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Carroll University study aims to fill some gaps in postpartum exercise research

A woman wearing a baby carrier with her child, walking outdoor to stay fit and healthy. Nature.
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A woman wearing a baby carrier with her child, walking outdoor to stay fit and healthy.

There are often plenty of guidelines for pregnant people regarding nutrition and exercise. However, the literature for how to navigate that during the postpartum period is lacking — particularly when it relates to exercise.

During pregnancy and following childbirth the body experiences changes that could impact a person’s strength, endurance, and the ability to withstand high-impact and repetitive movements of some types of exercise. But resuming pre-pregnancy activity levels is also important for general health, as Dr. Rita Deering can attest to. She’s the assistant professor of physical therapy and the director of the Movement Sciences Laboratory at Carroll University.

"So there’s been a lot of progress as far as exercise during pregnancy," Deering notes. "We're still not quite there in the postpartum aspect yet, but we're working on it."

While there is the general guideline of not returning to exercise until at least six weeks after giving birth, the guidance as to how to do that is lacking. Deering notes that there's also the scale and intensity of exercise to account for, as well as recognizing that the postpartum period is a lot more than physical recovery.

"There's a lot of psychological recovery and adaptation happening. There's a lot of emotional adjustment [and] when we're looking at return to exercise we need to keep those things in mind as well," she explains.

Deering’s past research includes studying the experiences of recreational runners as well as high performance athletes returning to exercise postpartum, and she says the research shows there doesn’t necessarily have to be a strict six week timeline to return to physical activity.

"There has been some evidence that shows that going back to exercise before six weeks postpartum has not been associated with adverse pelvic floor effects," she notes. "We want to try and remove some of that stigma or some of that fear that if you start exercising soon you are going to somehow damage your body. But what we don't know is exactly how to start that, how quickly to progress it."

Deering says there is some data from elite athletes that went back to exercising before six weeks postpartum, but that "we need more than just anecdotal data and we need it in the general population as well."

To help contribute to general postpartum research, Deering is launching a Maternal Child Wellness research study. The 8-week exercise intervention program looks at factors such as muscle strength, endurance, pelvic floor function, mental health, pain levels, and see if these things are influenced by exercising regularly.

"If we do see that you improve better the earlier you start [exercising], then that gives a rationale for including rehabilitation professionals in that postpartum recovery care," says Deering.

"My pipe dream is that physical therapists will be involved in standard care because there is a lot that we can work with ... I would love to see it be more of a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach. Not just PT and birth providers, but lactation consultants and mental health providers. There's room for all of us at the table and I think it could really help to improve postpartum care," she adds.

Researchers at Carroll University are looking for Moms between the ages of 20-35 who have given birth in the last 2 years to participate in an exercise and wellness program with their child(ren)! Mothers cannot participate if: 
- less than 6 weeks postpartum
- advised by a medical provider to not resume exercise
- Multiple gestation in most recent pregnancy
- Taking prescription anti-inflammatory/pain medications daily
- Have any fractures, severe scoliosis, etc. that would limit participating in strength testing and exercise
- Have heart or breathing problems
- Have Diabetes
- Have a neurological disorder (MS, neuropathy, stroke, seizure, etc.)
- Have had abdominal surgery other than Cesarean delivery
- Are a smoker or use other forms of tobacco or nicotine products

If you meet these criteria and want to participate, use this link to request further information, or email deeringresearch@carrollu.edu.

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Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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