When You’re A Parent, Get Creative About Exercise

I once had a conversation with a stranger on a plane that was the greatest gift to my own attitude about exercise. As we flew from New York to Los Angeles, we were chatting away, and when the topic of exercise came up, I confessed how much I hated working out. We were gossiping like old friends and I expected her to commiserate.

Her response took me by surprise. “Oh, I love exercise,” she said. “Exercise gives me a chance to marvel at how my muscles work.” I’d never thought of it that way. That one mind-set shift permanently changed my perspective.

Twenty years later, anytime I’m feeling lazy or unmotivated to go to the pool, or a pilates class, or out for a walk, I conjure that image and get up and go, excited at the opportunity to marvel at my muscles in motion.

A change is perspective about exercise is what parents need, too.

Exercise is often one of the first things to go when parents feel spread too thin. People say they don’t have time. Or that they are too tired. Or that they feel selfish taking time away from their kids. More often than not, though, moms and dads just don’t know how to fit exercise into a crammed schedule.

In a survey my company did of busy parents, 33 percent said they only exercised every once in a while, while 18 percent reported never exercising at all. Even though most people agree that taking care of our own physical health and well being would only boost our abilities as parents.

To fit in exercise, parents need to redefine what it means to work out.

You have to be less rigid about when or where or how exercise happens. Here are five ways to change your perspective and get moving.

1. Quit the gym.

A workout doesn’t have to happen at the gym or yoga studio or on the track. Let go of the idea that you have to go somewhere else to sweat. You can fit stretching, cardio and/or weight resistance in, maybe with more frequency and less effort than you expect, by taking advantage of everyday activities: stretch while you put away groceries, do jumping jacks during TV commercial breaks, use your toddler as a barbell. Continuing to believe that you have “go somewhere” to workout needlessly adds time to you don’t have, when you consider the commute, changing, showering, etc.

2. Get familiar with HIIT.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a parent’s secret weapon. It works by trading duration for intensity.  Any form of exercise (swimming, walking, biking, jogging) can be turned into HIIT by alternating hard and easy efforts for 15 to 20 minutes. Studies have shown that this type of interval training can help people burn more fat and increase fitness levels. Focus on a lower-intensity interval of about two to five minutes, followed by the high-intensity burst for one to three minutes. Here’s a popular 15-minute HIIT workout on YouTube that you can try out.

3. Workout for 10 minutes.

Experts say that any activity in which more than two minutes of movement occurs can be considered aerobic. Really! Here are three 10-minute workouts to try.

  • If you live in a multilevel home, walk up and down the stairs for ten minutes nonstop. Want a bigger challenge? Do ten push-ups whenever you get to the top or bottom of a set of stairs.
  • Jump up and down for one minute, do 30 seconds of pushups, jump for another minute, do 30 seconds of ab crunches. Repeat the cycle for ten minutes.

  • Do jumping jacks for one minute, then march in place for one minute with high knees and exaggerated arm swings. Repeat the cycle for ten minutes.

4. Be mindful about your movement.

Build in exercise by paying attention to the way you move all day long. Pay attention to your posture. Engage your core when you walk or stand up from a chair. Always take the stairs. Park in the farthest possible spot from wherever you are going. Walk and talk during conference calls. (Bonus: that gets you away from your computer, reducing the temptation to multitask during calls.) Do isometric exercises that require you to contract and hold a position. Carrie Rezabek, the founder of Pure Barre, has a great workout you can do from your desk. These small changes in your every day can make a big difference.

5. Adapt your exercise routine to your kids' ages.

With infants, this is an easy task: A sturdy eight-month-old makes a terrific barbell. Once your child can move on his own, race each other around the park or make a family affair out of your nightly walk. Middle grade kids want nothing more than quality time with their parents. If your kid plays soccer, lace up your cleats. If baseball is her game, hit the cages. And believe it or not, exercise can be a low-stakes common ground to connect with your teenager.

Once you become a parent, exercising won’t look like it once did. But it can still happen in a meaningful way.

I worked with a woman, Cecily, who was committed to her yoga practice. Before her son was born, she took a 90-minute class multiple times a week. That wasn’t happening any more -- it just didn’t work with her schedule.

Instead, we created a space for her to do yoga at home, for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, and often with her young son underfoot. She still got out to her beloved yoga studio, but only once a week.

That small change made all the difference to her health and well-being. What small change can you make?