Before my wife gave birth to quadruplets, I ran thirty-five miles a week when I was taking it easy. Running Forty to fifty miles was my norm, sixty if I was training for a marathon. I also hit the gym three times a week for a regimen comprised of over thirty sets on free weights and a twenty-minute abdominal routine. I was an exercise machine. After the babies were born, not so much.
When our three girls and lone boy came home from the hospital, my time to exercise evaporated. Round the clock feedings, diaper changes, laundry, and a multitude of other tedious tasks consumed every waking hour. I hardly had time for basic hygiene, much less thirty minutes of cardio. Even if I had spare time to exercise, sleep deprivation made it impossible. Since it wasn’t uncommon for me to fall asleep at my desk at work, exercise might have put me into a coma. Even the thought of doing push-ups made me feel dizzy.
When the kids were almost a year old, however, they began sleeping through the night. Diaper changes and feedings became a little less frequent, and I no longer felt like an extra in Night of the Living Dead. I wanted to start exercising again, but life was still hectic. Work, domestic duties, and spending quality time with my family left few free hours. But I’d gained twenty pounds and my blood pressure was higher than normal for the first time in my life. I had to start exercising again.
Don’t let the fact that my wife spawned four children at once fool you into thinking my situation was unique. Fatherhood confounds most men at first. Like all big developmental phases, it throws previous habits into disarray. New dads want to spend time with their kids and they want to lend a hand. If nothing else, they feel obliged to advance their career in order to better support their growing family. This leaves less time for exercise. To add insult to injury, nature plays a dirty trick on new fathers. Research demonstrates that a man’s estrogen levels increase after he becomes a father. You know how women are always complaining that it’s easier for men to lose weight? Well, that extra estrogen will give you a little more empathy, because it will increase your set-points for body fat and make it harder for you to lose weight. All because Adam and Eve just had to take a bite of that fruit . . . but I digress.
Once our babies started sleeping through the night, I set out to make fitness part of my life again. I could have squeezed in thirty minutes of cardio at lunch. Push-ups and sit-ups between clients were an option. But I didn’t want a fast-food workout; I wanted to sweat and pant and push my limits. The old saw about people needing “20 minutes of cardio three times a week” is a bit misleading. That level of exercise might stave off a heart attack, but I don’t think it promotes true physical fitness. It certainly wasn’t going to go very far toward whittling the twenty pounds of flab I’d acquired. Furthermore, I have Attention Deficit Disorder, and nothing calms down folks with ADD like a hard workout. Exercise increases the brain’s response to norepinephrine, which improves the ability to concentrate. I’m also generally a nicer guy after I exercise, but a quick jaunt around the block wasn’t going to do the job. I needed a real workout.
The first thing that I discovered is that I couldn’t exercise on the fly like I once had. I used to be a nighttime exerciser. I’d get the day’s tasks out of the way and go on a run or to the gym sometimes as late as 9:30 p.m. This was impossible with my new lifestyle. A sick or fussy baby would often require my attention well past midnight. And I was much more tired by day’s end than I was pre-babies. This is a common experience for new dads. Night owls like me turn into early birds after a few months of pre-dawn reveille from a screaming infant.
If physical fitness was going to be part of my life again, I had to make it a priority. I couldn’t leave it until the end of the day; I had to make intentional efforts and plan ahead. After a few weeks of trial and error, I learned what it would take to for me to be both a good dad and an athlete. It wasn’t easy and my perspective on physical fitness was much different, but I was much happier (and more pleasant to be around) after I started exercising again. Here are the important lessons I learned:
SCHEDULE IT - Make an appointment to work out, just like you would schedule a meeting. Of course, this assumes your job allows the flexibility for this. I’m a psychologist in private practice, so I can get away with blocking off a couple of hours. If your boss isn’t crazy about you skipping out of the office to do 400 meter repeats, ask if you can arrive early or work late and take a long lunch two or three days a week. Most employers don’t have a problem with a worker taking a two-hour lunch break to exercise. If your boss seems hesitant, pass along some of the research showing that exercise in the middle of the day increases productivity.
If there’s no place to shower at your office and there’s not a gym close by, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of a quick sponge bath and a few squirts of deodorant. You might not feel fresh, but your coworkers won’t notice a difference.
EXERCISE FIRST - If your boss (or your wife) regards a break for exercise as unreasonable, do it while everyone else is sleeping. On the weekends, I feel guilty asking my wife for a break to go exercising in the middle of the day, especially if she doesn’t get equal time off. But if I get it out of the way while she’s in bed, there’s no need to negotiate breaks. I’m also in a better mood for the rest of the day.
