Time? That’s a word most of us parents have to look up in the dictionary. According to a survey conducted by the American Council on Exercise, the number one reason people cite for not regularly exercising is lack of time, and I found out shortly after becoming a parent that this isn’t just an excuse. It’s a real struggle. Fortunately, like most things, science (and a little parental ingenuity) has an answer; well, maybe not an answer, but a better way.
Daily exercise has been a part of my life for over 20 years, as routine for me as waking up or going to bed. But that all changed when I became a father. Both my wife and I were among the exercise fanatics who had just become accustomed to waking up a little early and training before work, but now getting up early took on a totally new meaning. In order for us to each get our morning session in, we now had to alternate days waking up at 4am so that one of us was always home with our daughter. That was a long year, mired with a lack of work productivity, training progress, and constant lethargy due to sleep deprivation. As a pair of type-A personalities who were driven insane by lack of progress, something had to give. For us, it was lunch.
While there are a number of psychological and physiological benefits to getting in your exercise first thing in the morning, the science is pretty definitive: the best time to exercise is not actually at the crack of dawn, but while most of us are hunched over our brown bag lunch in the office breakroom. It all comes down to circadian rhythms, those cycles of biological activities that regulate almost all of our biological functions. Due to fluctuations in thermal regulation, hormones, neuromuscular coordination, and gene regulation, the best time to exercise is actually in the middle of the day. You’ll perform better, which will result in increased physiological adaptation. Afterward you can then get in your lunch when it is actually most beneficial: post-workout. Interestingly, due to these physiological advantages, research has found that most athletic records are set and broken between 12:00 pm and 4:00 pm.
Due to the growing amount of data that shows that corporate wellness programs can actually save companies money in the form of less absenteeism and more productive employees, more employers are providing the facilities and the time for their most valuable assets (their employees) to integrate exercise into their daily schedule – even right in the middle of it. Instead of alternating days of sleep deprivation, my wife and I both now have a reoccurring appointment in our Outlook calendars smack-dab in the middle of the day, not for lunch out with our co-workers, but a sweat-fest (even better if some colleagues join us). And, if I am a few moments late to my first afternoon meeting, everybody knows it must have been an especially intense workout and I’m in the shower. Thanks boss! Even if you are not fortunate enough to have the resources on site, get your co-workers together for a mid-day walk. As study after study continues to show, a simple 30 minute walk a day can have immense positive influence on your health and biological age.
What about parents who stay at home with their children, and therefore may be even more busy than the rest of us? Well, circadian rhythms don’t change simply because the overlord of your schedule is not a c-level executive in a corner office, but a demanding two-year old. The same rules apply; with a few modifications. Thanks to the nature of my job responsibilities, and the awesomeness of my employer, I often have the opportunity to experience how a stay-at-home parent would integrate exercise into their daily routine by working remotely and simultaneously taking care of my two crayon gobblers. A few tips:
Take it to the streets
As a parent, the single best purchase I have made isn’t some newfangled diaper-genie or white noise machine, but a bike trailer. The gyrations of the clothes washer or a long drive have nothing on a scenic bike ride around town when it comes to getting kids to nap or simply calm down. Furthermore, as I know quite well, nothing builds the lungs and the quads like pulling 100lbs. of trailer and kid cuteness behind you as you peddle your way to the grocery store or park. Do you want to kill several birds with one stone (or two wheels)? Plan the day around a bike trip to and from the park; exercise, play time, throw in a quick picnic lunch/post-workout snack, and nap time all rolled into one Instagram-worthy mid-day excursion.
Their play time is your training time
With a little bit of creativity, there is no better training environment than a park, and the science is overwhelming in regards to the benefits of doing your pullups on a set of monkey bars and not in a commercial gym. Not only are you likely to push yourself harder, but studies have shown you are also more likely to make it a regular part of your life. And then there is that whole thing about how important it is to model physical activity to your children, a topic I will one day write a book about. Simply do a quick warm-up as you moderately cruise to the park on your bike, get your evidence-based high-intensity training in as they get their wiggles out on the playground, and then take the long way home for your exercise cool down as they get their nap in the bike trailer. Healthy lifestyle modelling and parenting, like a boss.
Get them involved
They don’t have to just watch, it can be extremely fun and effective to get the munchkins involved. It is a bit of a hassle to tug around exercise equipment in your car trunk or bike trailer, but your smiling kids are a great way to increase the load on squats, pullups, pushups, or even kid-dlebell swings (pun intended). YouTube is your friend for ideas on how to do it.
Replacing lunch with a mid-day session in the corporate gym was all it took for me to go from constantly tired to consistently trained, but I’m not the real superhero. Along with having a demanding career and two-young children, my wife also happens to be a full-time student, and somehow manages to exercise six days a week and be in the best shape of her life. While much of that is simple hard work, a big part of that was a small change in her schedule. Whether it is a busy schedule of meetings or nap times you are trying to work around, try getting your daily dose of iron at lunch.