The working parent’s complete guide to working out

Kids? A career? A workout regimen? No problem.
Kids? A career? A workout regimen? No problem.
Image: Flickr/Ed Yourdon
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When you’re balancing a career, children, and time for yourself, life can be a three-ring circus. Throw in an attempt at maintaining physical fitness, and even an expert juggler is liable to start feeling like the clown.

But there are parents who’ve mastered the act. Quartz talked to a handful of these mothers and fathers with children of all ages to find out how to stay healthy while meeting professional commitments and being there for your family. Here are their tips:

Make it a priority

The first step is deciding to make your personal health a non-negotiable. Exercise is not only crucial for warding off disease and preventing injury, it also improves sleep and mental health. Additionally, its neurochemical effects boost mood and help you think better, contributing to an increase in creativity and productivity—and often, better parenting.

If that’s not motivation enough, then the experts (i.e., the parents who actually make working out happen) suggest setting specific goals like running a race or walking a certain number of steps a day. “Getting my Fitbit was huge,” says Kai Seelaus, a partner at a law firm in Pennsylvania and mother of three. Taking 12,000 steps “has become just another item on my daily to-do list,” like yelling at the kids to do their homework. “It’s something I know I have to get done before I go to sleep; I’ll even pace around my bedroom if I have to.”

If strict training regimens and solitary scorekeeping aren’t for you, then Elise Cappella, a psychology professor at New York University and mother of two has another motivator—the people you work so hard for in the first place. “Now that I have my kids, I don’t need to compete in races or triathlons to stay motivated,” she says. “I just want to be able to run around with them and stay strong enough to pick them up and throw them around,” something Cappella still does with her 9-year-old and 12-year-old.

Plan ahead and commit

Whether your job offers the luxury of a week-at-a-glance view, or less than a day’s notice for scheduling, the experts advise that you plan ahead. “I look at my schedule every Sunday and figure out which days I’m going to need to set out my running clothes or pack a gym bag,” Cappella says. She knows if she doesn’t, the workouts are less likely to happen. Seelaus, the attorney, never knows when a deposition might pop up during the week, so she decides when and what she’ll do, fitness-wise, the night before.

The parents we spoke to say you’ll be more likely to make your workouts happen if you sign up for a class, make plans with a running buddy, or join a sports league. Just like you wouldn’t miss family dinner, you’re not going to bail on your morning running partner or a lunchtime Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu session you look forward to every week. “It becomes part and parcel of your regular schedule,” Cappella says, “like any other meeting or appointment.”

Pick your place

Identify what you like to do, and then find the easiest way to get yourself somewhere to do it. If you love the gym but don’t live close by, think about purchasing an in-home machine or some free weights. My mom still carries on that the StairMaster she got shortly after I was born is the best gift my dad ever bought her. If home gym equipment isn’t an option or you can’t bear to work out indoors, then lace up and head outside.

Figure out your time

Getting up and moving before the kids wake up doesn’t have to be painful, and helps ensure success. As my mom recalls, whether she was using that StairMaster or hitting the gym, fitting in exercise while working as a litigator and raising two young children only happened if she did it early. “I knew if I didn’t wake up and get it done first thing, it wasn’t going to happen,” she says.

But maybe your kids wake up at dawn, or go to different schools with staggered drop-off times that make the mornings too hectic to even consider a quick workout. Parents in this boat have commuted to work by running, walking, or biking. Alternatively, if you don’t have office showers—or a commute you can handle without the assistance of cars, trains, or ferries—experts suggest using your lunch hour to get your exercise in.

If you still can’t find time before the workday is over, don’t despair. Our experts suggest making your kids’ activity time your activity time, too. Cappella routinely heads for a run after dropping her daughter off at ballet, finishing at the studio door in time for pickup.

And if that strategy isn’t compatible with your work schedule, there’s always the night owl-approach, which is what Wall Street financial analyst John Crowe, father of five, relies on, and hopes will help him beat his last marathon time. He admits there are downsides to the regimen. “I come home all pumped up, and still not showered at 11pm.” And, he says, “I end up spending a small fortune on coffee—a minimum of three large cups a day.”

Be efficient

Your workout doesn’t need to be a big production. Crowe loves running because he’s ready to exercise as soon as he puts on his shorts, shirt, and shoes. “The activity starts from my doorstep. I used to belong to the YMCA, but the 15 minutes there and back was enough of a deterrent,” he says. Instead of dealing with the commute, why not run out the front door?

Strength training shouldn’t be forgotten, though, and often the gym is the best place to find it.  Cappella notes that this can (and in her case, must) be done quickly. “I know I don’t have a lot of time when I get to the gym, so I make my workouts short and intense,” she says. Try to get your heart rate up as quickly as possible, and then maintain it for however much time you have. Capella never spends more than 40 minutes at the gym, total.

Get help

Having the support of a loving partner, extended family, or friends willing to watch the kids is crucial, the experts say. Many couples tag-team mornings and evenings. Some rely on nearby grandparents to help out, while others enact the power of the play-date to get their sweat on. Of course, if you can spare the expense, there’s also the god-like individuals whom many parents refer to as babysitters.

Make every moment matter

Especially when your kids are little, finding “me time” can be almost impossible. And not all working parents embrace the idea of scheduling a set chunk of time to work out. These parents speak of their conscious efforts to make the small moments count—incorporating activity whenever possible. “If I’m going food shopping, I’ll park as far away as I can, and carry my bags back to the car,” says Katherine Balch, the editorial manager of the workplace-wellness software company Protocol Driven Healthcare. Balch, a trim mother of two, even does bicep curls or other arm exercises while loading her bags into the car.

The working parent workout masters we talked to also suggest taking a walk with co-workers in lieu of a sit-down meeting, outfitting your work station with a standing or treadmill desk, or cultivating an active hobby that the kids can easily enjoy. Balch spends hours gardening and, after having each of her children tend to a crop one summer, now shares this hobby with her son. (His corn crop was very successful).

Do it with your kids

If your kids sit in a stroller, get a baby jogger and get moving. Cappella claims it’s the best thing her running buddies ever got her into. “I got to exercise and hang out with my kids,” she says. “We’d sing songs, I’d run, and they would eat their Cheerios.” As your children get bigger, the parents note, things actually can get easier—you don’t have to sacrifice time engaging with your kids, because you can exercise together. You can coach their teams, toss a ball outside, or go off to a yoga class hand in hand. With her kids having long outgrown the jogger, Cappella often works out now by keeping up with her eldest child, a track star. (But she’s had to ditch the singing.)

If your kid is more into books than basketball, parents suggest making family time more active. Try taking a walk together after dinner instead of watching TV, or make your next vacation a bike trip. Balch says she’s found plentiful smiles and bonding opportunities along the route.

Give yourself some compassion

It’s ok to have a little “me time,” even when you know you could be spending that time with your kids. To cope with the guilt, Cappella emphasizes quality over quantity. “I try to have really special parenting moments, even if they aren’t very long ones,” she says.

It’s important to remember that parenting isn’t just about being present, but also modeling good behavior, the experts note. And having a dad like Crowe, who celebrates the seventh mile of the New York City Marathon by running over and patting the heads of his five biggest fans, seems like a pretty good way to find a role model. Of course you don’t have to run 26.2 miles to show your kids that exercise is important. You just have to let them know that when you’re leaving them to work out, you’re doing it to give your body a gift. It won’t be long before they’re eager for a present like that, too.