Why Walking is the Best Postpartum Exercise

iStock_000016288424SmallWhen did walking get such a bad rap? I have clients tell me all the time that they need to "exercise" but can't due to whatever the issue is that brought them into my office. Then they sneer and say, "I can only manage to go on [deep depressed sigh] walks." We've been sold such a story that we need to only bow down to the holy grail of sweaty, heart-thumping, intense cardiovascular exercise in order to have any health benefits. When in truth, regular, non-sped up, walking is a primary ingredient of what our species needs to thrive. It's not that getting sweaty doesn't have it's place of course, but we can drop the sneer about walking being so sub-par... It's actually what should be prioritized for our best health, especially in a world where we walk less and less. All that said, this post could easily be titled Why Walking is the Best Exercise. Period. But Wendy Powell of MuTu Mamas happens to be an expert in postpartum health, so this is written through that (very needed) lens. MuTu System programs are clear about the walking part. It’s not negotiable. Right from Day 1, you go for a daily walk, and that remains a constant throughout the program and beyond. But whether you are a mama or not, this is a great read. Read it, and then go take a walk! Daily walks are for everyone!

Enter Wendy: 

Whether you are 1-week postpartum or 5 years, walking is an essential part of your recovery and healthy lifestyle.

Short bursts of sweaty, intensive exercise a few times a week are great for fat burning, raising the heart rate, improving endurance and making you feel great.

But a ‘workout’ isn’t a substitute for walking.

If a session of frantic exercise is the only movement you get in a day, it’s not going to get your body or your health where you want it. Walking should always come first – every day – wherever you can manage it. Just 20-30 minutes is enough… (but more is awesome).

Walking is a Health-Saver. Period.

Walking in optimal, whole-body alignment benefits your joints, muscles and connective tissues, encouraging them to do their job: muscles stretching, lengthening and contracting like well-oiled machinery.

Walking is a must for Moms.

For moms, there’s another USP of walking. Childbirth compromises your core and pelvic floor -- and standing, walking and squatting in correct alignment is super effective at restoring function to these muscles.

Your core muscles are responsible for stabilising your pelvis as you walk, so walking in good form conditions your mid-section with every step you take.

As well as helping you to work and tone your core muscles naturally, walking in proper alignment helps to reduce pressure in the abdominal cavity. This has four brilliant side effects for Moms:

1) It Helps Close The Gap in Your Core

Diastasis recti –abdominal separation –is characterised by a weakness of the midline of the rectus abdominis muscle. The muscle has a stretched weakened area of connective tissue at the centre (the line alba), causing instability, possibly back pain, and a pooched ‘mummy tummy’appearance.

Diastasis recti is caused by excessive intra-abdominal pressure exerting an outward force. Your core can begin to firm up only when intra abdominal pressure is reduced. Correcting your alignment and walking will help with this!

2) It Helps You Get a Flatter Tummy

No amount of abdominal exercise will help a tummy lie flat if you have significant diastasis recti. By helping mums to narrow their diastasis and firm up their midline, walking with proper alignment helps to build the foundations for a flatter tummy.

3) It Helps Restore Pelvic Floor ‘Bounce’

Intra abdominal pressure exerts outwards and downwards, also weakening the pelvic floor muscle.

Pelvic floor weakness is a problem for many moms and can result in incontinence, pelvic pain and even pelvic organ prolapse.

Walking and moving naturally reduces the pressure, enabling you to regain pelvic floor strength. Walking, twisting, squatting and lunging are also really important to get the pelvic floor muscle to do its job effectively –lengthening, contracting and relaxing with ease –supporting the internal organs, preventing leakage and enabling more sexual pleasure. Whats not to like?

4) It Helps You Kiss Goodbye to Aches + Pains

Core instability arises from any one part of the core not working properly. So, if you have diastasis recti, core weakness or pelvic floor dysfunction (leakage, pain or prolapse), you have an unstable core. The effect of the instability can ricochet throughout your body, causing backache and other muscular aches and pains.

Walking and moving in a natural way helps you to build a strong, well-functioning core –and so helps you to reduce pain and injury.

How To Walk!

It might sound crazy to think about how you walk, but bodies that spend too much time slumped in seats, cocooned in squishy beds, or tottering in high heels have long forgotten how to walk as we were built to do.

