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Baby Workout Buddies: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Elizabeth A. Joy, MD


As a new century begins, we as a nation are still obese, unfit, and overly stressed. Why? Because we all lead busy lives with little time for self-care. We care for our families, go to work, and try to have a social life. So what gets sacrificed first? Exercise.

As a family practice physician, I frequently see patients who say they have no time or energy to exercise, yet they all want to feel and look better. So how do we get these patients to be active? I think the first step is to help them overcome their barriers to exercise. Barriers—also known as excuses. You know them: no time, too expensive, don't like health clubs, too tired, don't like exercise, too painful, have to take care of the kids, don't know what to do, etc.

Many of these barriers became real to me in the past 21 months since I had my son. Recovering from his birth, feeding every 1 to 3 hours, drastically reduced sleep, and going back to work all made it difficult to exercise. However, my need for sanity and a need to lose 20 lb served as potent motivators.

As a new, now working mother I didn't want to sacrifice much of my "kid time" to exercise, so the little guy became my workout partner. We hiked, ran, and eventually biked our way to fitness despite the obstacles. Aside from buying some baby-carrying equipment (check out used sporting goods or used baby equipment stores), it is not expensive to enjoy the great outdoors.

Getting outside at day's end energized me and allowed for some quality kid time, although most of the time he quickly fell asleep in the pack. Because I was happier, my husband was happier—and therefore very supportive. In fact, he often comes home from work, straps the little guy into the backpack, and heads up the canyon himself.

Having been through this, I now feel eminently more qualified to give exercise-prescription advice to working parents. It's the "been there, done that" theory of medicine. I often get the "you really do that?" look when I tell patients my story. No longer can people say, "Well, you have no idea how hard it is to find the time when you have kids." I know that in the future my exercise schedule will get complicated by something else, but I feel much better about my ability to counsel people about overcoming roadblocks to activity.

Not that exercising with your kid is without obstacles. You have to plan around their naps and eating schedules—which doesn't always coordinate with your work schedule—and the weather. Kids don't like to be rained on, and I generally try to avoid hiking or biking during the heat of the day or if there is lightning. You have to bring snacks (unless you happen to be the snack), diapers, wipes, an extra pacifier (if you believe in that sort of thing) and appropriate weather gear. Until you get into a routine, these preparations can take all the time you had carved out for your exercise session.

Then there are the kid-related exercise injuries. I'm sure many of you are familiar with the hair-pulling-from-the-backpack-passenger injury and the sucker-in-the-hair injury. One of my most painful was a strained gluteus medius muscle as I attempted to prevent a fall on a snowy trail. Another potential for injury, at least here in Utah, is stepping on a rattlesnake. But these barriers aren't hard to overcome. The gluteus medius strain resolved in about a week with rest and naproxen sodium, sucker goo washes out, and I'm very, very careful about where I put my feet.

We can all serve as good role models for our patients when it comes to fitness. I think we should use all of our own experiences in helping people find ways to stay healthy. For me, exercising with my child allowed me to return to action and has given me a new perspective on fitness, family, and life.

Dr Joy is an assistant professor in the department of family and preventive medicine and a team physician at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.