Increasing post-partum return-to-fitness time advances women’s health, military readiness

By V. Hauschild, MPH, Defense Centers for Public Health - AberdeenMay 16, 2023

Increasing post-partum return-to-fitness time advances women’s health, military readiness
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women maintain a physical activity regimen during both pregnancy and the post-partum phase. Though some exercise modifications maybe be required to ensure safety, maintaining fitness during this time is especially important for active-duty women. (Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen graphic illustration by Joyce Kopatch) (Photo Credit: Joyce Kopatch) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – According to a 2020 Department of Defense report, prepared by the Defense Health Board, the U.S. active-duty force is approximately 17 percent women, which means there are almost a quarter of a million military women.

Active-duty women, or ADW, fill most military occupations and specialties, including ground combat roles.

The DOD report reviewed existing scientific data, military health policies and women’s health services and products and provided recommendations to improve ADW’s musculoskeletal, reproductive and psychological health.

The report found that though decades of reports and legislative actions have made recommendations concerning ADW’s health, many opportunities for improvement remain. The report indicates that the DOD’s traditional male norms and attitudes have contributed to variability in knowledge and actions needed to address ADW’s health needs. However, existing products and initiatives that improve ADW’s health do exist.

For example, great strides have been made to address pregnancy-related health needs of ADW. In the 1940s, pregnant women were not permitted to remain on active duty. Today, various Service programs support women’s health needs during and post-pregnancy.

A key example is the 2022 Army Directive 2022-06 for Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum. The policy, the result of military women sharing their stories through social media, provides additional flexibilities to allow Soldiers opportunities to maintain and advance their careers while also growing their families.

Especially important, the 2022 Army policy now allows women 365 days to meet their height and weight standards and to pass the Army Combat Fitness Test after the birth of a child – doubling the prior time of 180 days.

This post-partum period is critical for allowing women to gradually build back to their pre-pregnancy body composition and physical duty capabilities.

Capt. Samantha Kinsman, a pregnancy/postpartum physical training educator in the United States Army Reserve, applauded the Army’s policy change in an article published in June.

“In general, having six months to meet height and weight requirements and then pass the Army Combat Fitness Test after having a baby is not enough," said Kinsman. "It takes you nine months to grow a baby and I think every person should be afforded at least that much time to get back to some sort of normal and take care of a tiny human. I think a year is fair. Six months was definitely pushing it. We could see it was definitely stressing some Soldiers out.”

This supports the current American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists position that women should maintain a physical activity regimen both during pregnancy and the post-partum phase. The ACOG recommends that women who are active prior to pregnancy

should maintain moderate to even vigorous activity levels, especially during the post-partum phase.

The ACOG notes that some modification to exercise routines may be necessary at certain times, such as limitations to certain lifting and bending activities.

Army Field Manual 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness, provides specific descriptions of safe pregnancy/post-partum physical training exercises to reduce risk of injury while maximizing return-to-duty fitness and performance. A prior DCPH-A investigation of Soldiers participating in the Army’s post-partum exercise regimen found their 2-mile run-times and body weight scores had improved compared to those of women who did not participate.

“While a clinical evaluation should be conducted before recommending an exercise program, AWD with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises before, during, and after pregnancy,” says Dr. Nicole Mayo, an epidemiologist with the DCPH-A Health Promotion Directorate and former trainer of the Army’s standardized pregnancy and post-partum training program.

The DCPH-A has long recognized the benefits of regular physical activity among both men and women of the active-duty force to maintain a healthy weight as well as reduce injury risks. Military fitness standards support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s adult physical activity guidelines.

As recommended by the DOD report, the DCPH-A believes the health of ADW is optimized when women are informed and enabled to take actions to improve their own health and perform self-care. Additional products and services to support military women’s health are available at the links below.

The Defense Health Agency supports our Nation by improving health and building readiness – making extraordinary experiences ordinary and exceptional outcomes routine.

NOTE: The mention of any non-federal entity and/or its products is for informational purposes only, and not to be construed or interpreted, in any manner, as federal endorsement of that non-federal entity or its products.