If you’re like me, the thought of getting up before dawn runs a close second to pouring burning asphalt down my shirt. The remedy for this is a magic elixir called caffeine. I put a caffeinated energy gel or drink on my nightstand and down it as soon as my alarm goes off. If it’s a beverage, and your body can’t handle a glucose crash twenty minutes into your workout you may want to opt for the sugar free or diet variety.
START SLOW - Since I’d been in great shape for several years, I thought a return to optimal fitness would be a snap. After a year of little sleep, a few thousand hours in a rocking chair, and a diet of casseroles donated by church members, I should have known better.
My first week back at the gym, I felt a slight pain in my lower back while doing lat pull-downs. I shrugged it off. I’m still a tough, young guy, right? I did another repetition and the pain got worse. Undeterred, I decided to “work off” the pain and yanked down on the bar again. It felt like someone stuck a hot poker in my back. I yelled something unintelligible and rolled onto the floor, writhing in pain. I went to the doctor and he diagnosed me with sciatica. I spent a week in bed and three more taking strong pain medication.
Don’t underestimate the impact of age and a year off from exercising. Nowadays, a lot of men become fathers in their mid-thirties – the same time when the invincibility of their teens and twenties makes an exit. When you start exercising again, it should feel easy. Don’t push yourself until you’ve been at it for a few weeks. This will be especially hard for guys who have to start at a difficulty level far below what was once effortless. Forty miles of running a week was my norm before kids. When I finally hit the road again, I was only running fifteen. A year later, I was running longer and faster, but it took a gradual increase to avoid injury.
EXERCISE WITH YOUR KIDS - The baby jogger is the greatest invention since the internal combustion engine. Your kids will love it – it feels like an amusement park ride. It’s also a great way to get a fussy baby to go to sleep. And your wife can take a break while you “watch” the children. Invest in a good one, as cheaper models can be cumbersome and bumpy. You can save money by shopping around for a high quality used one. Few parents continue to use them after their kids hit age four.
Infants also double as exercise equipment. A long walk with a child on your shoulders burns as many calories as a light jog. You can also curl and bench-press your babies. You’ve seen the sign in the free-weight room, “Don’t drop the weights” --- definitely a good idea with the baby! I know it sounds ridiculous and it’s not the same as hitting the gym, but your kids will love it.
READJUST YOUR GOALS - My personal record for a 5k is nineteen minutes. This past Thanksgiving, I ran one in 22:45, and I was thrilled. It was almost four minutes slower than my PR, but I got it eleven years and twenty pounds ago. I gave myself permission to celebrate. That’s not a bad time for a guy with four kids who is turning forty in a few weeks.
As a new dad, you’re entering a new phase of life. You’re not a kid anymore. You’re a man, not a guy. Readjust your goals accordingly. Start thinking of personal bests in terms of life phases instead of a lifetime.
THINK OF YOUR WIFE– If you dash off to a softball game and leave your wife at home to watch the kids twice a week, she could start feeling resentful. Make sure that she gets as much time to pursue her interests as you do. Exercise is great for stress relief, but it’s not an escape from responsibilities at home. If your wife sees that you’re eager to pitch in and give her a break, she’ll be more supportive of your fitness goals.
REMEMBER WHAT’S IMPORTANT - Before my children were born, few things made me happier than training hard for a race and finishing with personal best. It put me in a good mood for days. That feeling is miniscule in comparison to my daughter Hayley’s laugh, my daughter Ella’s long excited sentences, my son Jordan’s bear hugs, or my daughter Emma’s sparkling eyes. I will never be as physically fit as I was a just a few years ago, but I don’t care. My kids mean more to me than all the finisher’s medals in the world. The writer of Psalms knew what he was talking about when he said, “Children are a gift from the Lord.” I want to stay healthy for them as much as me. I want to live a long time and see them grow and experience the fullness of life. I want to be there when they’re in trouble. I want to celebrate their graduations and weddings. I want to be hale and strong when their children are born. Like so many other things, staying fit isn’t just about me anymore.
It’s about my family. It’s about the hope of one day taking my grandchildren for a ride in the baby jogger.
During the holidays, I had to decide between going for my scheduled run and attending the Christmas program at my children’s preschool. I opted to go see my kids sing, knowing that I was giving up that relaxed yet energetic feeling that exercise provides. However, when my kids spotted me in the audience and shouted, “Daddy!” in front of the whole sanctuary, I knew I’d made the right decision. When just showing up makes my children smile, I realize what’s most important. Moment’s like those are the reason I want to stay fit and live for a long time.
- What is the most important thing in your life? Is your answer to this question reflected in the way you prioritize your time?
- Who is the most important person in your life? What do you do to make sure they feel this way?
- Which of your habits reveal your sense of self-worth? Which reveal feelings of inferiority or fear?
- We never “find time” to reach goals; we make time. What do you need to make time for? What’s keeping you from doing it?