How to get back in shape, when these beautiful, pesky kids won’t leave us alone, and can’t get out of the crappy diet, constantly sick/run down, overweight & out-of-shape spiral?
This is the question that vexes all run-down parents after reading about the latest and greatest miracle workout and diet plans online – How the hell can we stick to a plan when life is not conducive to sticking to any plan at all?
Anyone who has had kids can testify that it’s the most simultaneously joyous, scary, stressful and rewarding experience they’ve had. Especially with your first child, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and are basically in charge of keeping a small human alive without the help of a manual or a line manager.
Whereas we eventually figure it all out, and your child starts to grow and thrive and develop, the same can’t be said for ourselves.
How to get back in shape after the blur of early parenthood
With each of my three kids the first 3 months were just a blur. I really couldn’t tell you much about what happened to be honest, it’s just a mishmash of memories of:
- stumbling around in the middle of the night either doing the bottle feeds or changing nappies;
- whispered arguments with my wife (“NO, it’s YOUR TURN!” “No f***ing way! I did it at 2am when YOU were fast asleep!”);
- dragging car seats and strollers in and out of cars;
- and worrying whether we were messing this whole thing up.
What I do remember vividly though is the feeling that my body was a mess and I felt powerless to do anything about it.
I know I know, poor me with my dad belly, while my wife’s body had been brutalized by childbirth multiple times. I’m not expecting, nor do I deserve, any sympathy!
But what is true is that both men and women truly struggle to take care of themselves after having kids. The kid is the priority, and we’ll look after ourselves later, right? The question of how to get back in shape can wait. This is very virtuous and absolutely the right thing to do.
The Spiral of Self-Neglect
However this puts us in a spiral that is difficult to break out of, especially if you have multiple kids spaced apart by a couple of years. Lack of sleep and a crappy diet of convenience food leads to low energy, lots of empty calories and a weak immune system.
So we get sick more often, gain weight and have no time or energy to exercise. Life feels like a constant struggle, like swimming through treacle.
I knew I should work out more, but it felt selfish and indulgent to say to my wife “Hey, you look after these screaming kids, I’m off to the gym or a couple of hours”.
I knew I should prepare some healthier meals instead of throwing some frozen thing in the oven for the 4th time this week, but the kitchen was a mess, and the kids were acting out, and I had no time or desire to stand there dicing vegetables and marinading chicken.
I knew I should go to bed early because my sleep could be interrupted by the kids, but I was so relieved to get some Me Time once they were in bed that I stayed up til midnight watching TV with a couple of glasses of wine.
Many of us lose a whole decade like this, making sure the kids are OK and ignoring the fact that we are certainly not OK.
If you’re in this spiral right now then you know you should do something to figure out how to get back in shape, but you can’t see where you can possibly squeeze in any kind of structured training program or healthier diet plan. Figuring out how to get back in shape without letting all the other balls drop seems impossible.
So I’d like to share with you how I managed to train more, eat better and sleep longer despite constantly having my best-laid plans wrecked by those afore-mentioned beautiful pesky kids…
The Plan is… There is No Plan
The first thing I needed to understand was that no matter what fancy training or diet plan I put together, I wouldn’t stick to it 100% and that would need to be OK.
I learnt this by attempting to stick to various plans and failing miserably, and then getting annoyed at the kids and my wife because they had scuppered my plans for the awesome one-hour Chest & Shoulder workout or fancy ketogenic diet plan I’d found online. Yeah I can be a real d*ck sometimes.
Let’s look at what I did with my Fitness, Diet and Sleep to get back in shape, and slowly but surely look after Number One a bit better…
Instead of having a plan to fit in a certain number of workouts each week, I found that if I aimed for a certain number of minutes of training each week, I could hit that goal more easily, and roll with the punches as they came at me.
I initially aimed for 60 minutes per week of fitness and strength training, which would end up being a random mix of 5, 10, 15 and 30 minute workouts each week — no week was the same, because life is/was messy.
By drawing up multiple mini home workouts of 4 exercises each (upper body strength, lower body strength, abdominal work and short bursts of cardio), I could fit in workouts when I had the chance.
So if 1 circuit of Push-Ups, Bodyweight squats, Planks and Sprints-on-the-spot took 3 minutes, I knew I could do 3 circuits if I had 10 minutes free etc. I had kettlebells at home too which opened up more strength training exercises to me for some variety in the workouts.
I had 5 different workouts I could choose from each time — some days I did nothing, some days I did 30 mins, but as long as I got my weekly 60 minutes I saw (and felt) progress. And once the dust settled with family life a bit more I could increase to 100 minutes per week and squeeze in a gym workout here and there too.
I was realistic about dietary changes too — instead of trying to prep my own ‘healthy’ meals alongside the family’s meals and baby feeds, I needed to aim for something I could manage daily longer-term.
A version of intermittent fasting worked best, getting by on water and black coffee til lunchtime each day, then having meat/fish and vegetables for lunch and a standard big dinner.
So I had the eating window of 6 hours from say 12–6pm, then no calories outside of that window. This was easy because I didn’t have to worry about my own breakfast (nothing), and lunch could be just cooked chicken or canned tuna and a big salad. Dinner was just whatever.
I lost 10lbs in a couple of months this way without feeling like I was dieting really in terms of food choices, just having to suck up some major hunger each morning, which I got used to pretty quickly.
A few simple things you can do to get more sleep even when the kids are young are:
- stop drinking caffeine by mid-afternoon so it’s out of your system
- avoid screens for a good 30 minutes before you go to bed so you’re less wired
- go to bed earlier than you want to — sleeping should be the indulgence you crave not more time in front of the TV
Don’t forget that to get back in shape means a team effort
Suffice to say, I wasn’t living in a vacuum so I needed to make sure my wife was on board with what I was trying to do, in terms of looking after my health better.
Men, you will probably find like I did that your partner will be extremely supportive of you wanting to get back in shape and a) get rid of your dad belly, and b) leave them in peace to watch their weird TV shows while you fit in short workouts in another room. Women, I’m sure your partners will be just as supportive of you in the same situation.
The key is making sure that you both agree on all these changes. I made sure to only go work out when all the various kid-related tasks were done, so I was still doing my bit.
The dietary changes like intermittent fasting won’t affect your partner either, as dinners stay the same, no need for multiple different meals to be prepared.
I did have to ask my wife to sit on the other sofa if she was having Doritos in the evenings, as sticking with the no-calories-after-dinner rule was difficult with Cool Original smells wafting towards me!
No plan, no prep, just tiny steps now
- Training — you can do 5 minutes right now. Or how about 1 minute to get your feet wet — just try those 4 exercises I mentioned for 15 seconds each. You need to get used to just having random bursts of activity when it suits.
- Diet — you can fast til lunchtime the rest of this week. Don’t worry if lunch isn’t low carb yet, as that requires specific grocery shopping, but sticking with the 6 hour window will serve you well immediately.
- Sleep — you can go to bed a bit earlier this evening too, no phone in bed, no caffeine from mid afternoon onwards.
It’s admirable how we devote ourselves to our kids. For the first few months it’s understandable that we ignore our own health, but this shouldn’t stretch into months and even years of self-neglect.
If you’ve tried and failed to get back in shape it’s because, like me, you tried to plan too much.
Remember that part of devoting yourself to your kids should include making sure you’re fit and healthy enough to do a good job — a sick, overweight, tired YOU isn’t going to allow you to be the parent you want to be.