Busy moms who chase after young children may feel like they are run ragged by the end of the day. But unless they’ve managed to squeeze in an actual workout, they may not have engaged in as much physical activity as they think.
In a study of 58 women with children under age 6, only about a third of the mothers got an average of 30 minutes or more a day of moderate or greater intensity physical activity. And yet overall this group of women, most of whom also worked outside the home, believed they were getting upwards of an hour of activity daily.
“There was this ongoing theme of the women reporting more activity than they actually were getting,” says study author Kelli O'Neil, a personal trainer who is on the exercise science faculty at Central College in Pella, Iowa.
Federal physical activity guidelines released last year recommend that adults get at least two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or one hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous activity. The guidelines also recommend activities to strengthen all major muscle groups at least two days a week.
In the study, the women wore a device to monitor their physical activity for a week. They also completed a questionnaire about their exercise involvement.
Much to the surprise of many participants, results showed that running after kids didn’t account for as much physical activity as the women thought.
“The most physical activity actually came from sports and exercise,” says O’Neil, who completed the research while studying at the University of Iowa. She presented it at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.
“The women who are meeting physical activity guidelines report higher levels of sports and exercise,” she says, “and those are planned behaviors.”
Finding time for fitness
O’Neil acknowledges that busy moms can find it “very difficult to fit everything in,” but she says physical activity isn’t going to happen without some planning.
“Schedule your workouts just like you do a meeting,” she advises.
Gyms that offer child care are a plus, provided the children go for it. Otherwise, moms — and dads, too — who like to exercise at a health club may need to get creative, exercising in the early mornings or evenings when a partner or someone else can watch the kids, or during lunch hour at work. They also can try to exercise at home, even involving the kids, says O’Neil.
Determined to get back in shape after having her second child three months ago, Consuelo Bova has been approaching fitness from multiple angles. It took 18 months to lose the 50 pounds she gained with her first child, but the second time she lost all 30 pounds in three months. “This time I wasn’t messing around,” she says. She credits healthy eating and plenty of physical activity.
Once or twice a week — usually in the evenings or on weekends — she heads to the gym while her husband looks after their two young kids. And when she’s alone with the children, she picks up the pace.
“I did have baby weight I wanted off stat, so I started making playtime with my toddler more active,” says Bova, 31, the CEO of an online clothing retailer in Orlando, Fla. “He's really into music, so we turn on the radio and dance a lot — picking him up a lot for a good arm workout, plus some aerobic moves for good measure. We also play ‘marching band,’ bringing those knees high for a good thigh workout as we march around the house with instruments in hand.” Sometimes the baby is sleeping during these activities, and other times she’s in her mom’s arms, offering “extra resistance” during dancing, for example.
Bova also plans special “fun days” once every couple of weeks to places that require lots of walking, such as theme parks or the zoo, and they crisscross the location to see the attractions, rather than walking the most efficient route.
When it comes to fitting in fitness, Bova has learned to seize the moment. “You have a chance every time they say, ‘Play with me,’” she says.
As kids get older, parents can get some exercise and also spend time with their children by taking a fitness class with them, planning a family bike ride or even engaging in active play on the Wii, says Sabrena Merrill, a personal trainer in Lawrence, Kan., and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.
And when youngsters are active on their own at sports practice, moms might consider walking around the track or field, asking other mothers to join in for company, Merrill says.
Buddying up with other mothers can help women stay motivated and also offer social support to moms, especially stay-at-home mothers, who may be craving adult conversation. Women who pair up with a personal trainer also save money by splitting the price, says Merrill. Stroller classes, where moms can socialize and avoid the need for a sitter altogether, are another option she recommends.
Of course, there will be days when exercise just doesn’t happen, despite the best intentions. And on those days, women should have a back-up plan, such as a workout video they can do in the living room, Merrill says, even if it’s short.
Busy moms who manage to make at least some time for fitness can boost their health — and maybe even their sanity. O’Neil says exercise offers stress relief, and women in her study talked about the benefits of having some “me” time away from their tots.
For Stacy Lieberman, a 38-year-old mom of two in Burbank, Calif., who works in external affairs for a museum and performing arts center, fitness also offers an opportunity to have some alone time with her husband.
“Instead of a Saturday date night for dinner and a movie, we get a babysitter on Sunday mornings and go out for a two-hour ride with some serious hill climbing near our house in Los Angeles,” says Lieberman. “It’s also a great time to talk and stay connected.”
Jacqueline Stenson is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. A former senior health producer for msnbc.com, her work also has appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, Health, Shape, Women’s Health, Fit Pregnancy and Reuters Health.