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Why Your Children Need You to Exercise

...(even if it means you spend a little less time with them)

A friend asked me about the effects of mom or dad exercising on the kids. I believe that the heart of the question was in this struggle: am I going to totally screw up my kid by subjecting him or her to more daycare just so that I can go workout? Am I a bad parent for choosing to exercise when it means that I will spend less time with my child?

Let me start by saying that I'm not a parent. I don't know first-hand that struggle. But most of my friends are parents, and I see that struggle lived out in many different families in different states. And I've counseling clients on this, and I've read up on the subject. Still, my advice comes as a nutrition expert, not as a someone who's in the trenches.

Take Care of You

As I was looking for parenting experts and research articles on this subject, I saw the same illustration over and over again.

“Should the cabin experience sudden pressure loss, stay calm and listen for instructions…Oxygen masks will drop down from above your seat…If you are traveling with children, make sure that your own mask is on first before helping your children.”

Over and over these experts pointed back to this idea - if you aren't taking care of yourself, you can't take care of anyone else. Most moms I know intuitively believe this in other areas of their lives, and they believe it for their friends. But they have a hard time applying to their own parenting.

One blog I read put it this way:

If we’re not our healthiest selves—physically, mentally and emotionally—then we aren’t giving our best. We aren’t thinking as clearly, we’re not as happy and we’re not making the best choices.
— Michelle Horton

Let's think about a few extreme examples. A new mom doesn't get the nourishment her body needs, and she is unable to produce breast milk. Her lack of self-care has a huge impact on her ability to care for her child. A lifestyle ignoring physical health (poor eating and failing to exercise) will likely lead to chronic disease. This means more doctor's appointments, more financial drain towards medical bills, less energy to play with your kids, perhaps even leaving the child without a parent prematurely.

Different stages of parenting have different demands and realities. Parenting still requires major sacrifice. But at some point, you stop being able to meet the needs of others, if your needs aren't met.

Your Kid is a Sponge

You know they are watching you and listening to everything you say. You know this because they choose to display their learning at inopportune moments :) When you value healthy eating and exercise, your kids see it. It becomes part of your family culture.

The earlier you can begin modeling healthy habits, the better. When it's appropriate, involve your kids in exercise - take a family hike or bike ride, or have an impromptu dance party.

Who Watches Them?

Choosing to exercise means that you're not with your kids, and that someone else is watching them. What then? In a perfect world, there's another parent there, ready to step in. Or a grandparent. Or another adult who knows and loves you child and is part of your "village". Maybe you schedule play dates, or you take turns with a neighbor getting the kids off to school.

Or maybe it means that you pay a baby-sitter or leave your kids at day care for an extra hour or two a few times a week. And that's ok, too. There are benefits to your child's socialization by hanging out with other kids at day care. And the negative impact of day care on your child's development is basically overcome by strong maternal sensitivity and attachment (i.e. your child is secure in your love and provision for them).

You'll be able to come back to our child(ren) with renewed energy and patience. Better to sneak away for an hour and remain sane and loving than to be present the whole time, but stressed and angry.

 

Whether you're home all day with your children, or you work full-time, finding the time to take care of your own health is hard. But it is worth it. I might even say that it's necessary. But you have to find what works for you. For some, that means getting up really early to work out before their kids are up. For others, it means forgoing the bedtime routine a few nights a week. For others, it's dealing with the potential fits of the child in a jogging stroller.

Parents, how do you see your exercise routine impacts your parenting or your child's well-being? How do you make it work in your schedule?