I hopped on a treadmill as eagerly as a racehorse dashes from a starting gate. Weeks had passed since my last workout and my clothing options weren’t the only thing suffering from my lack of exercise. My short temper and inattentiveness were mounting and manifesting unbecoming behavior such as snapping at my daughter for moving at a snail’s pace into her car seat and during dinner conversations day dreaming about running through the countryside. Normally, my daughter’s molasses pace irritates, but doesn’t cause irrational verbal lashings and I am generally the conversation started at dinner, not the dreamer. Exercise keeps me sane.
But ever since my 8-month-old son’s birth exercise has been more difficult to schedule than sleep. I’m employed as a personal trainer, running coach, journalism educator at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont and writer for various media. I do all this while remaining the primary caretaker of our two small children. If there were such a thing as a time deficit, I’d be accruing debt at an astounding rate.
On this particular day, I had reached a critical development in my efforts to workout: My son was now old enough for the gym’s daycare. I checked him in and bounced onto the treadmill. I had barely hit the start button when I heard it: “Jennifer Aquino please report to the kid’s club.”
“Ugh,” I thought as I hit the stop button and leapt off.
“He’s got a runny nose,” said the daycare attendant holding my son, whose face was red and blotchy from tears, at an arm’s length. I knew for a fact he wasn’t ill and the issue was the attendant’s unwillingness to hold a baby amid the sea of preschoolers trickling into the kid’s club. This isn’t going to work, I thought.
On my way home, I tried to figure out how I’d fit in a workout between preschool pick up, the grocery store, a conference call and a client later that night. I can multi-task, I thought. My plan involved putting my end of the conference call on mute while I took the kids to the grocery store and squeezing in a quick run after my husband got home from work. This all depended on: A.) My kids behaving at the grocery store. B.) Not being asked to contribute during the conference call. C.) My husband getting home on time. I was foiled by a baby with a surprising wingspan and ability to grab earpieces; a 4-year-old who decided to rearrange the canned food section of Safeway; and a husband who ended up on a conference call at 5 p.m.
That night, I sank into depression. I motivate women to workout, giving them the tools to succeed yet I couldn’t do it myself? What was wrong with me?
“Two kids and too many jobs,” my friend said. “Simplify.” Last time I checked, there’s no repository at the library to return children like books (not that I’d want to). And the bouganvilla that scatters hot pink flowers across my dead lawn hasn’t sprouted Benjamins yet. And dropping exercise? Not going to happen. In my well-researched opinion, exercise is the best medicine for women: It reduces stress; strengthens muscles and bones to meet the demands of the athletic job that is parenthood; and prevents a million diseases from diabetes to heart disease. So simplification wasn’t in the cards.
Somewhere in between a 2 a.m. feeding and a trip to the bathroom early the next morning I realized that what I needed was me, not the irrational, over-worked, mommy me, but the calm, collected, authoritative me who teaches. I needed that side of me to tell the other half how to establish balance. My plan involved creating predictability in my schedule from naps to dinner. I wasn’t willing to give up all my freedom, but I didn’t want to blow like the wind anymore. My plan also meant creating a workout schedule that would push me physically in a short timeframe. It had to be portable and versatile, meaning I could do it in my backyard as well as I could do it at the gym. It had to involve my spouse. If we were in it together, then there was accountability and a shared acknowledgement that we BOTH deserved time to be physically fit. It’s the I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine theory.
My workouts were based on circuit-style High Intensity Interval Training two times a week in 45 minute stints and running twice a week. My husband and I agreed to go to Seal Point Park in San Mateo on weekends and take turns watching the kids while the other ran. On weekends when we couldn’t make it to the park, we traded off holding down the fort at home while the other worked out. I began bringing my exercise clothes to the office twice a week. I multi-tasked by eating lunch and grading (often times staining papers with salad dressing) then I changed in the bathroom and headed out on my short runs before picking up the kids from daycare. Lastly, once a week while my daughter was at preschool and my son napped I started working out in my backyard, setting up obstacle courses and using my daughter’s window markers to write my circuits on the sliding glass door into the garage.
