Ask any parent interested in staying or getting in shape and they will all tell you the same thing:
It’s freakin hard.
And the challenge becomes doubly difficult if you are a stay-at-home parent without extra support.
I’ve heard more than a few desperate parent friends tell me through tears (it’s cool, I used to cry a lot too) that it is, in fact, an impossible task, particularly when the kids are very young and require all of you.
But don’t panic. There is hope…
As a full-time working parent and athlete who now also stays home with his two very young kids, I’ve been learning that such an endeavor can be both doable and actually pretty fun.
In order to be successful, you will need to be willing to get creative, step outside of your comfort zone, and embrace an iterative process that is constantly evolving as your kids grow and change.
Below I’ve outlined the three most common struggles I’ve found my fellow parents face when trying to stay fit, and of course, creative, fun solutions for how to handle each of these challenge.
Let’s start with the most common: Time.
Struggle #1: “Ain’t nobody got time for working out!”
When I first became a parent, I was absolutely shocked at just how much time was required to properly care for a single child.
The diapers, feeding, crying, playing… This tiny little child that couldn’t even move from where you set it was utterly exhausting. Adorable, sure, but exhausting.
When we had our second, the time commitment was doubled or tripled, and so too was the exhaustion.
I realized that in order to maintain my desired level of fitness, I was going to have to get both creative and highly efficient with my use of time.
The Solution: Reframe Your Time
I quickly discovered how much time I was actually wasting each day on frivolous activities like surfing social media accounts, checking emails, and other distractions. I was using them as a mental break from keeping a kid alive and fed, but in reality, those distractions were draining my time even further.
Eventually I learned that if you have 20 minutes to look at your phone, you have 20 minutes to do push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and anything else that moves you in the direction of your goals.
You may find that you can free up 30 to 60 minutes each day to exercise just by having this awareness and choosing movement over distraction.
A 60-minute workout broken into three 20-minute segments throughout the day might not look like your pre-baby workouts, but hey, that’s still 60 minutes of moving your body and building fitness.
The “When You Have a Few Minutes” Workout
Here’s an example of a basic strength workout you can try at home. If these exercises are unfamiliar to you, look them up on YouTube or consult a fitness professional. If you have any injuries or medical conditions, please consult a healthcare provider before trying any new exercise routine.
- 3 sets of push ups to failure
- 3 sets of pull ups to failure
- 3 sets of burpees (1 minute per set)
- 3 sets of kettlebell goblet squats (10-12 reps)
- 3 sets of planks to failure
If you were able to free up 30 to 60 minutes in your day, bust this out when you get a chance. If you will need to take the all-day approach, you could attack it like this:
- Hold baby while you bottle or
- Put baby down in bassinet after burping and do a set of push-ups. If there is time, do a set of pull-ups on your door jam pull-up bar in the kitchen.
- Hold baby and proceed with parenting until your next opportunity to pick up a kettlebell and bust out a set of goblet squats.
- At nap time do a set of planks and some burpees between
dish washing, showering, etc.
You will find that you can complete the full circuit I listed above throughout the course of the day and barely notice it. This strategy works just as well with toddlers and multiple kids. If you have older children, include them in your workouts and make sure they see that this is really important to you.
Struggle #2 “I can’t work out when my 2-year-old is running around!”
If you’ve spent any time with kids, then you know the energy of toddlers can feel overwhelming at times, and the chaos that ensues can seem all-consuming.
Even the thought of trying to do something other than hover over your child for the sake of their safety (and the preservation of your home!) will often seem impossible.
The Solution: Corral (or Hand Off)
From my experience, there are two reasonable ways to deal with this issue. The first is to utilize a babysitter or a daycare service provided to you by a fitness center.
My family has a membership to the local YMCA, which provides free daycare to parents who need to drop their kids off for an hour while they hit the gym. Many other facilities do this, including climbing gyms. This is something that seems to work relatively well for most people.
Option two is the Corraling Method, which is the one I end up doing most often (since my kid has major separation anxiety).
First, baby proof a room of your choice. This could be a guest room, your kids room, a space in the basement, etc. Make sure it is truly safe for them, and then clear out a space for you to do some resistance training.
If you have kettlebells, dumbbells, TRX straps, or anything else you like to workout with, bring them with you. Lock yourself in the room with your child, throw on their favorite songs (just please, not
They might crawl on you and try to participate, which is a fun way to include them in your routine, and something both of my daughters still love doing. In fact, when you can get them to participate, your chances of success go way up.
