Hair loss, fatigue, depression and anxiety, these are just four of the resultant side effects of giving birth. With the expulsion of the placenta also pushing the attached excess progesterone out of your body, an influx of oestrogen leave your hormones imbalanced. And for most women it takes around six to eight weeks for them to regulate.
‘It was probably one of the lowest times, especially being a working mum,’ says Adrianna Attard, 38, who gave birth to her son 16 months ago, ‘I’m a very positive, optimistic, happy, energetic person, but there were hormonal things that I just felt like they weren’t me anymore. It felt like a very dark, lonely time’.
It’s no surprise then that post-pregnancy is the most vulnerable time for women to develop mental health issues. But there is one surprising way to combat the hormonal chaos that comes with giving birth, with exercise. ‘It gives you endorphins and strength at a very challenging time,’ says Adrianna, ‘I would leave the gym feeling so much better, with more energy and relieved to feel like myself again. It reminds you that you are a person and you can take care of yourself, not just the baby.’
While women who’ve just given birth are advised not to exercise heavily for six to eight weeks, gentle exercise – like walking, pelvic floor exercises and light abdominal work - is encouraged by health professionals depending on the nature of the birth.
‘Moving your body has real proven effects of releasing the happy chemicals, endorphins which can help your mood,’ says Dr. Sohere Roked, an NHS GP and hormone specialist, ‘It helps to regulate cortisol which is the stress hormone. If you have a lot of cortisol, it can affect female hormones and your thyroids.’
‘Also, exercising burns fat and builds muscle,’ she continued, ‘fat cells have a negative impact on hormones sometimes, they can negatively produce chemicals and signals that interfere with the natural processing of hormones. Plus, developing more muscle helps you to produce more testosterone. That's obviously very energy-giving as well, and women do need testosterone, it's not just important for men.'
Stressing the importance of avoiding high intensity or heavy strength work, Dr. Roked states that women should only exercise if it’s possible for them and depends on the advice they receive by their GP. However, when it comes to combatting the stress of having a new born, exercise can provide ease the rise in cortisol.
For Adrianna, it was a surprising necessity in coping post-pregnancy. ‘Exercising actually wasn’t easy for me to do at first,’ she says, ‘you're really tired, you're all over the place and almost don’t feel like you can prioritise it. But for me, there were hormonal [imbalances] and I just didn’t feel like myself anymore. It was a very dark lonely time - probably also because I was sleep deprived -but exercise helped me to balance all of that out. I don’t know if it was a priority more of a necessity really, keeping myself moving, it was a support system in a way, on top of friends and family.’
With exercise such an important part of her support system, her relationship with personal trainer Monika Szpakowicz became integral. Monika, she says, was the only personal trainer she’s worked with that actually accounted for her hormones when planning her workouts and nutrition plan.
‘One thing I appreciated about Monika was that she would always ask where I was in my menstrual cycle,’ says Adrianna, ‘sometimes I’d come to the gym with zero energy, and other days I’d be super strong and she’d map things out in her head, factoring how my estrogen and testosterone levels and altering the workout accordingly, it gave me the confidence to keep going.’
Monika has been accounting for hormonal changes when developing personal training plans for years. Since women go through different energy levels depending on their cycle (whereas men have the same level of testosterone no matter what – classic), she says it’s important to understand what your client can realistically achieve in any given session.
‘Our hormones go up and down,’ Monika tells me, ‘the way you are training and eating in the beginning of your cycle isn't going to work in the middle or at the end of your cycle because your body has different priorities at the time. If you are before your period, you're never going to get stronger, so this isn't the time to try your personal best on something, the time after your period is best for this.’
For women post-pregnancy, it’s even more important to account for the inner workings of your body. ‘I used to train women during pregnancy a lot but recently I have more clients coming to me post-pregnancy,’ says Monika, ‘that was a new spectrum for me to find an approach to, because there are a lot of hormonal changes happening in the body, it has to restore itself. You’re dealing with emotional and psychological changes alongside the expectation from the outside world to suddenly go back to the way you were before pregnancy.’
Being part of that support system for women allows Monika to become a trusted confidant during a the most vulnerable time in their life. And according to Adrianna, it’s not something that can be said for all trainers. ‘Sometimes you go to a trainer and they’re so focused on aesthetics and losing weight, they push you really hard, and it can feel impossible,’ says Adrianna, ‘when I train with Monika I’m pushed hard but I don’t feel like I’m dying. You feel encouraged because it doesn’t become impossible. It's not a punishment.’
It’s something male trainers in particular can be guilty of when training women, as for cisgender men, they’ve can’t understand the hormonal changes that come with menstrual cycles. ‘There are very few good guy trainers that understand this issue,’ says Monika, ‘even when they know in theory, if you haven't gone through something yourself it's harder to understand.
‘I have 10 years’ experience as a personal trainer and I can still feel frustrated when I can’t get into my trousers before my period,’ she continued, ‘I can still cry at the gym because of my hormones, it's not something you can switch on or off and a lot of times guys just don't get that.’
Of course, many of us don’t understand just how much we should be accounting for our cycle changes and hormonal imbalances when we exercise- and in turn how much slack we should be giving ourselves. It’s something Monika encourages all women to do, as just as exercise can balance your hormones (post-pregnancy or not), those very hormones can also sway the balance of how you exercise.
If you're interested in training with Monika, visit her website here.