Yep. I’m putting the “guilt-free” thing right in the headline for this blog post. That’s because I know how easy it is to feel weighed down by guilt about not being as physically active as you’d like to be (and as the world keeps telling you that you should be). For entire decades of my life, I was the poster child for self-neglect. I had pretty much given up any hope of ever getting to a healthy weight or becoming a physically active person. And yet I was able to turn the situation around, gradually, over a period of time, with a whole lot of support from family and friends. So that’s the perspective I bring to this conversation. And I think it’s a timely one to have during New Year’s Resolution season. Here are some thoughts about all that! - Ann
New Year’s resolutions season has rolled around yet again – a time of year that is too often characterized by sky-high expectations followed by crushing regrets. The guilt of failing to follow through on a New Year’s resolution can be particularly crushing if you’re a parent who is trying (and so far failing) to encourage your kids to be more physically active. The good news is that there are things you can do to increase your odds of making your family’s new active living resolution stick – and in a sustainable, guilt-free way. Here’s what I’ve figured out along the way.
You’re not the only parent who is struggling to be more active (although it may feel that way).
Sure, your Instagram feed is overflowing with photos of parents doing all kinds of active things, but that’s not how things are playing out in the lives of every single parent. Some parents find it really tough, particularly during the early years of parenting. So if you’re finding it tough, too, please know that you’re not alone.
When I was researching my forthcoming book, I stumbled across some rather mind-blowing research about how becoming a parent impacts on a parent’s physical activity levels. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good news!)
Becoming a mother for the first time typically leads women to become less physically active — and that dip typically lasts for the next four years! And it’s not just moms who miss out on their workouts. New dads/partners often feel pressured to cut back on time spent exercising on their own in order to meet the increased demands of parenthood and to avoid triggering feelings of resentment in the couple relationship.
But it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot! Some parents choose to treat the transition to parenthood as an opportunity to become more active. They see it as a turning point in their lives—and opportunity to become more (as opposed to less) healthy. They’re highly committed to making these changes, so they find ways to troubleshoot the barriers that might otherwise prevent them from being as active as they’d like. They have a plan for working around time constraints, fatigue, childcare challenges, and the other things that can derail even the best of intentions – a plan that works at least some of the time!
Don’t set the bar impossibly high for yourself. Think progress, not perfection!
Start small and build on your successes over time. Don’t expect yourself to start running marathons over night (if, in fact, that’s even a goal for you). Measure success on your terms and think progress, not perfection. That’s the kind of mindset that helps to sustain you over time—as opposed to black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.
Look for tiny chunks of time in your schedule when you actually have a hope of making physical activity happen. This is something I was speaking with Eileen Kimmett about recently. She’s a Peterborough, Ontario, mother of three school-aged children who made the transition from being completely sedentary back in 2012 to being someone who has totally embraced physical fitness — and who has helped her husband and her kids to do the same. She told me that what allowed her to become physically active for the first time in her life was identifying a chunk of time that she could devote to physical activity on a regular basis. For Eileen, that meant first thing in the morning, when her husband was available to take care of the children before heading off to work.
For other parents, it might mean squeezing in a walk during their lunch hour at work — when their kids are in childcare or at school. Given that childcare is one of the major barriers to being physically active when you have young children (one group of researchers found that an astounding 98.6 percent of mothers cite time commitments related to childcare as a major barrier to physical activity), this is a really practical way to make physical activity happen: by zeroing in on a chunk of time when you don’t have to worry about finding someone to take care of the kids.
Remind yourself that it’s okay to treat your own health as a priority. Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s self-preservation. And it’s an act of kindness toward your child.
Not only will you be giving your child the gift of a happy, healthy parent: you’ll also be modeling the kinds of lifestyle habits that will help your child to arrive at that happy, healthy place, too. It’s the ultimate win-win.
Parents who are able to be physically active on a regular basis tend to be happier and healthier. This is because exercises boosts your energy, improves the quality of your sleep, leaves you calmer and better equipped to deal with stress, improves your focus and alertness, and makes you feel better about yourself. It has far-reaching effects on your physical and mental health, to say nothing of your parenting.
And kids who have physically active parents benefit from some pretty powerful role modelling. There’s a solid body of research to demonstrate that more active parents have more active kids — and that more active kids become more active adults. (By the way, having one parent who is physically active is good. Having two parents who are physically active is great. Children are most likely to participate in sports themselves when both parents (as opposed to one parent or no parents) do likewise.)
And here’s an interesting twist: More active kids have more active parents. Active living seems to beget more active living in families. The top three tips to be gleaned from the research on what actually encourages kids to be active? Be active as a family; make it fun; and head outdoors!
Don’t rely on motivation alone. Motivation tends to fade pretty quickly.
Sure, use that motivation to blast off with great enthusiasm — but then anchor that resolution on something a little more solid, by creating a predictable habit or routine. Better yet, automate that habit so that you don’t have to waste any time thinking about whether or when you’re going to be physically active. You’ll just know you’re going to be active in the morning, in the evening, on the weekend, or whatever the case may be. And at some point down the road, with enough repetitions, being active will feel as automatic as brushing your teeth.
Embrace your new identity as an individual and as a family. Start to think of yourself as a physical active person and a physically active family, even if you’re relatively new to this thing. You’ll find it easier to honour your commitment to get out of bed a little earlier or to drag yourself off the couch after dinner if you remind yourself that, “I’m the kind of person – or we’re the kind of family – that is committed to being physically active on a regular basis.” You’ll want to live up to that image of yourself!
Don’t be afraid to tap into support from other people. Instead of feeling guilty for asking for that support, look forward to the day when you will be able to pay that favor forward by offering encouragement to the next physical activity newbie you encounter when you’re out for a run or a walk.
Finally, hold on to hope. Who cares how many times you’ve struggled to become active in the past. Maybe this is the time your new active living habit will stick! I know this can happen because it happened to me. Six years ago today (yes, today), I embarked on the journey from card-carrying couch potato to physically fit person — and I’ve never looked back. I’m living proof that it’s possible to make this shift — even if it feels completely impossible when you’re first starting out. Bottom line? You can find your way to that happier, healthier place.
This blog post is based on my most recent parenting column for CBC Radio. Want to listen to the entire thing? You can tune in to my conversation with Nana aba Duncan, host of CBC Radio’s Fresh Air, right here!
Ann Douglas is the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio and the author of numerous bestselling books about pregnancy and parenting. On February 19, HarperCollins Canada will be publishing her latest book, Happy Parents Happy Kids. This month, Ann is volunteering to lead Project Active Family for the physical literacy non-profit group Active for Life because she wants to encourage other parents to make the shift to becoming more active with their kids (and to make that shift in a sustainable, guilt-free way).