It was a Saturday morning. We sat down over breakfast and planned our family day together. It was a sunny day so we decided to take the kids to the park. There’s a new park with fresh equipment, sandpits, a river nearby and it’s all within a 20-minute walk. We finish up breakfast, I get the kids cleaned up, help them use the toilet, get the buggy packed, and prepare for the day.
We had a lovely time. We went on the slide together, I pushed them on the swings, we built sandcastles together. We had a lot of fun. I pushed the buggy the whole way to and from the park with my two toddlers onboard. I also carried the bag with a picnic, buckets, and spades inside.
When we got home, I unpacked the buggy, take off the kid’s coats and shoes and clean the sand from the Paw Patrol plane that Pippa insisted on taking with us. I then start work on making the snack that they’ve been demanding. I shout to them, “your snacks are ready girls!”, and I sit down for a rest.
“Done!” Daisy shouts from the toilet to let me know she needs cleaning up. I get up again to help her off the toilet, I managed a solid 10 seconds of sitting down there. I help her clean up and send her into the dining room. She notices she hasn’t got a juice and kicks up a fuss. “Silly Daddy,” she says to me, how could I have forgotten the juice?
Next, it will be another toilet break, a fresh juice cup, setting up finger painting, stopping a fight about which episode of Peppa Pig to watch, or something else…
This is hard work.
All the parenting books I read talk about mentally preparing yourself for a family. What I failed to understand, or they failed to tell me, was how physically challenging it would be.
No one warned me that I had to train for it…
…That my upper body needed work because I’d be carrying extra weight around with me everywhere.
…That my glutes and quads better be in good shape because I’d be bending down a thousand times a day.
…That my core strength better be solid because I’d have a sleeping child on me for hours.
If I had known this I would have at least attempted to get myself into better shape before my first child arrived. I realize now why new parents lose weight. I’m a man and I find it physically demanding. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it is for my wife who also had the job of carrying around the child inside her for nine months.
Imagine if you woke up one day and decided to rock up to the starting line and run a marathon. Some of you reading may be capable of that, but most of us don’t have that level of physical ability. For the vast majority of us, running a marathon is a long-drawn-out event. It entails weeks of training in the preceding months. Taking time to gradually increase your mileage until you’re at least accepting of the prospect of moving 26 miles.
Imagine running a marathon, with no training, after having had a sleepless night. Brutal.
We joke about parenting being exhausting in our parenting groups. It is physically demanding, just like a marathon. I’ve heard about mentally preparing myself, but I’ve never been advised to improve my fitness as a way to handle children.
As a parent, it’s hard to get any time to yourself, and when you do, you’re so exhausted from lack of sleep that exercise is the last thing on your mind. This has a negative effect on your mental health, which further exacerbates the lack of desire to do physical exercise.
The vicious cycle continues.
I read a post on Reddit recently that told the story of a man at a gym who, when asked how the weights are, responded with the phrase;
“Motion before Emotion”
That is to say that, to get a good emotion, you have to first perform the motion. It’s not the case that ‘when I feel good, I’ll do some exercise’, but rather the other way around, ‘when I do exercise, I’ll feel good’.
Sometimes the thought of exercise is the worst thing I can imagine. I’m tired, lazy, sad, stressed, or any one of a hundred other reasons. Sometimes I want to relax in front of the TV and eat huge amounts of snacks. It’s in these moments I have to remind myself if I want to feel good, I have to get up and do something. As the Reddit post puts it;
“Exercise is easy to avoid in life. Especially to a newbie, the thought of it is very unpleasant, intimidating and easy to ignore. Exercise however is an incredibly powerful tool in handling depression, stress and anxiety that life can deal you. I cannot overstate this. With regular exercise your mood improves, your ability to handle stress increases dramatically and your body performs with greater efficiency. You sleep better, you heal faster, you just feel good more often.”
Study after study after study has shown that physical exercise has a positive effect on your mental wellbeing. I know firsthand that I’m a better parent when I take care of myself.
Why then, was exercise not recommended to me as a way to help my ability to cope with the challenges of raising children?
Being physically fit and healthy has helped me significantly. When I haven’t exercised in a while I notice a difference. I’m slower, more lethargic, more intolerant, more stressed. When I exercise regularly I have more energy, more patience, more compassion. I’m a better parent when I can be the fun, energetic, cool Dad.
Here are some things I’ve found to be particularly useful;
If you’re not active in your daily life, make a change. Walk more, run more, get on a bike, drive less, find an exercise that fits into your life and get more active. There’s no shortcut, you need to move more. I’m at the stage with two toddler-aged girls that I do a lot of walking. This means for me I need to be comfortable being on my feet for many hours of the day. In the early days of parenthood, upper body strength was critical since I was carrying around a baby everywhere. The specific exercise depends on your situation, but being more active in any shape or form has helped me a lot.
Water is the elixir of life. If you don’t drink it every single day, start right away. Having a tall container next to my bedside so I can take a big drink when I wake up in the morning helps me. If I stay hydrated it helps me feel refreshed and less tired. Coffee is amazing, but it does dehydrate me. I try to stay away from too many sugary, caffeinated drinks as I find the energy boost they give me is short-lived. There’s an initial high, quickly followed by a low.
Find a Routine
I take comfort in routine. It feels safe in my mind to stick to a specific schedule. Wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, have lunch, go home, eat dinner. As humans we like patterns of time to divide up our days and weeks, it helps us to make sense of the madness of the world.
The trick to doing anything consistently is to make it part of your routine. Exercise is no different. If you get into the habit of doing some form of exercise at the same time, on the same day, every single week, it will be easier to keep up.
As a new parent taking care of yourself is as important as being able to take care of your children. If you’re not physically and mentally healthy yourself, how can you expect to effectively take care of a child?
We are under immense pressure to be the best we can be for our children. But we should remember that we are people too, we matter.
By taking time to focus on improving my physical health, not only has my own mental health improved, but also my ability to take care of my children. If I take care of my physical health, I’m better equipped to meet the challenges of parenthood.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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