After giving birth to my second baby, I assumed my lingering belly pooch was somehow my fault. I was too tired to exercise and grubbing on comfort food–no wonder I still looked pregnant. But, when I went to see a physical therapist about the lower back pain that had plagued me since the birth, she quickly diagnosed me with a diastasis recti.
Do you know what diastasis recti is? I didn’t either. Despite the fact that it occurs in up to two thirds of pregnancies, none of my doctors or nurses ever mentioned it. Basically, it’s a gap that opens up between the left and right sides of your adominal muscles (“diastasis” means separation and “recti” refers to the rectus abdominis). Many women have a minor case that heals on its own after giving birth. Those of us who are petite (me), have had more than one pregnancy (me), and are of advanced maternal age (me), however, are at risk of a wider, more stubborn separation. Same goes for women who carried multiples.
When you have a diastasis recti, your core can’t function the way it’s supposed to. Your abs aren’t working at full strength, so your back has to compensate, hence the backache. And all the dieting in the world won’t cure the pooch (aka “mummy tummy”), because your disconnected ab muscles aren’t able to hold your belly in.
So what’s a frustrated mom with a jelly belly supposed to do? Lucky for us, I have a secret weapon. My friend Sara Haley is a postnatal fitness expert and creator of the “4th Trimester Workout.” A mother of two, she’s had to heal her own diastasis recti, so she knows what she’s talking about.
Sara cautioned me against hitting the gym to do my usual exercises, some of which might actually make the diastasis recti worse. “You should be very conservative with your core work,” she told me. “You should almost treat yourself as though you’re still pregnant.” That means avoiding exercises that arch the back and extend the spine, such as the yoga position upward dog. Other core exercises should be modified; for instance, doing plank with knees on the ground, so as to lift less body weight.
After hearing about these exercise risks from Sara, it sounded to me like laying around doing nothing might be the best course of action (or inaction). But actually, Sara strongly recommends adopting a consistent routine (starting with exercising three times per week and working your way up to five) of safe core exercises that will help heal the diastatis recti.
Her first suggestion came as a bit of a surprise: kegels — you know, squeezing the muscles that stop the flow of urine. “Kegels are your deepest core muscles,” says Sara. “If you can start to activate those, you’ll build outwards. When you do a kegel, your transverse adominis is going to start to fire too.” So, I could fix my post-pregnancy bladder control issues at the same time as my diastasis recti? Sweet.
Here are two other moves Sara recommends for healing a diastasis recti. Just be sure to consult your doctor before trying these moves.
1. Interlocking the TVA (Transverse Abdominis): With a towel wrapped around your back, take a deep breath in through your nose. As you exhale through your mouth, pull your navel deep into your spine, pulling your rib cage closed, and with the help of the towel — pulling your abdominal muscles back together (like a corset). Do 6 to 8 reps.
2. Resistance Fight: Lie on your back, with your knees bent to 90 degrees, feet planted on the ground. Bring your right leg up to tabletop position, keeping your knee bent and foot flexed. Place your left hand on your right thigh, and engage your core as you attempt to bring your thigh in towards your body, simultaneously pushing your thigh away with your hand. Start off by holding 15 seconds and as you get stronger, gradually increase the time to 60 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
I’ve been doing my exercises for a couple of months now, and I’ve noticed a real difference. I wish I could tell you my pooch was all gone (it’s not), but my shape is definitely changing. I had to give away the maternity jeans because they were falling down (yes!) and some of my normal pants, the looser ones, actually fit. I also feel much stronger. Knowing that I’m the road to recovery — and have an excuse to spend more time rolling around on the floor with my baby — is making me feel a lot better. But, I’ll check back with you when it’s bathing suit season again.
Photos: Getty (top); Amy Wruble (middle and bottom)