Becoming a parent tends to affect your fitness somewhere between one of two extremes. For some, it’s a moment of pure inspiration — a reminder that life is short, time is fleeting and getting (or staying) fit is the best way to make the most out of your years (and, to the extent possible, extend those years). For others, it can have an opposite effect, creating a downward spiral — a lack of sleep begets a poor diet begets poor self-care begets a lack of sleep.
For most new parents, we fall somewhere in-between and experience good and bad stretches in waves. Jaime McFaden understands. She’s one of the original trainers for Aaptiv, the esteemed fitness app (and recent Haven Life Plus partner). She’s also a single mom, and knows the temptations every new parent must face — and empathizes with those of us who know what to do, but don’t always do it. We asked her for her tips on how, and when, to get fit after becoming a parent.
Here are McFaden’s best 5 fitness tips for new parents:
1. Give it time
If you’re a new mother, you just underwent one of the most stressful and traumatic things the human body can endure. There’s the birth itself, which is akin to undergoing major surgery (especially if there were complications). And of course, there were nine months prior to that when you, you know, grew an entire human baby inside your body. It’s just not realistic for you to get back to where you were, especially not right away. Give yourself permission to be where you are now.
Jaime, for example, gave herself a full year to get back to her previous level of fitness — and she’s literally a professional trainer. There is enough pressure in your life now; holding yourself to unreasonable standards of fitness shouldn’t be one of them. “Doctors say not to go for physical exercise until after their 6 to 8 weeks later,” Jaime says. “Women split their abdominal wall, and then they don’t get it back because they go back into crunches. I tell women to go to my website or go to Aaptiv, where I have specific exercises for diastasis recti. They take five minutes you can do them at home. A lot are diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Stretching on the floor.”
For new fathers (or other parenting partners who didn’t give birth), the physical experience of becoming a parent is different, and yet the change is very real. (In 2009, a British study revealed that, on average, new fathers gain 14 pounds during pregnancy.) Getting back in the swing of things won’t happen right away. You have a host of new responsibilities, including taking care of your partner who just, again, underwent the equivalent of major surgery.
“Moms want to jump right into it, lose the weight to get back to where they were. And the dads sometimes gain weight and want to get back, ” states Jaime.
Instead, be patient.
“Start slow and take baby steps,” Jaime recommends. “If you were used to doing an hour workout five days a week, start small and do things for 10 minutes. Ten minutes three times a week for the next few weeks. Then it becomes part of the routine, then maybe you add an extra day…” Build from there, and you’ll be on your way. “Treat your body like a baby,” Jaime says. “For it to recover, give it a lot of love, gratitude, and time before it can heal.”
Oh, and try not to get discouraged. “Some parents give up because they don’t see immediate results,” Jaime adds. “It’s an easy trap to fall into.”
2. Focus on wellness
You’re tired. You’re not eating well. You might be on day 4 of wearing the same spit-up-stained T-shirt. Forget hitting the gym — you could just use a decent meal and a shower. If this speaks to your experience, it’s time to reset a bit. Just look at the new little one in your life — he or she cries to let you know when she’s hungry, tired, overwhelmed. When you look at yourself and feel like crying, your body is telling yourself the same thing.
A few practical ideas from Jaime: Consider getting a meal-planning service for these overloaded early weeks and months. Go for a walk. “Doing little things like walking is a great exercise for parents. And as quote-unquote boring as it can be for an athlete like myself, you’re still doing something.” And then make sure you’re getting enough rest. “If you’re not sleeping for days on end, which I had trouble with, sleeping is better than going to the gym,” she notes.
Overall, be gentle with yourself. As Jaime notes, a significant percentage of new moms experience postpartum depression. If that includes you or your partner, know that help is available.
Which brings us to…
3. Get support (and be supportive)
Friends. Family. Co-workers. And above all, your partner (if applicable). These are all people who will be happy to bring over a meal or to keep an eye on your child while you shower. Jaime also recommends finding a fellow parent to be a workout buddy. “Join a gym or work out with other moms or dads,” she says. “Join the Aaptiv community! Hire a trainer.”
Every couple is different, but communication is key. For new dads especially, be mindful of all that your partner has been through. She carried a child solo for nine months; now that you’re on the other side of things, be prepared to do your share and then some. Remember the emotional labor, too — things like making sure you have diapers backed in your bag before an outing. In a way, it’s just like training for a marathon. You might start out without the skills or the experience to excel, but with enough practice and experience, you’ll get there eventually. Being a proactive parent will give you confidence and solidify your relationships with both your partner and your child — all good things for your mental, emotional and spiritual health.
“Be encouraging,” Jaime suggests. “‘How about this weekend, I’d love for you to come do a hike together?’ The partner could say, ‘I was thinking I could take the kids for an hour so that you could have some time for yourself so you can take care of you.’ Leave it open-ended. They might want to take a nap, and that’s good, too. If someone says I can take your daughter for an hour, there are a million things I can think of to do.”
4. Make time
Ultimately, you still have the same 24 hours per day you always had, it’s just that many of those are earmarked for a number of new baby-centric activities, from breastfeeding and pumping to lying awake staring at your baby monitor and making sure your little one is still breathing. (No? Just us?)
At some point, you will have the energy and the inclination to hit the gym (or the trails) again. This will require navigating a newly complex family schedule — slipping away to run laps is no longer as simple as just getting up and going. But doing so also demonstrates your commitment to being healthy, and those increased serotonin levels will pay off in all aspects of your parenting life.
If a trip to the gym seems unrealistic, you can compromise by making the most of where you already are. In Aaptiv, Jaimie has a number of workouts for when, say, you only have 10 minutes and need to be in your kitchen. Again, these are informed by her own lived experience, which makes them more likely to be useful to you in your own life.
Jaime notes that goals help. “Some clients, within a year or two of having kids, I’ll say you were really athletic, why don’t you sign up for a 5K or a 10K? It’s good to have a goal. A lot of people try to go too hard too fast, and can get injured.”
Aaptiv offers goal-driven programs like “Cross-Train to 5K,” “Walk to Run One Mile,” and “Intro to Weight Loss.”
5. Incorporate your child
This is a fun one. Rather than seeing your child as a possible obstacle to hitting the gym, include your child in the workout. (Well, sort of.) Go for a run while pushing a stroller. (Many strollers are explicitly designed for that purpose.) Lift the baby like a little kettlebell. Do floor exercises together. Incorporating your child isn’t just a way to save time — it sets a good example for them, and will make your workouts more joyful. “If the kids aren’t having fun, you damn sure aren’t having fun,” Jaime says. “To keep it light instead, there are like a bazillion exercises you could do.” You can find plenty of Jaime’s recommended workouts on Aaptiv and a lot of charming videos on her Instagram feed.
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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. Opinions are his own.
This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency and offered as educational information.