How you walk directly affects the benefits you experience from it – walk right and you will tone your butt, leg and pelvic floor muscles, get it wrong and you will do little for your body except knackering your joints!

Your whole body participates in walking, from head to toe, in perfect mechanical alignment, so it’s important to give some thought to how you hold yourself and how your feet interact with the ground.

7 golden rules of ‘natural’ walking:

  1. Your feet should point straight ahead as you walk
  2. Your torso should be straight, don’t lean forward, look straight ahead
  3. Ditch heeled shoes which disrupt your alignment - choose minimalist or barefoot shoes where possible
  4. Don’t thrust your chest out or tuck your butt under
  5. Keep your legs straight. Rather than bending your knee out in front to gain ground, push away from the ground with the toes and ball of your back foot with straight legs to move your body forward.
  6. Stretch your hamstrings and calves daily. These muscles are very often tight, causing your butt to tuck underneath and preventing correct walking alignment
  7. Check your feet: Correct walking gait moves your foot through four phases: heel strike, foot flat, heel off, toes off.

If that’s all too much to think about at first (I mean, how hard should walking be?), just get out and take a walk. Hold your head up, stride purposefully and swing your arms. Try to relax and enjoy walking as a sanctuary of calm in your hectic world.

Little by little, one change at a time, begin to check the way you’re walking and establish better alignment habits. Your shoes are the best place to start. Walking regularly will have a bigger impact on your postpartum recovery and whole body health than any workout - so make a daily walk your daily activity priority!


About the Author

Wendy Powell

Mom of 2 Wendy Powell is founder of the internationally recognized and sought after MuTu® System program. She has over 12 years experience, proven record and study in the pre and postpartum fitness industry.

MuTu System includes online coaching, DVD’s, online support and community, fully endorsed by Specialist Women’s Health Physiotherapists and Industry Experts worldwide. It is fresh, personal, progressive and motivational, and it gives Moms the answers, guidance and support they need to restore body confidence inside and out. Wendy has an established international social media following and industry reputation.

MuTu System covers fitness, fat loss, nutrition, hormone balancing and motivational strategies for busy Mums.

Wendy’s specialist area of expertise is pelvic and abdominal reconnection and restoration after childbirth: functional core strength, diastasis recti, pelvic floor and related alignment issues.

Wendy writes for the Huffington Post and has appeared in numerous magazine features, including Red magazine, Health and Fitness and Zest. Health and Fitness magazine UK also commissioned Wendy to write their Get Your Body Back book, published September 2013.


Is Exercise Causing You to Move Less? Part 1

4341141005_78a2ff8524_zWen-Bin Chou, a psychologist and researcher at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan has demonstrated that taking multivitamins causes people to be less healthy due to an ironic effect of dietary supplementation. It turns out that people who believe they are taking a multivitamin subconsciously believe that it gives them some degree of invulnerability, which leads them to make less healthy choices throughout the day. So if they took a multivitamin in the morning, and at lunch are faced with the choice between two trips to the all-you-can-eat burrito buffet vs. a salad and some wild salmon, they'll go for the buffet due to an unconscious belief that they've covered their bases with the multivitamin. Of course we all know a multivitamin is not the same as eating real, whole food- and a recent article in Outside Magazine questions whether they are at all helpful or even harmful- yet the subconscious belief in being bulletproof seems to clearly exist anyway.

Here's how it went down: In two experiments all the participants were given a placebo pill, some were told it was a multivitamin. Those who believed they had taken the multivitamin engaged in less healthful and more hedonistic activities on a regular basis like eating larger quantities of less nutritional food. It's called The Licensing Effect. As in, they believe that their positive choice or behavior (taking the multivitamin) gives them license to then engage in less healthy behaviors ongoing.

So why am I writing about this when I've never written about dietary supplementation in my life? Because I believe it applies to movement as well. So let's substitute "multivitamin" with "trip to the gym" and "eating less nutritional food" with "moving less".

Re-written the licensing effect applied to movement would then read something like: "Those who had gone to the gym engaged in less healthful and more sedentary activities on a regular basis."

