Raising kids is tough.
The stress and physical exertion of an infant can cause your body to break down and require medical assistance or modifications to activities. This can be frightening if you’re by yourself or the only one able to take care of something. One way to combat this is through regular exercise or fitness training.
Beyond Dad Bod
A recent-ish meme is the “Dad Bod”.
Dad Bod is simply the physique of a man who is a little soft around the middle, typically found in a father of a certain age. It’s generally not used in a negative manner. Most often, it’s a tongue-in-cheek way to say that dads aren’t on the market to attract a mate and have other concerns, like kids. While it is true that fathers have more pressing concerns than powerlifting at the gym, there is a lot to be said for staying strong.
Whether it’s walking and rocking your 15 lbs infant for an hour, lifting a 30 lbs toddler from a crib, or wrestling a 45 lbs kindergartener into their car seat, a lot of physical demands are placed on your body in the beginning. And then they get older. You help your 9 year old with drills for their favored sport. You have to haul their equipment to practice or games. And it doesn’t change until they are out of high school… maybe.
Finally, consider this: As your child gets older, so do you. Shocking, we know. Unlike fine wines or barrel-aged whiskey, however, your body does not improve with age. It takes more effort just to retain what you have. Going further is quickly hit with a feeling of diminishing returns. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile if your kid is already in college. You need to be ready to keep up with grandkids (human or otherwise).
As a father, time is probably your most precious resource.
There is only so much in the day. The key is to prioritize things based on outcome, rather than desire. We’d all love to devote hours a day to a hobby, but it’s a low priority if the only benefit is relaxation. Whereas work is a huge time suck, but the income it provides it essential to your current standard of living. So it gets a higher priority. If your job is high-stress and the relaxation is all that keeps you from walking up to an executive and saying what you really think about their leadership, however, that hobby might be really important.
Exercise, even if not formal, needs to be part of your routine. Without it, your body will suffer from the ravages of infant care; it will only get worse as they get older. So while it might seem like a luxury, it’s actually a survival strategy. The long-term benefits go beyond childhood, too. Even if you stay soft around the middle, your joints, heart, and mind will all be better for it. The protective effects increase your chances for being around for those far-off milestones: your child’s wedding; the birth of your first grandchild or great-grandchild; or anything else. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow, but other than looking both ways before crossing the street, you can’t do much about accidents like that. Focus on the things you can control.
Time is the frenemy
There are two ways to approach exercise: formal or informal.
What we mean by this is you could either formally set aside time on your day planner to exercise and make it part of your daily routine, or you could incorporate exercise-like activities into your child care routine.
The benefit to a formal exercise program is you can have more control on how you do it. If you had pre-parenthood workouts, such as running, weight training, or yoga, you can try to return to them. If the transition to fatherhood has been especially rough, the formal method could be the way to reclaim some of your time for you. It sounds selfish, but the reality is that we all need to have a little selfishness in our lives; otherwise, we’re just doing things for everyone else.
Even if you didn’t exercise previously, a formal plan can help you make a habit of it. There are a number of different options out there, but if we’re honest we’re going for the ones that take the least amount of time. With that in mind, let us introduce you to the concept of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). You can find a number of methods out there, but we have a favorite. In 2013, a published article from the American College of Sports Medicine outlined a HIIT method that used only the weight of your body and a chair to complete. It’s circuit training (which isn’t that new; we remember doing circuits in middle school), but at high intensity.
The Well blog at The New York Times went ahead and put together a program based on the findings in the article and called it the 7-Minute Workout. There’s nothing really special about it, but the nice thing is that it can be done with minimal setup, doesn’t need a lot of space, and takes little time. With 20 minutes of time every other day, you can start a program you can ramp up as you feel comfortable.
There is evidence, however, that shows people tend to remember how they feel during exercise. People use that memory to determine if they will do it in the future. This can make HIIT especially disliked, since the intent is to do each burst of activity at near peak intensity. This means you can feel horrible doing it and never want to do it again, even if you have positive results. In that case, we can turn to more informal methods of exercise.
If doing something formal is difficult or just doesn’t fit into your schedule, fear not. Exercise is just what we call an activity done for fitness. But a lot of exercise isn’t actually exercise. It’s just day-to-day stuff that we do without thinking. Do you push your kids in the stroller after dinner to calm them down? That’s exercise. Do you chase them around at the park? Exercise. Do you go on weekly trips to the mall just to let your kids run around like fools? Again, you’re exercising.
Kids need to burn off a lot of steam. Regardless of age, they have a lot of energy that can be destructive if not given an outlet. They aren’t much different from dogs and cats in that respect. By letting them run wild, you help them get their recommended 60 minutes of activity a day.