Safety Precaution: Please do not do any high-velocity kettlebell exercises like swings while your kids are in the room, and be acutely aware of their location at all times. Save the dynamic exercises for a safer environment.
The “Kids in the Room” Workout
Here’s a strength workout you can try at home with your kids right in the room:
- 3 sets of dumbbell chest press on a yoga ball (10-12 reps)
- 3 sets of upright rows to failure with TRX straps
- 3 sets of jumping squats with a weight vest (10-12 reps)
- 3 sets of hanging leg
to failure from your pull-up bar lifts
- 3 sets of Supermans to failure
Struggle #3 “I don’t have the money or space for a home gym!”
As much as TV would make you think otherwise, a home gym doesn’t have to look like a miniature CrossFit studio to be effective. And you don’t have to drop several thousand dollars to build one, either.
In fact, between a few simple tools and your bodyweight, you have everything you need.
The Solution: Focus on a Few Key Pieces of Equipment
I built up my modest home gym over the course of several years, getting discounted equipment at places like Play It Again Sports, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and local gyms that were either closing down or updating their inventories.
Here are a few things I recommend you start with to get the best bang for your hard earned buck:
pull upbar. You can get these for less than $30 on Amazon, and all you need is a door jam to put it up in, preferably one you walk through many times a day as a reminder to stop and do a set.
- Can’t do a
pull up? Get some resistance bands to help you work up to it. And those resistance bands can also be used to do a wide range of other exercises, further increasing their utility.
- Used kettlebells: One that is light enough to do upper body exercises with and another heavy enough to stress the stronger muscles of the lower body. Look up kettlebell exercises on YouTube and go to town (with proper form and safety in mind please!). Kettlebells are by far some of the most versatile and effective resistance training tools on the market. If you aren’t into kettlebells, get a few sets of dumbbells at varying weights.
That’s it! That’s all you need. But of course, if you want to keep going, here’s everything else that rounds out my home gym:
- A set of used TRX straps so you can do full-body workouts at home and while traveling. And that pull-up bar you just got? The TRX straps hook right to it. I take mine on any trip where I won’t have easy access to a gym. I’ve hooked them to monkey bars at school playgrounds, off tree branches in the woods,
in doorjams in people’s basements and even in the door jams of parked cars (my cars of course).
- A weight vest can be a great addition to a home gym because it adds further resistance to bodyweight exercises and stimulates important adaptations. I like to wear mine when doing pull-ups, burpees, planks, push-ups, air squats, jump squats, jumping jacks, and yoga poses. I even wear it often when hiking, especially if I am going to be doing any hill climbing. There are many different brands out there at varying prices. Look for used, and make sure you get one that allows you to add or subtract weight so you can work up gradually.
And finally, if you are looking for cardio equipment, I am partial to stationary bikes for home gyms because they are significantly cheaper than treadmills, ellipticals, or rowing machines. They are also easy to move and take up very little space if you don’t have a lot of room. You can find reputable brands like Schwinn and Nautilus at Play It Again Sports for very affordable prices.
Now you may be thinking, “look Aaron, I’m a freakin TRAIL RUNNER. I don’t ride stationary bikes in my living room.”
I didn’t either until I had kids and was forced to get creative. Learn to embrace it, and remember that the change is temporary.
The “Minimalist Home Gym” Workout
Try this strength workout utilizing the equipment above:
- 3 sets of standing kettlebell shoulder press (10-12 reps)
- 3 sets of standing chest press with TRX straps (10-12 reps)
- 3 sets of standing lunges with weight vest (10-12 reps)
- 3 sets of pull ups to failure using resistance bands for assistance
- 3 sets of Turkish Get-Ups with a kettlebell (8 reps on each side)
It’s Not Easy, But It’s Doable
While you’re bound to face other challenges as an athletic parent, keep this in mind:
The process should be fun, flexible, and as inclusive as possible with your children. This is your opportunity to lead by example and establish some important standards within your household.
With enough emphasis on time management, some creativity, and a willingness to step a bit outside of your comfort zone, it has been proven possible time and time again that most parents can achieve their fitness goals even in the midst of demanding parental duties.
About the Author: Aaron Stuber is a Registered Nurse, Health Coach, Board Certified Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner, athlete and father of two. He runs a private, Lifestyle Medicine and Health Coaching practice in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more about him at aaronstuber.com.