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Be a Better Parent--Take Time to Exercise

October 05, 1998|KATHY SMITH

Short of renouncing all earthly possessions, cutting off contact with friends and loved ones, moving to Nepal and joining a monastic order in the midst of the Himalayas, you probably can't change your life any more than by having a baby. The moment you hold that helpless little being, your life as you knew it ceases and a new one begins.

For the vast majority of us (I hope), that new life is richer and more rewarding. Even so, it is fraught with peril and confusion. Through the first year, at least, you often feel as though you have no life at all, that you live only to serve your child. You're tired and cranky for lack of sleep, you spend too little time alone with your mate, and the thought of ever having sex again, well. . . .

Believe me, these feelings will pass. You won't feel so trapped by the loss of time and freedom, and you'll even want to have sex again. During these months of changing priorities, you must balance your previous lifetime's focus on yourself against your baby's all-consuming needs. Obviously, while you still have to feel good about yourself, being a good mom has to take first position. But what does it mean to be a good mom?

Here's how motivational author Stephen Covey answers the question: A woman is sawing a tree in her front yard with a handsaw. Day after day, she works that saw back and forth until she collapses from exhaustion at night, only to rise again the next morning and begin the process again. One afternoon, a man drives by and stops to observe her in action. She pays him no attention until he shouts out a recommendation to stop and sharpen her saw. "I can't," she moans. "I don't have time."

The moral, it goes without saying, is that we all need to stop now and then to sharpen our saws.

You won't be surprised to hear that I believe one of the best ways a new mom can recharge her battery is to exercise. In my experience, both as a mom and an exercise professional, women who find or make the time to exercise during their baby's first year are generally happier and healthier, and they may even be able to cope better with the inherent strains of motherhood. A mom who's constantly tired and groggy or short-tempered isn't going to be much good to her child, whereas a mom who regularly gets in a workout has significantly lowered her stress level and achieved a calmer mind.

That's fine, you say, "but where am I going to get the time?" I'm a big believer in asking your husband, relative or friend to watch your baby while you're exercising or taking personal time for an hour or so a day, but I know that some women refuse to be away from their children. For them, I can offer some tips on how to get in a decent workout with baby at their side.

When my first daughter was born, I bought a Snugli, one of those baby backpacks that you wear on the front. I'd put Katie in it and go for long, wonderful walks through the neighborhood, looking at everything as if through her eyes and narrating the sights, sounds and smells for her so that she could hear my voice. Those were some of the happiest experiences of my life. The fact that it was also great exercise seemed somehow beside the point, and yet I was getting full benefits.

I'd also frequently put Katie in the Snugli while working the stationary equipment, like the treadmill, at home. Sometimes I worked out to exercise videos, putting Katie on the floor beside me with a toy. I might only get in five or 10 minutes before she lost interest in either my crazy-looking gestures or whatever she was playing with, but those were 10 valuable minutes--which I could repeat later in the day if I chose.

At night, when my husband came home from work, we'd tuck Katie in her stroller and take off on another walk. In this way, we'd both unwind from the day and have an opportunity to spend some time with each other, catching up on the day's events as Katie invariably fell asleep.

As Katie grew and my stamina returned, I was able to put her in a jogging stroller or transfer her into a backpack and continue on with walks and hikes.

Out of necessity, parents are forced to access previously untapped wells of creativity. And being creative, you can find dozens of ways to manufacture exercise time. You might even consider a "Mommy and Me" class, which are given in almost every neighborhood.

Though the workout isn't always strenuous, it will help to get you back into a regular exercise routine. (If you do and you're a breast-feeding mom, bear in mind that you should not exercise too vigorously before feeding your baby. Studies show that "maximal" exercise temporarily raises the lactic acid levels of breast milk.)

Now, were these the same kinds of workouts I'd been used to? Of course not. And I didn't expect them to be. I had conditioned myself to accept the fact that that first year was about Katie, not Kathy. I didn't panic that my body was softer and mushier longer than I might have liked. I knew that if I kept at it, my body would return. And it did, after about a year.

But even if it hadn't, I wouldn't regret my decision to have children. Not for anything in the world--neither time nor freedom--would I trade the absolute ecstasy of being a mom.

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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