Battling the post-baby bulge
Kim Carney / MSNBC.com
By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com
updated 6/28/2006 6:21:12 PM ET 2006-06-28T22:21:12

What can moms do to get rid of the belly after baby? And how do you slim down bulky legs? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q1: After having a baby, my stomach muscles are so flabby. Is there any chance that with specific exercises a woman can slim down and tighten the abs without having to go the plastic surgery route?

Q2: Two pregnancies with C-sections later and I have a lot of excess skin in my abdomen area that just hangs there even though I have lost the baby weight. Are there any toning exercises or stretches that can help eliminate some of this excess baggage? I'm trying to avoid a tummy tuck.

A: As if stretch marks weren't bad enough, pregnancy often leaves women with a big jelly belly to contend with. The bump that was so cute during pregnancy becomes like a balloon that's lost most of its air the morning after the party.

While it might seem unimaginable in the first few weeks after delivery, yes, the tummy area can shrink back dramatically without plastic surgery.

Just how much and how quickly depends on several factors, says Dr. Laurie Casas, a plastic surgeon on the faculty of Northwestern University in Chicago and a spokesperson for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Obviously, diet and exercise are key, she notes. With a doctor's permission, most women can begin working out within a few weeks of delivery (those who have had C-sections generally are advised to wait longer). And while breast-feeding women should not diet — and actually need a few hundred extra calories to make milk — all women can focus on eating a reduced-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.

Of course, exercising may be low on the priority list for many busy, sleep-deprived new moms. But consider this: Pushing a stroller around the neighborhood for 30 minutes to an hour a day can go a long way toward melting away the fat, says Gina Lombardi, a personal trainer in Los Angeles who is working on a book about postpartum weight loss. There are even outdoor classes such as Stroller Strides in many cities now.

Other ideas: Walk with your baby in a front carrier. Do exercise videos or use home exercise equipment while the baby sleeps. Have your partner or a friend or relative take care of the tot while you hit the gym.

In addition to cardiovascular activity to burn off the baby fat, you'll also need to do crunches to tighten those very stretched abdominal muscles. Start with one set of 10 repetitions and work up to three sets of 20, a few times a week, recommends Lombardi.

To really work the sides of your tummy, try the bicycle crunch, in which you lift your left elbow to your right knee and then switch to the opposite. Aim for the same number of reps and sets as with the standard crunch.

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Addressing the weight gain within the first months after delivery pays off. Research has shown that women who do not shed their pregnancy weight within six months are likely to still be carrying it around 10 or 15 years later.

But factors beyond a woman's control, such as skin elasticity, also come into play. Some women's skin simply stretches better during pregnancy than others, says Casas. That's why many women get stretch marks, and the lucky others don't.

Another consideration is how big your belly gets during pregnancy. Moms-to-be who pack on 70 pounds and are expecting multiples will need to stretch more than those who are expecting one child and only gain 25 pounds.

If you're eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular activity, you can get your body back, but it may not be exactly the same as before you carried that bundle of joy.

"I don't know that anyone returns to 100 percent," says Casas. "But a lot go back to 90 to 95 percent."

One of the most common, enduring complaints, noted by Questioner No. 2, is excess, saggy skin. Women who've had C-sections may see this skin hang over the scar.

Tummy tucks are an option for women who are done having kids andare bothered by the skin. But the surgery isn't cheap, and generally isn't covered by insurance. Casas charges $3,000 to $9,000, depending on how much work is done. And it carries risks, such as infection and blood clots.

While some women get tummy tucks at the time of a C-section, Casas cautions against it. The mother of two who's done hundreds of tummy tucks (but hasn't had one herself), won't do the surgery until at least six to nine months after delivery and only if women have lost the added pounds and tried hard to shape up without the scalpel.

It's better to wait and see how well the body bounces back with diet and exercise first, she says. Or you may decide that after growing a new person in your belly, you've earned the right to carry a little extra around the middle.

Q: I know the focus these days is on how to lose fat. Not that I should take my focus away from that, but I was wondering how to lose muscle. I have bulky legs that I would like to slim down. Any suggestions?

A: In a recent column on the opposite issue — bulking up , Michael Barnes, an exercise physiologist and director of education at the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., explained that some people are so-called ectomorphs, who are skinny by nature. Some folks are chubbier endomorphs, while others are the more muscular mesomorphs. The point is that people come in all shapes and sizes, and some have an easier time losing weight or building muscle than others.

But bear in mind that few people naturally look like a body-builder. Are your legs truly "bulky" because of muscle — or fat? If it's fat, you can trim your thighs with fat-burning cardiovascular exercise.

If you still deem your legs too muscular, take a look at your exercise program, says Barnes.

A strength program that relies on short sets of super-heavy weights will promote muscle bulk, whereas using yoga, Pilates or a less-intense weight program will promote good muscle tone without the bulk. When structuring your workouts, he says, consider that cardio activities such as running, biking, swimming and hiking don't promote muscle bulk.

But your goal shouldn't be to dramatically lose muscle, which isn't healthy, he notes.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.

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