Maintaining physical readiness and weight standards is important for military readiness as well as proper military appearance and bearing while in uniform. Physical fitness is essential to the health of military women during the childbearing years. While serving in the military you are expected to participate in physical fitness training on a regular basis and pass a twice yearly Physical Fitness Assessment and Body Composition Assessment. Not doing so can have a negative impact on your career. It is important to understand how breastfeeding can impact your postpartum physical readiness and weight standards; as well as how to manage diet and exercise while breastfeeding. Want this information on-the-go? Download the handout Physical Training & Breastfeeding on the Handouts Page.
All personnel in the military must adhere to body fat and weight standards, which are measured as part of your Body Composition Assessment (BCA) during the Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA) twice a year. During your pregnancy, and for 180 days after the date of delivery (1 year for Air Force personnel), the body fat and weight standards are waived. But you are required to return to proper weight standards within that time frame. Many, but not all, women find it hard to lose the weight gained during pregnancy within those 6 months given by the military regulations. This is due to many factors such as fatigue, work schedules, child care issues, and medical issues and for some mothers, breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding can have an effect on attaining your proper weight. Research has shown that breastfeeding causes significant weight loss (1-2 pounds per month) in the first 6 months as the fat stores laid down in pregnancy are used up producing breast milk and further, although slowed weight loss in the second 6 months. Most women are back to their pre-pregnancy weight within 5 months of giving birth due to the loss of body fat from the hips and thighs. For some women, however, a portion of the pregnancy weight remains until they wean completely. It is not completely understood why this happens. It may be due to increased caloric intake or it may be the body’s way of ensuring that there is an adequate supply of fat to fall back on for milk production. If you are one of those women who can’t seem to shake those last few pounds, this could be a problem if you are nearing the end of your 180- day waiver.
If you are finding it hard to drop your weight to within standards, you may want to consider dieting. It is safe to diet while breastfeeding provided you follow some guidelines. For the average woman, an intake of about 1800-2500 calories is sufficient to promote natural, healthy weight loss of about 1-2 pounds a month. Follow the guidelines found at MyPyramid.com and be sure that you are eating 3 nutritious meals a day, as well as a few healthy snacks. Eat foods in as close to their natural state as possible (try to stay away from snack machines and processed food). Be sure that you drink enough water, especially if you are working in extreme heat or are exercising. However, don’t go overboard with water intake. Too much water can actually lead to decreased milk production. If you find that your weight loss has stalled, you can safely cut your calories to no less than 1500 calories a day. Do not go below 1500 calories per day as you risk decreasing your milk supply and will find yourself becoming fatigued much easier. A safe weight-loss amount for a breastfeeding mother is no more than 1-1.5 pounds a week. Far better than cutting calories is to combine moderate exercise with a healthy diet. Mothers who diet and exercise have steadier and longer-lasting weight loss results than mothers who diet alone.
Exercise and Breastfeeding
All personnel in the military must do physical training (PT) in order to pass the bi-annual Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA). While pregnant you may have been required to participate in a modified physical fitness program, depending on your branch of service. Upon your return to full duty after your convalescent leave, you are required to participate in command physical fitness. Just like the body fat and weight standards, you have 180 days (1 year for Air Force personnel) to get back in shape and pass your run/swim, sit-ups and push-ups testing as part of the PFA.
Combining command dictated exercise with diet is a great way to lose those final few pounds, but there are few items to keep in mind. First, there is no need to worry about your supply being affected by moderate exercise; research has not found a connection between lowered milk supply and exercise. However, some studies have suggested that heavy exercise changes the flavor of the milk, due to increased lactic acid (it gives milk a sour taste), and not a few mothers have commented that their babies react to their milk after heavy exercising by refusing to nurse. It is not certain whether the milk is changing flavor or not, as some other, more-recent studies suggest that it is the sweat and body odor that the babies are reacting to, not a build-up of lactic acid. If you feel your baby is reacting to the taste of your milk, there are a couple of things to try: nurse your baby right before exercising since lactic acid remains elevated for about 90 minutes, keep the intensity of your workout moderate (higher intensity increases lactic acid build-up). And of course take a shower before nursing him. There is no need to pump and dump your milk; some babies don’t mind the taste of lactic acid while others do.
Second, it is a good idea to pump or nurse right before participating in any exercise regimen, but particularly those that involve running or jumping-jack type exercises, to reduce any possible leaking and to prevent pain from heavy, milk-filled breasts while running. Vigorous jostling of the breasts can predispose you to mastitis and many athletic women find it is most comfortable to work-out with nearly empty breasts anyway. Buy and wear a good quality, well-fitting, supportive sports bra to minimize any bouncing and damage to your breasts. Smaller breasted women can get away with compression style sports bras while larger breasted women will want to use sports bras that separate and encapsulate each breast individually. Some women find a dab of Lansinoh© on the nipples help with any chafing and it is safe for your baby too. If you find that you are leaking milk while exercising you can use regular pads or Lily Padz to control the leaking.
Both the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) statements advocate resuming exercise as soon as it is medically safe and you physically feel like it. For some women that may be within a few weeks of birth while other mothers will take the full six weeks (or longer) of convalescent leave before they feel ready. Aim to gradually increase your exercise frequency, duration and intensity until you can do 30-60 minutes of medium-intensity aerobic exercise 3-6 times a week. In the first six weeks be sure to watch for signs of pain, or bright red vaginal bleeding, that means you are progressing too quickly. If you had a Caesarean you will need to go slower and pay particular attention to your abdominal muscles as they heal. It bears repeating that it is important that you drink enough water while exercising. Drink before, during and after your workouts as dehydration can affect your milk supply.
Here are some tips for fitting exercise in when you have a (breastfeeding) infant:
- Lay your baby on the floor and do push-ups over him (this usually results in much giggling on behalf of your baby, especially if you make faces)
- Sit your baby on your belly and do sit-ups/curls.
- Alternatively do the “Flying Baby Curl” While on your back, with your knees bent at the chest, place your baby on your shins and do curls.
- Put your baby in a front carrier or sling and do leg lunges.
- Do leg squats with your baby in a front carrier or sling.
- Holding your baby facing out and at chest level do a modified shoulder press.
- Put your baby in a sling and go for a walk.
- Invest in a jogging stroller and go your running with your baby.
- Put your baby in a car seat or swing and workout on the elliptical or treadmill (the whirring noise may lull him to sleep).
- Realize that some days you’ll get a good workout in and other days you simply won’t.
Maintaining your physical fitness and weight standards while breastfeeding doesn’t have to be a problem. In fact, breastfeeding mothers who exercise have improved cardiovascular fitness, bone mineral density and body composition. By following proper guidelines and incorporating some dietary changes and moderate exercise you can be sure that you’ll pass your PFA with flying colors!