We spend our days sitting our butts in chairs, staring at screens and moving in extremely small ranges of motion. I believe this happens for three reasons:

  1. We don't distinguish between movement and exercise.
  2. We don't understand the benefit of movement (not exercise).
  3. We believe that exercise absolves us of not moving for most of our lives.

So let's talk about it:

We don't distinguish between movement and exercise:

  • In a culture that so values stasis (my son goes to public school and even though I adore his teacher, school in this country is basically one big "sit still" training ground) we have handily earmarked "exercise" as "the time we have allotted to move".
  • This stems from what I think is a subconscious belief that there is an "on" and "off" switch to our bodies receiving input from movement. For example: "I'm out for a run! You can pay attention now body..." and then, "I'm sitting in my office chair for 8 hours, you are in the off position now body, no need to pay attention to this..."
  • As I alluded to in that last point, while exercise is one kind of movement, movement is a much broader category which includes standing, walking, breathing, chewing, reaching, shifting, etc. All the movements- large and micro- that you make moment to moment. I thought Katy Bowman (goddess of educating what movement actually is...) did a great job differentiating between movement and exercise in the interview I did with her when she pointed out a baby breastfeeding as movement- and how we would never describe that as a baby "getting his exercise".

We don't understand the benefit of movement (not exercise)

  • I wrote "not exercise" in parentheses because I think we have all been thoroughly indoctrinated into the benefits of exercise. So we'll just leave that as is.
  • Then the question is, if one is exercising, why does movement throughout the day matter too? And the answer is: because we are alive. This means that everything you are doing (or not doing) movement-wise is being registered by your body as input. It doesn't discriminate via the magical on/off switch of paying attention. And that input is what is being put to use on a cellular level to build you up or tear you down.
  • An example: if you, like most, sit for somewhere in the range of 10 hours a day (that's conservative), your body registers a number of things from that and then does its best to help you make that shape more. So your body is thinking, "Okey doke, hamstrings always contracted, check, we'll keep those short. Sitting on sacrum, check, let's smoosh out those vertebral discs to make that shape, compress the respiratory diaphragm, slacken the pelvic floor, and basically create thickenings throughout the spine and thorax which holds you in a C-curve..." This is an extremely tiny slice of what is going on when you hold one shape for a long time.
  • The example above is of what happens structurally; As in, you become the shapes you make most of the time. However, there are also other significant health risks to stasis. Recent data shows that it contributes to mortality from all causes. Yep, heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc. One study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that every hour spent sitting shortens lifespan more significantly than every cigarette smoked. And Dr. Levine, an inactivity researcher at the Mayo Clinic, describes sitting as "a lethal activity".

We believe that exercising absolves us of not moving for most of our lives:

  • Unfortunately, even if you workout almost daily and are therefore considered "fit", a workout amounts to a grand total, usually, of somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes of exercising in any given 24 hour period, best case scenario.
  • And since we have discussed that our bodies don't have an off switch which causes them to not pay attention while we are inactive, hopefully it is clear that this is a game of frequency. Not of intensity. I don't care how hard you rock it at the gym at the end of the day. Work out til you puke and blackout (no, really, don't) but it won't erase all the static activity of the day. In fact, going from long periods of stasis to incredibly demanding workouts is a risk for a multitude of injuries, but that's fodder for another post.
  • Our bodies want us to still be hunter gatherers. Oh our physiology longs for the days when a wide variety of movements were required of our bodies all day long as we hunted and gathered for our food! But today we put food on the table- for the most part- by typing away at these computers all day long. And our bodies are confused. Where are the missing movement ranges? Where did the frequency go? While you don't need to abandon contemporary culture and go live in a tree, it helps to acknowledge that you are still wired to thrive with the demands that a hunter gatherer would have had.

Depressed? Oof when I mention this stuff in my classes or in my practice I kind of see the light go out of people's eyes. Which sucks. I believe the thought cycle goes something like, "Well my life depends on sitting most of the day, so I guess I'm hopeless. I will have terrible chronic pain, joint dysfunction, and die from this 'lethal activity' that is required by my job."

Ready? Deeeeeeep breath. There is hope.

The movement part is easy, albeit with a small adaptation period, and you may have to occasionally fight (or even just nudge) The Man. That's it. And we'll get into how to do both in part 2 of this post. Stay tuned!

photo by skittledog