The mum tum. Pot belly. Beer belly. Pooch. Paunch... so many names, so many associations. Some wear theirs with pride, like a sign of ‘good living’. Some hide theirs behind baggy layers, wishing it would disappear.
But did you know ‘the paunch’ is not always a sign of a life of excess. In fact, for many (and in particular for women) it can be nothing to do with diet, but everything to do with compromised abdominal muscles. Add to that hormonal shifts, postural habits and stress (all part and parcel of ‘mum life’) and it’s no wonder shifting the mum tum can feel like such a tall order for so many.
With women being under increased pressure to bounce back after birth, and the constant media bombardment of celebrities parading their washboard abs just weeks after popping out a baby, it’s no wonder many women feel defeated in the quest to restore their abs after birth. The right information, patience and a whole-body approach, can make it possible to have a belly that looks and feels healthy - no starvation or bootcamp regimes required.
Rule out an injury
Before embarking on the quest for a better belly, it’s important to rule out any injury in the abdominal wall. Diastasis-recti, or DR, is when the connective tissue between the six-pack muscles becomes stretched, causing the muscles to separate. It affects more than 95% of women during pregnancy, while almost half of all women still have a DR six months post birth.
Healing a DR requires the support of an expert, either a physiotherapist or other professional who specialises in post-natal health. As the core is our central support system, healing it requires participation from the whole body, with posture, breathing and how the muscles activate, all crucial parts of the puzzle that should not be ignored.
Release the pressure
Once an injury has been ruled out, it’s important to establish how your body is managing intra-abdominal pressure. The abdomen is a tightly packed space that requires the pressure system to be well balanced in order to function efficiently. Factors such as a rounded and tense upper back, tight obliques or hips, or a pelvis that doesn’t move freely can all increase pressure in the belly, pushing it outward like a balloon being squeezed. Practices that include stretching while strengthening, such as Pilates or yoga, are ideal for helping to rebalance the posture so that the pressure system can be more balanced.
Here’s how: Come into a lunge with the left leg in front, then tuck your pelvis under as if lifting your hip bones to the sky. On an inhale, raise your right arm overhead. Exhale as you side-bend your body and right arm to the left, keeping your pelvis tucked. Repeat four times then change sides.
The saying ‘you are what you eat’ is true. Gaining an understanding of how food affects your belly can help you to improve your diet. Common trigger foods such as gluten, dairy and sugar may need to be eliminated to establish whether your digestion improves, and the bloating reduces. Eating food that is unprocessed and full of fibre (such as green leafy vegetables) will help your gut digest food more efficiently, eliminate bloating and improve healthy bacteria in the gut.
Here’s how: keep a diary of how your belly feels after each meal, and how your digestion has been. If you’re not pooping at least once a day, you likely need to up your fibre intake. Eat a rainbow and try to stick to foods in their most natural form.
In Eastern philosophy, the gut is the seat of our emotions, so it figures that stress of any kind will have a direct effect on your gut’s wellness. While it’s impossible to avoid stress, there are ways to manage it so you can navigate life’s ups and downs with more ease. A regular mindfulness or meditation practice is a great way to start, and needn’t be a chore, with as little as three minutes a day proven to have a profound impact on our stress levels. With practice you will find you’re able to put a little more separation between yourself and the stressor, and you naturally become less reactive.
Here’s how: when you feel your stress levels rise, pause and focus on taking five full breaths. Tune into each inhale and each exhale, and let your mind focus only on the breath. A guided meditation app can also be an accessible way to incorporate mindfulness practices into your life.
By Louisa Thomas, movement teacher and core rehabilitation specialist.