My husband once told me I was the “vertical stabilizer” of our family. (I'll save you the time to google it: the vertical stabilizer helps an airplane maintain its position in the air, and without it, the airplane would go out of control and crash.) It was probably one of the sweetest things he's ever said to me. In his own manly (if not odd) way, he was telling me that I was the most important thing to our family. Like many women, I spend my days taking care of everyone else. I take on the various roles of wife, mother, volunteer/coworker, cook, maid, teacher, nurse, driver, scheduler, shopper, handyman etc... And, everyday, I do so with the utmost grace, patience, and tenderness, just like you, right? Ha! Just kidding.
So when people ask me why I run, or how I get up so early to get my exercise in, I tell them that I do it because it keeps me afloat. It helps me try to make it through my day with the aforementioned grace, patience, and tenderness. Exercise certainly has its physical benefits, but to me, it's ultimately about having some ME time. Whether I’m on the road, in the pool, or in the gym, it's just me and my thoughts. I think about pace, breath, form, number of laps - all things I have complete control over. It's a good feeling to have before conquering a day full of things I can't control. In a way, it's a form of meditation, a state of non-doing. Although I am physically doing something, exercise allows my mind to unwind and forget about the next thing on my list. I feel mentally and physically refreshed afterwards and can approach the day with more clarity.
Everyone needs this kind of alone time. This is when we are most at peace, creative, and able to explore aspects of ourselves that are usually distracted by outside influences. I think of it this way: the mind is a tank of water, and as we move throughout our day, the water shifts, swirls and boils. We need to take the time to sit still and let that water settle to keep from spilling, or eventually we'll find ourselves running dry.
Kids also need this kind of alone time to settle. My older son likes Legos and my younger guy likes doing puzzles - both while in their underwear in front of the TV, but to each his own. While togetherness is an important aspect of a healthy family life, alone time is just as important. Perhaps it's because half of my family is introverted, but quiet time is pretty high on our list of priorities for each family member. For me, I choose to sweat for most of my alone time (with an occasional session of retail therapy).
If making time for yourself and improving your fitness is important to you, but has been a challenge, here are some tips that have helped me:
1) Something's gotta give. "Making" time for something is actually impossible. We can't make time. But we can reorganize and prioritize our time. We cannot give 100% of ourselves to everything we are involved in. We eventually reach the point of diminishing returns, where we are putting in more than what we get back and are left feeling tired and unfulfilled. Look at the time-sucks in your life. What can you cut out? Are there areas you are giving yourself to, but are not nourishing you in some way? Re-evaluate the schedule and cut away some of the fluff that you are barely giving 10% to anyway.
2) Everyone has to start somewhere. Don't obsess about finding that hour to exercise. Maybe you start with 10 minutes - of anything. Walking, stretching, walking a few extra flights of stairs. Once you START, it will be easier to find a routine that works for you and eventually you can find ways to lengthen that time.
3) Stay true to you. Find a routine that suits YOU first, and then branch out from there. Improving your fitness means improving both body and the mind. Find an activity that motivates you to get moving. You don't need to join the local CrossFit or start running 5k's off the bat. Maybe finding your local Stroller Strides or indoor soccer team is more your style.
4) Team up. Seek a buddy who has similar goals. I was lucky enough to find a friend who had kids the same age and had similar schedules. We met once a week for about 2 hours. The first hour, she would get her run in while I watched our kids. I went the second hour. It worked out well and our kids became and remain good friends. Running was important to the both of us, and we worked together to support one another.
5) Keep it short and sweet. Well, short and sweaty. You don't need a lot of time to get in a good workout. In fact, you need as little as 12 minutes. I am a huge fan of Body Rock routines. These routines use lots of body weight exercises, so you could even do them at home. The key is to keep the intensity high and kick your own butt for those 12 minutes. My kids actually liked these workouts because I put them in charge of the timer. Even though I knew when it was time to go to the next exercise, it was their job to yell "Mommy, it beeped!” which brings me to my next tip.
6) Exercise with your kids. Exercise doesn't have to be alone time every time. Your kids could actually have a lot of fun helping you. I used to exercise in the garage while my younger one napped. My older son was either in charge of the timer or counted reps. Sometimes I let him hold my watch and time me as I sprinted in front of our house. He got a kick out of yelling “go” and “stop”, even though he never actually timed me. But that wasn't the point. We were together having fun, and I was able to meet one of my own needs.
7) Explore. Everything is new to kids. Even places they've been to before - two weeks ago is months in their heads. Find a different place to take that jogging stroller. Once in awhile I would take the kids to the Naval Academy for a jog, just for a change of scenery. Even though they loved seeing the boats, to keep them from getting bored, we'd talk about how many boats they can see, who can find the most red cars, etc. It not only kept them busy but it distracted me from how tired I would get from pushing them in the double. I tried to find places that were fun for all of us, with a "prize" at the end of our route, like a playground, a pond to feed ducks, an ice cream shop (yes, I know it's ironic, ice cream in a post about fitness) or anything fun to 4 year old eyes.
8) Make it a date - with yourself. How is it that we feel guilty cancelling on other people, but we do it to ourselves all the time? Your well being is important, if not vital, if you are going to be there to help others. Schedule your exercise as if it's an appointment, and stick to it. Be flexible, to a degree. Maybe the time will shift, but if you commit to 3 times a week, squeeze those 3 appointments in like you would a doctor's appointment.
9) Be a team player. This could be a good time to discuss the importance of alone time with everyone in the family, especially your partner. Encourage your partner's alone time as well. If (s)he feels like he's involved in the process and gets his time as well, he may see the benefits and be that much more supportive.
10) Ditch the guilt. Everyone needs time to reset. Whether it's exercise, or another hobby, we all need that time for our brains to forget about everyday stresses, even just for an hour. You can't run yourself into the ground "doing" for other people. You also need that state of "non-doing". It's about restoring the balance between taking care of others and taking care of you.
These tips may be focused on fitness, but the real goal behind all of it is taking the time to take care of YOU. You are important, so act like it. Treat yourself like you are the most important piece of equipment in the machine that is your family. You deserve that time out to give yourself the proper maintenance in order to be there and support those around you. A new year is typically the time we think about what we can do to change some part of ourselves. I say stop, take a look in the mirror, and commit to taking care of that very important and already impressive person staring back.
Until next time,