I’m not breaking any world records, but what I was able to manage helped me more than I expected.

At 6 weeks postpartum with my fifth baby, I had my scheduled checkup with my midwife. After she went through the checklist of making sure all my lady parts had settled back into place (also: ouch), she pressed her hands on my stomach.

I laughed nervously, making some kind of joke about the extreme mush ball that was my stomach, warning her that her hand may get lost in the sponginess of my postpartum belly.

She smiled at me and then uttered a sentence that I never expected to hear: “You don’t really have any significant diastasis, so that’s a good thing…”

My jaw dropped open. “What??” I exclaimed. “What do you mean I don’t have any? I was huge!”

She shrugged, pulling my own hands to my stomach, where I could feel the muscle separation myself. She explained that although some ab separation was normal, she felt confident that if I focused my recovery on safe core moves, I could work on closing the separation myself — and she was right.

Just this morning at 9 weeks postpartum, after doing a lot of diastasis repair videos (thanks, YouTube!), I am down to just shy of two fingers separation.

My progress this time has left me a bit shocked, to be honest. After a total of four other deliveries, where my diastasis had been really bad, what had I done differently this time?

Then it hit me: This was the first and only pregnancy I had exercised all the way through.

After being pregnant for 6 years straight and never exercising through any of my four previous pregnancies, I started attending a CrossFit-type gym when my youngest was around 2 years old.

I quickly fell in love with the workout format, which focused primarily on heavy lifting and cardio intervals. Much to my surprise, I also discovered that I was stronger than I realized and soon came to love the feeling of lifting heavier and heavier weights.

By the time I got pregnant again, I was more in shape than I had ever been— I was working out regularly for an hour 5 or 6 times a week. I even PR’d my back squats at 250 pounds, a goal I had worked on a long time.

When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was in a good position to continue working out throughout my pregnancy. I had been lifting and exercising for so long already, I knew what I was capable of, I knew my limits because I had been pregnant four other times, and most importantly, I knew how to listen to my body and avoid anything that didn’t feel right.

With the support of my doctor, I continued exercising throughout my pregnancy. I took it easy during the first trimester because I was so sick, but once I felt better, I kept right at it. I scaled back on the heavy weights and avoided ab exercises that would increase my intra-abdominal pressure, but other than that, I just took each day as it came. I found that I was able to mostly keep up my normal hour-long workouts about 4 or 5 times a week.

At 7 months pregnant, I was still squatting and lifting in moderation, and as long as I listened to my body and focused on intentional movement, I still felt good. Eventually, near the very end, exercising at the gym just stopped being comfortable for me.

Because I’d gotten so big and my exercise wasn’t always so pretty, I hadn’t really expected it to make a difference. But clearly, it had helped. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that exercising through my pregnancy had made a huge difference in my recovery too. Here’s how:

My delivery was not what you would call easy, thanks to a 2 a.m. wake-up call with placental abruption, a 100-miles-an-hour trip to the hospital, and a week-long NICU stay for our baby, but I remember marveling to my husband how great I felt in spite of everything.

Truth be told, I felt better immediately after birth than I had with any of my other kids, despite the extreme circumstances. And in a way, I’m so grateful I had that leg up thanks to exercise because I’m not sure I would have survived sitting in the NICU chair for hours or sleeping on the “bed” they provided down the hall.

Now before you get thinking that I was anywhere near a slim and trim pregnant woman, or anything like that one model that had legit abs during her pregnancy, allow me to assure you that working out during my pregnancy was not about aesthetics for my body.

I still rocked some extra weight all over, including a higher-than-normal number of chins, and my stomach was otherworldly huge (I’m very serious about this; it’s rather unbelievable how big I actually was.) It was completely about exercising to feel better, mentally and physically, and I slowed down a lot especially near the end of my third trimester.

And right now, at almost 2 months postpartum, I’m still wearing maternity jeans and carrying at least 25 pounds of weight beyond my usual. I’m nowhere near what you would think of as an example of “fit.” But the point is, I am functioning better. I feel better.

I am healthier in a lot of ways that I wasn’t with my other pregnancies because I exercised. I’m comfortable in my postpartum skin in ways that I never was before — partly because I think some of that leftover muscle is carrying me through and partly because I know I am strong and what my body is capable of.

So maybe I’m a little mushy right now — who cares? In the big picture, my body has done amazing things, and that’s something to celebrate, not obsess over, postpartum.

One of the biggest differences that I have noticed is that because I worked out through my pregnancy, I know how important it is now to take my time getting back into working out. Sounds weird, right?

You might think because exercise was such a huge part of my life during pregnancy that I would be rushing to get back into it. But actually, the opposite is true.

I know, more than ever, that exercise is about celebrating what my body can do — and honoring what my body needs in each season. And in this season of newborn life, I definitely don’t need to be rushing back to the gym to throw down some PRs on the squat rack.

What my body needs now is as much as rest as possible, all the water, and functional movement that will help get my core back and support my pelvic floor. Right now, the most I have done for exercise is some 8-minute core videos — and they were the hardest things I have ever done!

The bottom line is this: I am in absolutely no rush to get back to heavy weights or intense exercise. Those things will come because I love them and they make me happy, but there is absolutely no reason to rush them, and even more important, rushing them will only delay my recovery. So for now, I rest, wait, and get a dose of humility with those diastasis-friendly leg lifts I can barely do. Oof.

In the end, while I may not I ever feel like I “have my body back” and most likely will never be working as a fitness model, I know more than ever how important exercise can be during pregnancy — not only as a way to feel better throughout those rigorous 9 months, but as a tool to help prepare for the truly hard part: postpartum.

Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer and a newly minted mom of five. She writes about everything from finance to health to how to survive those early days of parenting when all you can do is think about all the sleep you aren’t getting. Follow her here.