Although this schedule wouldn’t provide me the competitive training that I once maintained it would give me fitness and, hopefully, sanity. After several weeks of adapting, I started to feel more in control of my life. Yes, there were days when keeping everyone on schedule created more stress. And there were days when the baby wouldn’t nap or my work would pile up too high to allow for a mid-day workout or our weekends would jam with events. On those weeks, I let go and considered it a vacation. (In any good fitness program, you should take a week off every six weeks to allow muscles to recoup before introducing more challenging moves.)
The ultimate reinforcement came a month or so later when I picked my daughter up from school in my fitness gear.
“Mommy, did you do a workout,” she asked. I replied yes as I plopped her into her car seat and took deep breaths while she spent several minutes fidgeting into her shoulder straps. She started to cry.
“Mommy, I want to work out with you,” she said. “I want to play trainer.” Hmm, I thought, she recognizes that exercise is important.
When we got home, she dressed in her athletic gear and I set up the stroller in the backyard for the baby. I stuffed a million toys into his lap and waited for my daughter to come order me into shape. She skipped down the steps, grabbed her basketball and began issuing directives like a drill sergeant, giddy that she controlled me. I obediently skipped, posed like a tree and twirled with a basketball in one hand and a jump rope in the other. Afterward we sat on the steps and made faces at the baby. She turned to me and said, “Good job mommy. I really see you improving.”
Five ways to squeeze in a workout
1.) SCHEDULE: Look at your life and figure out where you can simplify or multi task. Consider the parts of your day when you have the most energy and motivation is high. For instance, if you are a morning person, consider shifting your bedtime routine back half an hour so you can wake earlier for a short morning workout. If you don’t rise with the sun, like myself, consider working out on your lunch break or hiring a night time sitter so you can work out. You’re more likely to commit if you are paying someone to watch your kids. Be creative, write it down, post the schedule somewhere prominent and make every attempt to live by it.
2.) BUDDY SYSTEM: Get a partner, whether it’s your spouse or your best friend or your neighbor. Even your child can serve as a motivator. You are more likely to work out if you have someone to hold you accountable. If you partner with your spouse, agree to a certain number of days and a time when each of you can workout while the other cares for the kids. If it’s a friend or neighbor, do work out play dates and take turns watching the kids while the other exercises.
3.) SHORT, BUT SWEET: So many clients will dump the workout if they think they have less than an hour to squeeze it in. Go harder for a shorter period of time. For instance, after warming up for five minutes do 1 minute of squats, 30 seconds of push ups, two minutes of jumping jacks. Follow this by another circuit of three exercises. Repeat up to three times. Unless you have fewer than 10 minutes to workout I say it’s worth it.
4.) SLOW AND STEADY: Create routine by starting slow. If you’re just getting back into shape, don’t expect to lace up your running shoes and peel off six miles or even one, for that matter. You are not only asking for physical injuries, but mental scars. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Lower expectations and start with small successes. If you set your goal at half a mile and achieve it easily, raise the bar to a mile. Don’t schedule yourself to work out seven days a week if you haven’t even been able to squeeze in one. If your job and family life are demanding, then do what you can. It may mean that you can only get a weekend day and one other evening or morning in a week. Aim for that and re-evaluate in six to eight weeks. As your routine and strength build, change your routine and add to it.
5.) BE VERSATILE: You don’t need a gym to workout. You don’t even need shoes if you are into the barefoot thing. You only need your body. My backyard is the size of a postage stamp, but sometimes my workouts at home are more rigorous than my gym-based programs. I move quickly in between exercises and focus on moves that use my body weight: Push ups, squats, lunges, crunches, reverse crunches, plank, jumping jacks, high knees … I could go on and on. I use my daughter’s window markers to write my program on the sliding glass door. You could also use your child’s chalkboard easel to script out your workout, so you don’t have to pause to think up your next move or refer to a piece of paper.