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Oct 20, 2011 6:59 PM

Parents Who Exercise: Overcoming the Challenges

Parents and exercise are not usually words you see in the same sentence. From the moment you step on the physical and emotional roller coaster known as parenthood, your needs often must come second to the needs of your children. Exercising, as a parent, becomes a much more difficult task.

This is true whether you're in the throes of sleep-deprivation with a newborn or stay busy driving your children from school to soccer practice, tennis matches, and piano lessons. Even people who had a strong commitment to exercise before having children will struggle to find consistent time to stay fit once they become parents.

Being a parent "wreaks havoc with your schedule," says Betsy Keller, PhD, professor of exercise and sports sciences at Ithaca College.

Indeed, a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh confirmed that new parents really are more sedentary than singles or married couples without children. The study tracked physical activity levels of more than 800 young adults for more than two years. It found that while physical activity declined among all participants during that span, it took the biggest hit among new parents.

That's despite the fact that new parents often feel like they are always on the go, says researcher Ethan E. Hull, MEd, an exercise physiologist candidate at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The priorities of a family just change," says Hull. "The focus isn't with your friends, it isn't with yourself, it isn't with your spouse; it's with that child. Your own physical activity just isn't as important as the attention you're giving that child."

But when it comes to abandoning physical activity, you're not just hurting yourself, say experts.

"Now that you have kids, you want to be around for the kids," says Jon Chipko, a certified strength and conditioning coach from Montclair, N.J. "You want to be healthy, to be able to play with them, to be around when they get older."

Time constraints, lack of sleep, and selflessness are all perfectly valid excuses for the short term, says Hull. But, he warns, be careful how much time you let go by.

"It's easy to sit on the couch," Hull says. "It's not easy to get out and exercise. [But] down the road, if parents have lost all this physical activity for years, they're not going to snap back."

Whether you are a mom or a dad, a parent of a newborn or a teenager, here are some effective ways to incorporate exercise back into your life and fight the tendency to become more sedentary.

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 1: Be Active All Day

You don't have to be athletic to be physically active, says Keller.

Move around, walk to your neighbor's house instead of calling, take the stairs, park farther away from your destination. All these things help burn calories and keep you moving -- and they all add up.

"You are tied to the child. You can't leave them, but you can get up and move around," Keller says.

"There are lots of ways parents can incorporate physical activity into their day, or just as importantly, as a family activity," says Hull. "It may take more preparation for parents, but physical activity can and should be balanced back in."

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 2: Defy the Myth of Time

Granted, children take up a lot of time you previously had for yourself.

But here's the great part, says Brad Schoenfeld, a fitness trainer in Scarsdale, N.Y.: "It does not take a lot of time to achieve a basic level of fitness.

"People tend to think they need to spend hours on end at the gym. It's the quality, not the quantity. With a 15- to 20-minute weight workout, you can achieve great benefits."

Schoenfeld, author of two fitness books, says that even the advanced athletes he trains complete their workouts in about 3 to 3 1/2 hours a week.

"You don't need 30 to 45 minutes of exercise a day in one continuous bout," says Hull. Shoot for 10 to 15 minutes a couple times throughout the day, he recommends.

Exercising in small chunks will help you avoid burnout and may also keep you motivated, experts say.

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 3: Define Your Priorities

Many athletes, celebrities, and those who just exercise for fitness and health have kids, says Chipko.

"It's a matter of priorities," he says. "I have a 44-year-old mother of four who still finds time to exercise five days a week for 45 minutes."

When you're stretched for time or crave a little time to yourself, Chipko says, it's easy to go for the quick fix, like going shopping, stopping for a latte, or watching TV.

"Somewhere along the line you're substituting a long-term goal for something short term," says Chipko. "In the long run, quick fixes are not going to benefit you."

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 4: Cultivate Social Support

Having a parent, a friend, or a neighbor to whom you can entrust the care of your children will pay dividends.

"A lot [of what happens with an exercise routine] depends on the opportunity [a parent] has to leave the child and do exercise outside the home," says Keller.

If you don't have family nearby, says Hull, "establish a network of friends that you trust and can trade off child care with."

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 5: Establish Family Fitness

If you want your children to know the value of fitness, exercise with them.

With infants and toddlers, go for brisk walks with the baby in the stroller, says Chipko. While they nap during the day, fit in some fitness --- doing basic lunges, squats, push-ups, and crunches.

"These are all things that don't require any equipment or space and don't take a lot of time," Schoenfeld says.

With preschool to school-aged children, strive for family fitness. Go to the park, ride bikes, hike, and swim while the weather's nice. In the winter, ice-skate, snowshoe, cross-country ski, or go sledding.

"Physical activity time also provides a great opportunity to talk with your kids," adds Keller. "But sometimes, just doing something with them is worth more than we realize."

Bottom line?

"Your desire to be physically active with your child will usually force a creative solution to do so," says Keller. "You may be the only parent who is jogging around your kid's soccer practice field, but your kid will get used to it."

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 6: Set Goals

The very first step to staying fit or regaining fitness is to want it, say experts.

"Motivation comes from within," says Schoenfeld. "I can't motivate someone if they don't have a reason to do something."

Set short-term goals, says Schoenfeld, so as not to overwhelm yourself. If it's four sizes you need to lose, start with one. If it's 20 pounds, set a more manageable goal of 1-2 pounds per week.

Most people go too far and say, 'I want to run a marathon,'" says Chipko. "That's too big."

Goals have to be realistic, says Chipko: "If your goal is to look like Kelly Ripa or Angelina Jolie, your determination is going to be crushed if you work out and eat yogurt for a week and you don't look like them."

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 7: Put In the Effort

Don't expect to get fit overnight, warns Chipko. "It's a matter of putting time in. Anything worth having is hard. There is work involved."

But, you say, fitting in work and everything needed to run a household is hard enough. Who needs the added pressure of squeezing in a workout?

The truth, Keller says, is that exercise will actually give you more energy to tackle the tasks always hanging over your head.

And somewhere along the line, says Chipko, exercise will become a habit.

"People always ask me how long it's going to take," he says. "Everybody wants that quick fix."

It may take a month, it may take a year, he says, but when you reach a goal you set on your own, it's much more rewarding.

Exercise Tip for Parents No. 8: Be a Role Model

Whether they admit it or not, kids look to their parents as role models.

"What you do has a huge effect on what they do," says Chipko, who works with youth from 9 to 18.

If you're a couch potato, you may pass that trait on to your children. On the other hand, if kids grow up in a family where they walk the dog, hike, or go for bike rides, they will emulate that behavior, says Keller.

"When trying to teach kids discipline," says Chipko, "you as a parent should have some as well."

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