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Busy Moms Should Add Workouts to the Mix

Exercise A study says women's physical activity levels drop by 20% after they become mothers. One solution is for them to find creative ways to be physically active with their kids.

May 17, 1999|CAROL KRUCOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My teenage kids often admonish me to "get a life," but like countless mothers who juggle the demands of children, work, home, husband, parents, community service, etc., etc., I know this is much easier said than done.

That's why I laughed out loud when I read what a recent study revealed: "Parenthood resulted in reduced leisure-time physical activities in women." Stop the presses!

This conclusion seems so obvious that it's natural to wonder why it took a 10-year study of more than 3,000 young adult men and women to reach it. As my children would say, "Well, duh!"

Even the report's lead author acknowledges what she calls "the duh factor" in her findings.

"Half the population reading this, the females, will say, 'Did we really need a study to establish this?' " says Kathryn Schmitz, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who presented her research at a recent meeting of the American Heart Assn. "But in order for there to be any change, we have to get the realities down on paper."

The realities are that women's exercise levels drop by 20% after they become mothers, Schmitz says. This change to a more sedentary lifestyle is a significant health hazard, notes the heart association, which puts inactivity on par with smoking, high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure as a major risk factor for heart disease. As many as 250,000 deaths each year--about 12% of total deaths--are attributable to lack of regular physical activity, the association says.

Schmitz found that the biggest drop in exercise levels occurred after women became mothers for the first time; there was little if any change with subsequent children. The decline was similar for both married and single mothers. In contrast, men's exercise levels didn't change after they became parents, regardless of their marital status.

"This suggests that women are doing the lion's share of child care, whether the father is present or not," Schmitz says.

To reverse this trend toward sedentary habits, she says, "moms must take time to exercise, and programs should be designed that make it convenient for them to enjoy an active lifestyle."

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When moms want to exercise, they typically have two choices: Get someone to baby-sit while they work out or find ways to exercise with their children. Gyms with nurseries are one way they can pull this off, but the cost and complexity of getting children to the health club is a barrier for many women.

A more practical approach is to find creative ways to be physically active with your child, says Schmitz, whose current exercise program is "The King and I" workout with her 19-month-old son, Mack.

He's crazy about the song "Shall We Dance?" which she plays on tape while waltzing around her living room holding the 27-pound toddler. "I get pretty winded, but we have lots of fun," says Schmitz, who is 8 1/2 months pregnant.

Earlier in her pregnancy, Schmitz waltzed Mack to the four-minute song at least eight times during the course of the day. Now she's down to about three or four daily dances.

When mothers are physically active with their children, "exercise is not just one more chore to add to the endless list of things you've got to do before you can go to bed," Schmitz says. "It's doing something good for yourself that's also modeling a positive behavior for your child."

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In a society with an epidemic of obesity- and inactivity-related diseases among children and adults, getting moving is more important than ever. So don't worry about hiring a baby-sitter or waiting for junior to nap so you can exercise. Here's a sampling of ways to work out with your youngster:

* Kangaroo walk: Put your child in a baby carrier and take a walk.

* Workout video: Join your child in exercising to a kiddie workout video such as "Elmocize" or "Yoga Kids," or try a mom-and-infant video, such as "Baby & You, Workout for Two" (available from Collage Video, [800] 433-6769).

* Stroller striding: Tie on a good pair of walking shoes, and push your child in a stroller. For a tougher workout, run behind a jogging stroller or hike some challenging hills.

* Track time: Take your children to a school track. If they are very young, spread out a blanket and bring some toys for them to play with while you walk or jog. If the track is crowded or the child is very young, you may want to bring a jump rope so you can work out right next to your child or run in tight circles so you're never far from him or her.

Bring sand toys if there's a sand pit for them to play in. When they are older, bring their tricycles, bikes or skates, if they're permitted, so they can wheel along beside you.

* Playground health club: Get off your bench and join your child on the exercise equipment. Swing, hang, slide, skip, crawl, climb, laugh.

* Get classy: Sign up for a mom-and-tot exercise class, often offered through YMCAs or recreation departments.

* Musical moves: Find music that both you and your child enjoy and move to it. Be creative, and toss a ball or march in time with the beat, move like animals, stop the music and "freeze," then start all over again.

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Carol Krucoff writes a column on health and fitness issues for the Washington Post.

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