Finding the type of exercise that makes you strong and happy and best supports your body’s needs is key.
- Can exercising have negative effects on hormone levels and how can we avoid
Generally we want to avoid extremes as this will put the body under a lot of stress and risk of over-producing certain hormones. In general, moderate exercise which as a population we do, is totally fine. If we go to extremes in intensity, weight lifted or distance/endurance then there may be too much insulin/cortisol/testosterone/human growth hormone produced which could be negative for the body.
- How long does it take to get your fitness back after a period of not exercising?
This is unique to everyone! It depends on you level of fitness prior to the break, and how often you are working out currently. The body should be able to make physiological adaptations in a few weeks of regular work out, especially if you have a targeted programme.
- Why is it so important to keep your pelvic floor strong? Is it important even if you’re not thinking about having kids?
The pelvic floor is important to everyone – male and female – but we talk about it most in conjunction with having babies. This muscle needs to be strong to support us through our whole life, so it is important to exercise it throughout your 20s onwards, and learn how to utilise it effectively when exercising.
The pelvic floor muscle is mostly an endurance muscle that supports proper posture, so reduces the risk of back pain, supports your organs, stops incontinence and improves sexual sensation. It will also aid hugely in labour. When sudden pressure is put on the pelvic floor, it needs to be strong to react quickly, for example when you exercise intensity, sneeze or cough.
- Can you start a new exercise regime, e.g. running, once you’re pregnant?
It is generally advised when you’re pregnant to only do types of exercise with which you’re familiar as the body is changing. For example, as your abdomen grows, your centre of gravity will change – so it’s useful to have a benchmark of where you were previously, therefore stick to types of exercise you know. A specialised pregnancy yoga class, for example, would be an exception to this – and something that could really aid you through this time of your life.
- How do your muscles actually change when you grow and give birth to a baby?
There are so many physiological adaptations that occur during pregnancy to facilitate the growing baby and birth. Your stomach with expand, and the abdominals will separate to accommodate the baby. They will likely return to normal by themselves after birth, but may need a little specialised training.
Your pelvis will widen to prepare the birth canal for the baby – this can result in the pelvic floor stretching and weakening (and could get damaged during birth ) which is why the PF exercises are so important.
You will release a hormone called relaxin which works to soften your ligaments around your joints, making them more malleable. This helps in opening the pelvis to birth the baby, but you need to be careful when exercising as you don’t want to over stretch the joints.
And why do you have to wait to workout?
The risk of hemorrhage is higher before 6 weeks postpartum so generally we advise to wait until after that time before working out any more than a walk or some general mat based exercises. With a C-section, you have had a major operation so will need to wait until your scar is healing well and there is no aching or pain near the scar.
- If you have a c-section, what do you have to be aware of when starting to exercise again? What is the best way to start using weights and doing ab work post c- section?
The C-section is something to respect and not to push too hard. You want to avoid any exercise that promote too much pressure around the abdomen. You will need to build up your full body strength gradually and avoid lifting too much weight at the beginning. I would start with light weights and a higher repetition and make sure you feel strong before increasing the weight. A core programme that focuses on the deep abdominal muscles is advised for anyone postpartum as this will strengthen you from within, promote good posture and work the core holstally with the pelvis.
- How many times a week would you recommend working out to get your pre- pregnancy strength back after your 6 week check? And which classes do you think are best for post-natal fitness?
I recommend being active every day as this is so good for you entally as well as physically. BUT this doesn’t need to be a full class, for example a 40 minute brisk walk would be perfect 3 times a week. I’d recommend a postnatal specific class, like yoga or a postnatal exercise class ( like the Mamawell Bootcamp or home workout method!). You want the teacher to be able to advise you and answer questions with confidence. If your goal is to start running again then you can build up slowly to that but I’d recommend waiting a few months just to be sure that the pelvic floor is strong enough.
- What should you be aware of physically before starting to exercise post-birth?
I always recommend my clients to be aware of their fatigue and how they’re feeling each day. The tiredness is not something we can really prepare for and it leaves us physically very fatigued as well. This is something you should think about before embarking on high intensity exercise.
If you have pain, for example lower back or pelvis then it’s worth finding ways to strengthen these areas first, seek advice from a specialist if necessary.
If you feel you have abdominal separation or a weak pelvic floor, then it also worth strengthening these individual areas before embarking on a new fitness regime.
Do you think it’s necessary to get checked by a physio beforehand or only if you feel something isn’t right?
It’s not 100% necessary if you feel fine, but I do think it’s interesting to see exactly how we can best support ourselves and our bodies post-birth, so if you have one available on the NHS near you or can afford a session then I think they’re great. It can also be a huge benefit mentally to know you’re healing well and your body is doing everything it can.
- Have you got any advice about nutrition post-birth?
I’m not a nutritionist, so can’t give specific advice – but I always recommend fueling yourself for the day and making sure you have healthy, nourishing snacks at hand when you need them most. Motherhood is incredibly draining and sometimes hard to manage time-wise, so you can be starving but have no time to make anything. This is where the supplies of fruit and veg snacks, dips and nutritious whole grains can really come in. We all want to reach for the cookies, especially when we’re fatigued – and that is fine – but make sure you have other options as well.
Really keep your hydration up as you’ll be running on empty sometimes, always carry water with you.
Meals should have lots of nutrients and good fatty foods as well – so go for lots of bright coloured veggies and leaves as well as avocados, grains and lean protein.
- Is there really a difference in your nutritional needs if you’re breastfeeding? Can exercise have beneficial effects on you and the baby if you are breastfeeding?
When breastfeeding I’d recommend just focus on your baby and yourself – are you producing milk as well as your body can and nourishing your baby? Don’t beat yourself up about diet and too much exercise. The body will ask for what it needs, so keep as healthy as you can and be mindful of what your body is required – for example when I was breastfeeding I really needed full fat yoghurt every morning, so that’s what I made sure I had.
You’ll notice you need to drink a lot of water when breastfeeding, so make sure you’re aware of that. Regarding food, breastfeeding is very intense on the body, especially if you’re up lots in the night, so make sure you eat whenever you feel hungry and don’t let your blood sugar drop.
Rosie founded Mamawell to provide women with the education and insight into their bodies in the pre and postpartum period, and the benefits that exercise can bring, both for strength and energy. After a global career in dance, choreography and teaching, Rosie moved into fitness whilst living in New York and trained at the prestigious Equinox Gym. When Rosie become a mother, she observed the lack of quality information regarding the changes to the body through pregnancy and labour and what this meant for exercise post-baby, and was inspired to help and educate women in this mentally and physically demanding time.
Rosie connects with women through her bootcamp classes, personal training and The MAMAWELL Method video series that makes her method accessible to all women who have become mothers. She is well known for her holistic and intelligent approach to training the body, and the needs of each woman. She writes extensively, and presents (Women’s Health Live, Balance Festival) on the important for fitness for mental health, the benefits of being strong through your pregnancy and thereafter, and how to find balance and energy in our busy lives.
Rosie also connects with women of all lifestyles to help them find a way to use their bodies to optimise their lives – allowing them to take control, find strength and energy for whatever life throws at them.
Rosie has very kindly offered a discount code for our readers to get 15% off her MamaWell programmes (which we’ve tried and are brilliant!) using SS15 (valid until 11thOctober)