Why not join in? You might not find the aerobic activities of a toddler to be too taxing, but you can ramp it up a bit for your sake. Plus, it’s great for modeling behavior. If you just sit on the bench, you’re not teaching them anything positive. Get up, run around, lift them up, play catch, and just go crazy. By having fun, you’re more likely to keep doing it.
Another thing to consider: kids make great free-weights. We don’t mean you can treat them exactly like dumbbells… but you can do some things that approximate the gym. Toddlers love to be lifted into the air; there are entire games based on it. Take advantage of their desire to fly.
Remember to use proper form and technique as you don’t want to end up in urgent care. The do’s and don’ts of weight-training are pretty much the same when lifting a child. Learn them; it will save your back and joints.
Without kids, many people find it hard to exercise regularly. For those of us with kids, all bets are off.
To counter this, you can try an accountability partner (though maybe not that exact method). The concept works by using the positive emotion of guilt. You pick someone you trust and respect. Together you set a goal, create an action plan, then check-in on a regular basis. Since most people don’t want to disappoint or fail such a person, it can provide the missing motivation. Many people swear by it, and it’s harder to blow off a check-in with an accountability partner than a personal trainer. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper. If both your partner and you are feeling a need to exercise, you can use each other for this.
However, we understand that relationships don’t need any additional stress, especially when caring for a little one. Before asking your co-parent, talk about it. The better plan might be for you to choose an accountability partner outside your relationship.
In that case, we would suggest someone who is also a parent. While we don’t have anything against non-parents, they might not appreciate your situation. There will be times you will let them down. You will have check-ins where you’ll say, “After being covered in vomit for the third time in two hours, I just curled into a ball and cried.” But if you want or need someone who will kick you in the butt regardless of how many different bodily fluids you dealt with in the last week, by all means find a non-partisan. And you might find a tough-love parent who won’t take kids as an excuse.
As with anything in life, there will be times where it becomes clear that an exercise goal won’t be met. How you handle them has more impact than why you suffered the setback.
For example, let’s say that you targeted two hours of running in the last week. You started off well with a 30 minute run, leaving you six days to get 90 minutes more. But last week your kid brought something home from daycare, and now you’ve caught it. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t exercise when sick with anything more than a runny nose or sinus congestion. Sore throat, cough, fever, etc., means you need to rest until the symptoms clear. So you have a great reason to take a break. When it comes time to check in with your accountability partner, you can dial back your goals for a week or two as you get back into running.
The same is true of other barriers, like being flat out tired after a long day. Whether it’s work, sick kids, sick partner, the holidays, or something else, there is no reason to add to your stress. Sometimes, life happens. The key is to get back into something as quickly as you can.
Many people (ourselves definitely included) find it a struggle to get back into something new if it dropped from the routine. This is where an accountability partner really shines. When your next check-in comes, you can be honest with them. A personal trainer or other stranger is easy to lie to. They may know you’re lying, but your relationship isn’t one where you care about what they think. You might even avoid seeing them again. Your accountability partner helps get you moving again.
For those who don’t have one, it still is valuable to seek out some kind of external motivation. The aforementioned personal trainer can work if you are motivated by getting your money’s worth, but that’s temporary. Something else we found that works are goal-oriented groups. They can be a great way to meet other adults. If they are training for an event, you all have something to go towards. Other groups might meet to weight train, hike a local park, or even exercise their kids. These can be a little easier to duck out of if you find yourself falling behind, but the social aspect might outweigh any embarrassment you feel.
It’s really about you
Remember that you are doing this for you. You want to keep up with your kids as everyone gets older. Positive feelings towards your body can go a long way and boost confidence, even if you aren’t seeking anyone out.
Many people might try to say you should do it for your kids, but we don’t find that works. Parenting from the sidelines is easy. You can cheer them on, drop them off at practice, or watch them from the bench. The future is too far away to motivate any of us to change our behavior; future risk factors only scare people so much.
Instead, you do it to be the active parent who gets into the thick of things. You do it to be a role model for your kids about staying active. You do it to be able to hike, run, jump, skate, or anything else when your kid asks.
And maybe, just maybe, you want to be a yardstick for your kid to reach for as they get older. You want to force them to work hard to beat you in a game of basketball or a race. If you’re out of shape, they might do that in middle school. But stay in shape, and it might not be until late high school or even college. Then you can take real pride in watching your kid surpass you, rather than seeing it as a sign of your age.
In the end, Dad Bod is just a state of mind. You may never have six-pack, but you do have the opportunity to keep yourself healthy and active. By doing that, you can help yourself, you co-parent, and your kids.