Whether we do some or none, many of us wish we could do more physical activity. A common reason for not doing so is usually not enough time. I don’t think it is one of time, as much as it is about one’s priorities. Whether lack of time is the real reason or just something easy to say is pure speculation, and in an earlier blog I’ve tried to address how to fit in activity.
One thing that does change a person’s priorities is having children. When we were expecting our first child there was no lack of people telling us what to expect and how our lives were going to change. A lot of it sounded like the end of the world was coming. One in which we could no longer sleep, go out or even exercise anymore.
My general stubborn nature made me scoff at their comments as I thought that wouldn’t happen to me, plus I had science on my side. In terms of physical activity levels, parents are actually nearly as active as similar aged non-parents. Besides, kids are naturally active; why else do we spend billions of dollars each year on ways to strap them down and keep them still.
I also wanted to be a positive role model when it came to physical activity. The amount of physical activity mothers and fathers do (or don’t do, unfortunately) influences the amount of physical activity of their children. Even physical activity interventions on parents get their kids moving more. At a time when physical activity levels are dismally low in Canada and elsewhere, I wanted to make sure as a parent I was part of the solution and not the problem.
At that point in my life I was active in bike racing. I wasn’t very good at it but since I couldn’t run from repeated injuries, I thought I would give it a try. Even without kids, it was a lot of hard work. I was in the lowest division where the races were 90 km long. Training required rides of 3-4 hours at a time a couple times per week plus other rides of shorter duration.
After our daughter was born, I soon realized I couldn’t keep up with the same amount of cycling; my wife wasn’t going to be too sympathetic seeing me lie on the couch recovering from a tough 4 hour bike ride, while she took care of our daughter. Plus, cycling for me was a means of being active and not an end goal of performance. So shortly after she was born I hung up my bike and traded in for a baby carrier.
This didn’t mean the end to my activity, I still commuted to work by bicycle. However, I needed to do more than that so I tried being creative and spent a lot of time taking my daughter out on walks. This gave my wife a break, and also gave me some activity and time with my daughter. In order to make it more strenuous, once a week I would walk up a long hill about 15 minutes from our house. This definitely got my heart rate going and since each day my daughter was gaining weight, my workout increased too.
I was still looking to do more, though. Something that wouldn’t take up much time and could be intense enough to maintain my fitness level. Running would be an obvious one but I couldn’t do it. Team sports, while fun, were too restrictive in the times offered. So, having done triathlons when I was younger, I started swimming again. There was a swimming pool between my home and place of work, and I could just get up 30-45 minutes earlier three mornings a week while everyone was sleeping.
Of course, being the father I recognized my child-rearing duties were limited in the early years compared to my wife’s (I can’t breastfeed). So over the years I talked with other moms on how they manage to keep up their activity levels. Walking was a big one and for the running moms, a jogging stroller was a must. Others looked at purchasing home exercise equipment or went to mother-child yoga classes. The most interesting response I heard was from a mom who would do the laundry while her child was napping and take one piece of clothing at a time either down to her laundry room or up to the bedrooms.
Once my daughter started walking, it became easier to be active with her. Going to the playground, at the start, she needed help getting around which meant lots of walking holding her hand and lifting her up. This continued until she was able to get around the playground without help, but instead of just sit and watch, my wife and I would still be playing with her. What child doesn’t like being chased and playing tag with his/her parents?
On those days when she was content to play on her own in the sand box, you could find me walking laps around the playground. Sure it may have looked strange walking in circles, but I never could understand (and still don’t) the notion of sitting down while I watch my child be active.
Life got a bit more complicated when my son came around but having a second didn’t seem like twice the work and we got a double stroller so my walking workouts got even more intense.
We also got our kids involved in physical activity at an early age. Both of them started at the age of two in a community soccer group nearby. For the first few years it was more of the parents holding their child’s hand running around chasing a ball. It was a great way to get some activity and engage with our kids, and meet other parents in the community.
As they got older, the parent involvement decreased, which led to another stage of changing physical activity routines. They were now old enough to play with us in more elaborate ways like playing hockey and kicking the soccer ball around (although many family soccer matches that ended up in tears). We started exposing them to other activities like tennis, disc golf, snowshoeing and go for hikes; activities that we all found fun to do and accessible. For a brief while I was even able to get my kids up early and drag them to the pool with me before school.
I imagine that as they get more into their teen years, it may not be so cool to hang out with the parents, but I think if we include their friends into our activities that will help. At times I’ve needed to be creative to get in my activity when my kids were younger, while at other times, when I got in there and played with them, it was quite easy. I’m hopeful that this will also help them establish a healthy lifelong habit of activity themselves.
This is Part 17 in a series of blog posts entitled Being Active While Living an Active Life.