I’ve been a physically active person my whole life. Soccer, swimming, wrestling, running, weight lifting, hiking — you name it. I love the way I feel physically and mentally when I’m fit.
Then my daughter was born three years ago. My life is now filled with this lovely, wild, little person I adore but it’s also much harder to find time to work out. Now with the birth of my son a few months ago, I’m starting to realize that it will be a while before I have the freedom to exercise like I used to.
I’ve talked with several other new dads and we all have found staying fit a struggle. Several years into fatherhood, here are some tricks I’ve picked up for avoiding the dreaded dad-bod.
Get a new perspective
With young kids, I understand I’m not going to be hitting the gym four days a week and be in the best shape of my life. That said, I don’t want to wake up in 10 years and find that I’ve gained 20 pounds, nor do I want to let an important aspect of my life die. It’s kind of like when I go on vacation and have the neighbor check on my cat once a day. For that week, the cat is going to get less attention, but the cat will still survive until I get home and can be a more devoted owner. Similarly, I know while I have young kids, I won’t be making huge gains on my lifts, or dropping times from my runs, but neither will I turn into a blob.
I used to love half marathons, or 60-minute weight sessions in the gym, but now my workouts look more like a 5k run, or 20 minutes of weight training. I used to work out three to five times a week. Now, if I’m able to work out two to three times a week, I’m doing pretty well. Even if I only get one real work out in the next week or two, it’s still a LOT better than nothing, and makes it easier to jump back into a more regular routine when I’m able.
I’ve also recently discovered the 7-Minute Workout, which is a great little life hack.
I used to work out because I loved it. It was fun. It made me feel, think, and look better. Now my motivation runs deeper. I want to be healthy long-term for my family. I’m less concerned with building a beach body and more concerned about being able to run the bases during a family kickball game without hacking up a lung in five years. I want to be able to wrangle a tantrumming toddler in the grocery store checkout line without throwing out my back. I want my heart and body healthy enough to still be able to shoot hoops or throw a ball with my grandkids someday. This is maybe the first time in my life that my athleticism is motivated by more than my own or my teammates’ interests. Now it’s a desire to serve my family selflessly.
If you’re a dad, think about this: You probably will never have to physically defend your wife from danger, but you almost certainly will have to physically rescue your children from harm at some point. Kids fall off of playgrounds, run into the street, crash their bikes, etc. You want a fast, strong body to be able to prevent as many of those as possible.
Also, I’m now more aware than ever the benefits of fitness for my own mental health. Sometimes when I’m short on sleep and my ears are ringing from screaming kids, nothing clears my minds like a run or a lift, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. That’s good for me and everyone else, too.
Home is where the sweat is
Invest in workout programs and equipment you can do from home. Unless your job has a gym, your days available to go to the gym or play in a league will likely be curtailed. If you are going to stay fit, most of your exercise will happen at home, so start slowly building up your equipment: pull-up bars, weight bench, weight vests, stationary bikes or ellipticals are all great tools (depending on how much room you have). My wife and I have built up a substantial little home gym the over the course of the past several years. Facebook market place and Craig’s List are full of inexpensive, used fitness equipment. Birthdays and Christmas are all great opportunities to snag some new equipment.
Also, there are a ton of great resources online like Fitness Blender, which has free online fitness videos and cheap ($8-$25) fitness and diet plans for different goals and abilities.
Kids are a workout
As much as possible, include your children in the workout. Kids love to move and spend most of their day doing what adults would consider exercise. Tap into their energy and make it work for you. From the time she was about 18 months on, I would tell my daughter that we were going to have a “dance party” and then we’d go into the basement, pump some fun music, and do squats, burpees, pushups, and weight training. I gave her plastic pushup handles as her dumbbells and a pool noodle for her barbell. She loves it when I do squats or pushups while she’s on my back, which is great for added resistance. Speaking of added resistance, running strollers and bike trailers are great investments and make for awesome quality/quiet time with your child. It also sets a really good example for them as you are their role models in fitness.
Also, playgrounds are basically little outdoor gyms. Monkey bars become pull-up bars, parallel railings become dip bars, park benches become step boxes, etc. Every time I’m with my daughter at the park, I try to find some way to make my body work. Yes, I get some strange looks from the other people at the park, but I also get a quick workout in.
Be warned: your children will not always cooperate (duh!). I’ve had many a stroller run or “dance party” derailed by my daughter. Sometimes she needs some convincing (snacks, books, and fun music are a great incentive for her). When all else fails, this is a great time for your kid to have some limited screen time. Sometimes, you just have to give up and try another day.
Focus on function
I’ve tried to stay away from specific workout advice as I am not a physical trainer in anyway expertly qualified to give anyone professional fitness coaching. That said, he’s some VERY general guidance. Try to focus on functional fitness and compound exercises. What does this look like? Deadlifts and pull-ups rather than bicep curls and calf raises. It means I work more on my core and not just on my abs. If I only have 20 minutes before a nap ends or I need to get ready for work, then I’m going to do a workout that hits as many muscle groups as possible and helps me gain functional strength, speed, and agility. I’m trying to be an active, healthy dad, not win a body building competition.
Good luck, Dad
Staying fit is tough, especially as our lives become more complex and we gain more responsibilities, but it’s one of the best habits you can establish for your long-term well-being. You’ve done hard stuff before. You can do this too — for yourself and for those you love.