Making Time for Exercise: A Busy Parent's Guide

Once the euphoria of the arrival of a new child into the family dies down...and one or both parents return to work, the dawning realisation of what all those wise 'parenting sages' were talking about starts to hit home.

The simple equation is this:

> 0 children = infinitely less time than before

Being a father of two kids, currently aged five and one, I can vaguely remember a time when a diary ran my working life and the rest of my time was an amorphous mass of activity. Phrases such as 'I'm just going out to the gym / for a run / for a cycle etc.' were reasonable sounding statements met with a shrug of the shoulders at the most by my wife.

Once our first came along, the same request would result in a perfectly reasonable response of 'Well, I'll want to do something later, so you're on duty' or something similar. With the arrival of number two however, even daring to suggest I might do such a thing unless it had been in the diary - now expanded 24/7 - for at least a week, and with an exact start/finish time, and not exceeding sixty minutes in duration...well it would be treated with contempt at best, flying plates at worst!

I exaggerate slightly for effect (my wife tends to throw cutlery), but it would be a rare parent who finds not just the time but also the energy to exercise as they perhaps did pre-children, unless perhaps they have endless childcare funds or maybe only vaguely recall what they children look like because they rarely see them awake. However, experts constantly educate us on the importance of exercise to both our physical and mental wellbeing. No one can deny that both the instant chemical hit of exercise and the long-lasting benefits of feeling healthy can be complementary factors to good parenting. But there is no single solution for parents, and promises of great exercise results through personal training, tailored nutrition or joining a new gym, usually assume a significant time investment, or at least something akin to the greater flexibility (of schedule, not body) that I alluded to earlier.

Just as childcare arrangements can be a complex, patchwork of options, you may need to apply some creative-planning if you want to fit in an exercise regime around your time constraints. To achieve this the best I can, I block out two or three lunchtimes a week to go to the gym; others might combine their commute with exercising, and others will perhaps train hard at the weekends whilst watching their diet during the week. All are valid options, and all can achieve the right outcomes, but making it work for you will be about finding that sweet spot in amongst work, family or other commitments.

I wouldn't go so far as to call these golden rules, but these are some of the things I have learnt through my experiences:

1. Sleep

You will never get enough and always need more. However...

2. Think honestly about what exercise you can realistically commit to

You need to be able to do this on a regular basis AND have the discipline to maintain it. The classic New Year / Easter / mirror reflection resolution of exercise every day until you achieve cover model status is NEVER GOING TO WORK! A goal of exercising for thirty to sixty minutes more a week then you do currently might have a chance - and then if you last three months, add on another sixty minutes, and so on.

3. Set your goals and really understand what will get you there

Goals don't have to be overly ambitious (see above) and could be time, achievement or weight related, but think about what it will take to achieve that goal and whether your planned regime is going to work. In the spirit of my previous point, simply exercising to lose weight is NEVER GOING TO WORK! Depending on your source, the nutrition vs. exercise ratio for weight loss is anywhere between 70:30 to 90:10 in favour of a good diet. So if your goal is solely weight loss, just eat better. Clearly, this ignores the other benefits of exercise but as the saying goes 'you can't out-train a bad diet'

4. Don't look for instant or short-term results

Your progression will likely not represent an upward sloping line. Other commitments, illness, injury, weight fluctuations, holidays etc. can all conspire against your best-laid plans and it is only over a period of time that these will even themselves out. Give yourself 9-12 months to measure the Before and After performance, related to the goal that you were initially aiming at. The potential demoralising effect of measuring or expecting results too soon has derailed many an exercise plan before its really even started.

5. Understand the science behind exercising

This has parallels with Point 2 about understanding what will 'get you there', but is more about looking at the latest science (rather than fads). Tabata/HIIT training can shave hours off of your training time but not necessarily your outcomes. Going to the gym and hammering the bench press will make you truly excellent at...the bench press, but will be a disaster for your flexibility or functional strength, and Crossfit will probably just break you if you are over 40 and just starting. Only examples, but what I'm suggesting is that you do some background research, relate this to your goals and capabilities and go from there. Don't rely exclusively on gyms, personal trainers or the '7 Minute Workout Challenge' to do this for you.

6. Age is but a number (but don't ignore it) 

Many parents these days are comfortably in their thirties or even forties - and if returning to exercise, or looking at continuing previous regimes, this needs to be couched in reality. I raise the parable of my brother-in-law, a man exceptionally fit in the Army in his twenties and thirties; he had a break whilst the kids were young and then returned to a weights-based exercise program that would have been a breeze previously. Long story short: back operation follows and not only back to Square One but Square -443.

An extreme example, but not dissimilar to others I've heard. Injury is an increasing risk factor as we age (mainly due to joint flexibility and mobility). Returning to Crossfit...'Yes, you can' compete with the twenty-somethings and match what they do...but remember it may/will take you twice as long to physically recover, require twice as much focus on your nutrition and sleep to aid recovery, and twice as much warm-up and stretching time to remain injury free. Fit all that in, along with the actual exercise itself, and you truly have reached the pinnacle of the parenting/working/exercising triangle!

7. Do you really need to exercise alone?

Your goals may dictate this, but can you combine family time with exercise? My other brother-in-law regularly forces his primary school age children to walk up steep hills with him, job done. He swears that they love it...however there may be other fun options to either get the children involved, through parent/children exercise classes or using childcare facilities at a gym. Alternatively, use other childcare options and exercise with your partner, which may actually generate a more harmonious atmosphere, less yawning and less silent time than during a 'date-night' dinner out with each other!

I'm sure many of you have your own set of rules and the increasing prominence of exercise in many of our lives means that you may well disagree with much that I've written. 

If so, I'm glad, because it means you're probably already doing it!


Andrew Bass, father-of-two; pumping iron to Disney's Greatest Hits, trying not to "Let It go...let it go."