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Why new moms are forced to give up on fitness

Dr. Ryan Rhodes says that partner support is key in keeping fit post-pregnancy. Here, Jodi Di Menna kickboxes in her basement while her husband takes on kid-sitting duties.

Blair Gable/© 2009, Blair Gable Photography

The excuses are legit: New moms really don't have time to exercise. A study published recently in the journal Women and Health, co-authored by University of Victoria exercise psychologist Ryan Rhodes, shows that mothers of young children had to reduce their physical activity by 80 minutes a week on average.

What's more troubling is that 53 per cent of the 139 mothers from Victoria who were meeting recommended physical activity levels before parenthood were no longer reaching those levels after having children, points out Dr. Rhodes.

But are there ways to help moms stay on the treadmill? Dr. Rhodes tells The Globe and Mail that exercise during parenthood is possible - especially if spouses, communities and even governments share the load.

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How can you get fit? Expert takes your questions

Were you surprised that so many of your participants drastically reduced their exercise routines after becoming parents? I think that's alarming, and it also mimics some of the other studies in the United States and in Australia, suggesting this is a major time where people fall off of their exercise wagon.

So what happened to them? It wasn't about whether they thought physical activity was good or not. So that's an important distinction. These are people are giving it up because it's simply beyond their control. And the big factors were issues about time, fatigue, [lack of]childcare and social support - someone who could actually help them get it done.

About half of your participants were stay-at-home moms while about 15 per cent were working full-time. Were the stay-at-home moms better at finding time to exercise? We didn't see any difference. We would have to get a larger sample to try and figure out why. It may be that the people who are working come home and have to be responsible for the kids right away. And if you're a stay at home parent your job never ends. It may be that neither group has that much disposable time.

But about a third of the women managed to keep exercising after having a child. What was their secret? They either had the time, or they had partner support. So this is a potential solution right here. If the spouses agree that a certain time is an exercise time, and one takes care of the child, and then switches off, it's successful.

Fatigue was also an issue. This is a tough one, but the way we try to get around it is: Try and figure out in your day when you're not as tired. Those are the times where one really needs to try and fit in their activity. Little epochs of 30 minutes become really important.

New numbers released by Statistics Canada last week suggest Canada may be headed toward a baby boom. Does this raise any alarm bells in light of your research? It does. Parents are a young group in the populous. If these habits become well established it can certainly carry on for the rest of one's life. And physical inactivity is linked to all kinds of chronic conditions. Active parents will also raise active kids. So you can see it as doubly important.

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What changes would you like to see? More understanding of the consequences of parenthood. More funding. More advocacy. Even when you look at the research literature there's not very much on this. Like any underserved population its not surprising. Parents are so busy and so tired that they can't really advocate for themselves.

What sort of interventions might work? A simple one would be that when parents are going through prenatal programs, there's a section that discusses their own health. There could be physical activity initiatives for parents, much like the ones for children. Things like: exercise equipment in the home. Perhaps a jogger-stroller subsidy. Or mom-and-dad walking groups. And where possible, grandparent support. Perhaps just even more attention in this area.

I'm curious: Why weren't dads included in this study? We originally wanted to look at moms and dads, and we had a really big problem with recruiting dads. They did not want to participate. We actually have a study we're working on now where we're looking at dads. The other reason is that moms take more of the traditional role. If we're going to see this effect, we'll see it in the moms first.

Tips from moms

Between the pregnancy weight and sleepless whirl of caring for an infant, parenthood is "a perfect storm for getting fat," says new Ottawa mother Jodi Di Menna.

So next week when she and her husband, Christopher Lebrun, re-enter the work force after a year of combined parental leave, they're determined to resume their pre-baby workouts.

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Despite their busy work schedules and a strict 5 p.m. deadline for picking up their daughter at daycare, the Ottawa couple has mapped out a "rigid, rigid, routine" that includes two gym sessions per week for each partner, Ms. Di Menna says.

"Learning to love jogging" is also on their to-do list, so 11-month-old Gabriella can tag along in a stroller.

Experts say carefully planned systems like this one are a good recipe for staying sane and healthy with kids on board.

"Routine is really important," says Fiona Marshall, a certified fitness trainer from Toronto who specializes in pre- and post-natal fitness.

"The idea that you would say, 'I'm going to the gym twice this week' doesn't work, because always something gets in the way. You have to pick your days and work your schedule around those days."

After setting aside specific times for exercise, develop tricks to help you stick to it, Ms. Marshall says. That could range from a "nagging system" (a friend, partner or even on-line mommy group to nudge you along) to "results-oriented" workouts that inspire you to keep going.

A sense of community also lures parents into the gym despite sleep-deprived nights, she notes. A growing number of local fitness centres as well as established programs such as FitMom and Baby and Me Fitness offer a myriad of group classes for exercising solo or with baby in tow. Classes range from yoga and Pilates to water aerobics and "Strollerfit" - a type of bootcamp that incorporates baby carriers.

Ms. Morrow, who runs a twice-weekly fitness class for Toronto mothers starting at 8 p.m. sharp (after the kids are in bed) says "half the reason they come to class is to see other moms."

Despite the challenges, parents know best when it comes to staying in shape. Here are some tips from members of an online group in Ottawa.

I treat my daily walk with my baby, Lochlan, as a power walk. I set out from home and have a goal destination in mind, and each day I try to walk there a bit faster. This may sound basic, but in four months I have managed to get all my baby weight off with 45-minute walks, daily.

The only other thing that works for a real work-out session is "Mom and Dad tag team" - I look after the baby while my husband does his Lance Armstrong impression, then we trade off and I go for a power walk.

- Ailish Johnson, mother of a four-month-old.

I am an avid cyclist, so my husband bought me a magnetic trainer to set my bike up on. After the kids fall asleep at night, I hop on and do as much or as little as I feel like! I am nursing the baby so if he wakes and needs me, I am there and don't need to worry about him being hungry.

- Rachel Inch, mother of two children, ages 3 years and 6 months.

I used to be a deeply committed, morning-only runner. Then I had two kids - both of whom are up by 6 a.m. Now I "run when I can" - usually 6:30 a.m., or after 7 p.m.! My partner will do double duty so I can get out there. After dinner and baths, the run is the priority.

I also joined a moms-only spin class at the local bike shop. I started when my daughter was 12 weeks old - at first to get me out of the house for an hour, and then to help with getting back in shape post-partum. Socially and caridovascularily fabulous! A great way to meet other local moms, too.

- Erin Benjamin, mother of two children, ages 4 years and 15 months.

I put my son in his stroller and run along the canal. It's free and easy, and gets us both outside for some fresh air. Sometimes it's hard to get out the door, but I never regret it."

- Geordie Davis, father of one-year-old Simon.

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