I think most women will agree that the greatest challenge to the female body is recovering from pregnancy and childbirth. Attempting to return to one’s former fitness level raises the bar even higher, especially following two or more pregnancies. Since I have recently experienced giving birth to two amazing baby boys in the space of thirteen months, I am very aware of the great hurdles women face as they attempt to recover their pre-pregnancy body shape. I took on this challenge as an experiment, one which could provide a model for other women, while inspiring them toward that goal. I would like to share that experience with you.

First, I wanted to set an example and inspire all the women I know, some who have experienced extreme weight gain during pregnancy, and many who have experienced post pregnancy depression. I wanted to use my experience as an experiment, in order to develop guidelines for others to follow, to reach their personal fitness goals. Taking on motherhood as a career woman, I knew that, if I could manage my time and reach my highest fitness level, any woman could.

Second, because of my years as an athlete and fitness expert, I have suffered numerous injuries and tremendous back pain for many years. This led to my career choice as a Doctor of Physical Therapy. This training and knowledge has allowed me to manage my pain through the years, with manual therapy and exercise, and thus avoid recommended surgeries. The result is that I have become a leading manual therapy specialist in the field of physical therapy. This assisted me as I endured two close pregnancies, while also living with growing, intense low back pain. I experienced increased lumbar compression, due to the pregnancy belly and my inability to stretch and work my core, as I customarily did.

Third, as a life-long athlete, nationally-ranked collegiate tennis player, IFBB Pro Figure competitor, personal trainer and nutrition consultant, I have always had an extreme passion for reaching a continually higher level of fitness. I have heard through the years, and again throughout my pregnancy – far too many times   “you will never be the same!” These things simply combined to inspire me to again see my pre-pregnancy fitness level, if not better. And while I did not intend to return to professional competition, ultimately that goal was also achieved. Because of that achievement, I realize that I am in a unique position to provide fitness guidelines to all women who wish to achieve their best fitness goals.

Yes, you too can be at least as fit as your pre-pregnancy body, if not better. I focused on three areas in my transformational process, and I want to share those three guidelines with you. They entail taking control of your diet, exercise and time management. This is how the process unfolded.

Aerobic Exercise: I began my workout regimen by gradually re-strengthening my core, very carefully, through the stages of post birth healing. I slowly intensified my core work, month-by-month, while gradually increasing my cardiovascular activities   from walking (often with the baby), to dancing, and eventually sprint intervals and other higher level cardiovascular activities. During each of these activities, I maintain a fairly low impact exercise regimen overall, due to my back difficulties.

Strength Training: I began this process by reintegrating push-ups, then progressed to light-weight circuit training, during the first two months post pregnancy. Eventually, I graduated to heavier weights and body-part-specific training days, during the following months.

Diet: I was very diligent about my diet, but kept it “livable” at the same time. I have always maintained a fairly low carb diet that works well for my body, even through my pregnancy. However, I never feel deprived or miserable, because I make sure that I incorporate all of my favorite foods, including wine.

The Test: Following four months of this post pregnancy workout, I was looking quite fit, and ready to do some photo shoots. When I saw those photos, I was very surprised and pleased to have made so much progress in this short amount of time. At this point, I realized that I definitely could return to competition level fitness, if I wanted to. I still wasn’t certain that was my ultimate goal, since my focus was on spending as much quality time bonding with the children, and returning to work.

At four months after giving birth to my second son, I returned to work. Time management became an extremely important issue, if I was going to continue my exercise regiment. I realized I had to ramp up my workout routine and maximize my effort in a limited amount of time. I also restructured my diet slightly, to continue making great progress. I have always considered exercise an absolutely essential aspect of my life, as routine as brushing my teeth each day. I therefore planned my work schedule carefully, in order to go to the gym approximately five days per week—sometimes less, sometimes more—depending on my patient load, and on our family weekend schedule. I generally did not spend more than 1-1/2 hours at the gym, adding some time prior to a big competition.

By seven months post pregnancy, I was back in competition shape, with more lean muscle mass than I had prior to my pregnancy. Based on my shape at this point in time, I decided I wanted to go ahead and take my transformed body to the Pro Stage. I even surprised myself with this decision, because I was not training the number of hours I had formerly required, prior to competition. I would frequently do two hours of cardio a day, seven days a week. That kind of time for a workout schedule is no longer possible, or desirable for me. Therefore, I was very excited to see that sometimes a little less can produce more!

For women who struggle with finding the time to work out, while balancing children and a career, I would like to make the following recommendations:

  1. Create a support system. Make sure you surround yourself with people who are supportive of your goals, and only share your goals with those people who are supportive. If a spouse, friend or family member is not “in your camp,” segregate that part of your life from them.
  2. Find a gym close to you. Nothing can be more disruptive of your workout routine than knowing that you have to spend hours getting to and from your gym. It must be convenient, or you will not go. What works best is to find a gym close to your home, and one close to your place of employment (if you work). Personally, I prefer to have that choice, and utilize two gyms.
  3. Work out early in the day. Plan to leave your house earlier for work, in order to stop by the gym on your way. You will have much more energy in the morning following this workout. Also, your over all physical fitness will improve more rapidly with an early workout, rather than waiting until late in the day.
  4. Don’t feel guilty. Remind yourself that you will likely be a happier, healthier and less stressed out mother, if you take care of your body and mind as well.
  5. Plan at least one weekend workout. You can lessen some of the guilt of indulging in frequent workouts if you allow your spouse, other family members or friends to babysit for you during a Saturday or Sunday workout. This provides the added frugal benefit of saving “nanny hours.”
  6. Try to find a gym that provides childcare. This is a super convenient way to not only spend more time with the children, but to give them an outing, and perhaps find a new circle of friends they can play with.

— Contributed by Deborah Denio, DPT, MTC, CSCS, IFBB Figure Professional

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The Myth of the Slipped Disc