The WebMD Healthy You Challenge: Two Mom Makeovers

WebMD's expert team helps two crazy-busy mothers transform their eating, workout, and life routines.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 22, 2010
13 min read

Balance. Time. Exercise. We could all use a little more of each. Impossible, right? Not at all. As WebMD's team of experts proves, it can be done.

Two busy moms looking for tips about how to eat more healthfully, work fitness into their hectic schedules, and better manage their lives so they have time for their kids, husband, house, career -- and themselves -- shared their stories and struggles with our expert trio: a nutritionist, a fitness trainer, and a life coach. The experts gave them simple, real-world advice they can put into action right away -- advice that can also work for you.

For our team of experts we chose:

The trainer

Michael Lin, certified personal trainer and co-owner of Verve Health & Fitness in Washington, D.C.

The nutritionist

Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, registered dietitian in Atlanta, and co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!

The life coach

Tevis Rose Trower, founder of Balance Integration Corp. in New York City, certified creativity coach, and author of the "Life Works" blog at WebMD.

Heidi Swanson, 37, Minneapolis, Minn., stay-at-home mother of four boys ranging in age from 2 to 12. Heidi is 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 164 pounds.

I've been a full-time stay-at-home mom for two years and need help prioritizing my time. I get so busy that I lose focus. I can't remember the last time my husband and I had a date that wasn't work-related. And I have a terrible time getting to the gym enough to stay healthy.

My biggest problem with my diet is that I love to bake for my kids -- and I love to eat what I bake. I also seem to have this idea in my head that I need to clean my kids' plates when they don't. I do sit down for all of my meals, but at lunch, for example, I eat what I make for the kids, like mac and cheese and hot dogs -- although there is always a fruit and a veggie with this meal, and with dinner, too. I would love to know portion control for someone who's 37. I think I'm not supposed to be eating like I did before, because my metabolism's changing -- and I don't know what that looks like. I just eat until I'm full.

Exercising is tough. I want to work out four times a week, but I usually end up going to the gym just four times a month. Things just keep popping up. If we're out of groceries, for example, I have to go to the grocery store instead of working out. I can go to the gym when the kids are home because there's free child care there, but sometimes just the sheer responsibility of loading four people in the car to go with me is daunting. And sometimes I just feel too tired to work out.

The nutritionist's advice

Mix it up. You need more variety in your food life. Cereal and toast are your go-to breakfast foods, but how about choosing just one of those carbohydrates and adding more protein to start your day? Two eggs scrambled with the toast will give you more staying power than butter and jelly. If it's a cereal and soy milk morning, you're getting needed protein, but try adding fresh berries or a sliced half banana in the cereal.

Mind your metabolism. It does change with age, which is why you'll want to concentrate on eating more nutrient-rich foods that are not calorie-dense, such as nonfat milk, fruits, veggies, lean meats (skinless chicken, sliced deli turkey, or roast beef), nuts in moderation, and eggs.

Upgrade your meals. You said you eat whatever you make for the kids' lunch, but you need to flip that around: Think about what's healthy for you first and the whole family will follow. So if it's a mac and cheese meal, start with whole grain pasta and add some broccoli florets or frozen peas. Kids have their specific nutrition needs and so do adult women. You need larger servings of salad or fresh vegetables for lunch and dinner. It's not enough to eat what's left over.

Plan ahead. Organize your grocery-shopping list by healthy food categories: fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and whole grains and cereals. This way you'll fill the pantry and fridge with the good foods you need to cook and serve healthy meals.

The trainer's advice

Losing 20 pounds is very doable. Set yourself a goal of losing one pound per week. If you do two months of very intense good eating and good exercise, you'll lose 10 pounds and will have a lot more energy and the motivation to lose the second 10.

But you have to create a 30-minute window in your day to get to the gym. Do a short, quick workout to elevate your heart rate and focus on the bigger muscle groups. You can also build in cardio workouts throughout your day. Do lunges while vacuuming, for example. Every three feet, do five lunges. When washing dishes, do squats against the counter. When going up the stairs, go two steps up and one step back -- it takes longer and burns more calories.

The workout I've designed for you is much easier than taking care of four kids.

You can do it at home or at the gym, using 2- to 5-pound dumbbells; do it three times a week.

Heidi's workout plan:

•20 boxing punches on each side (that's 40 punches). Hold both fists loosely below your chin, with your knees flexed and weight on the balls of your feet. First punch forward and toward the left with your right fist, shifting your weight forward as you punch (lead with your right hip). Then do the same from the left side. Alternate punches rapidly.

•15 full sit-ups. Instead of crunches, do military-style full sit-ups where you come all the way up. Lie down, knees bent, with arms overhead. As you sit up, you can swing your arms over your body and touch the floor next to your heels when you reach the top. Keep your lower back rounded as you lower yourself back to the floor.

•10 lunges on each leg

•20 shoulder presses with dumbbells

•30 seconds to 1 minute of jumping jacks or jumping rope

Repeat this routine three to five times, with short, active breaks in between. If you're doing it at the gym, run on the treadmill between sets. At home, you can get the kids to do this routine with you -- call it the "Swanson Family Olympics." Make it a competition to see who can do a wall squat longer or who can do more jumping jacks in one minute.

The life coach's advice

Heidi, it seems that you get really distracted fighting fires and become too busy to take care of yourself. Your big challenges are both planning and saying no. Like running out of groceries -- you know you have four kids and how much they consume. How often is that happening? Is it because you haven't put your life on a schedule where you're able to anticipate what's needed, so that the things that are important to you can have some place in those priorities as well?

First, let's try to create some structure around your job, which is being a great mom. You need to be a good boss for yourself and manage your performance. Sit down and outline your job description as a wife and mom, your duties in that job, and then your "human responsibilities." Plan all those things into your weekly schedule -- and don't forget to add the gym, some reading time, and a non–work-related date.

Then, for anything that's not a part of that plan, begin a practice of pausing before saying yes to it.

If something falls outside your core, planned, weekly routine, you have to say, "Let me get back to you." That creation of space before you say yes to something is really important: It gives you a moment to ask yourself, "Is this really the best way for me to be using my time?"

Polly Johnston, 33, Springfield, Va., grade-school teacher and mother of two young children, ages 4 and 2. Polly is 5'7" and weighs 220 pounds.

What do I want to change about my life? Where do I start? My schedule is crazy. I'm up at 6:30 to get the kids going, drop them off at preschool, and I'm at work by 8:10. I pick the kids up at 6 p.m., then we go home, do dinner and bedtime routines, and after that I work until 11 p.m. on lesson plans. The weekends are a little better -- my husband takes the kids in the morning and lets me sleep in.

Meals are usually a last-minute thing. Breakfast is on the run -- I grab a cereal bar and a cup of coffee on my way out the door. I eat lunch with my class at 10:45, which often consists of some chicken nuggets, rice, fruit, and iced tea. My real downfall, though, is the community chocolate jar that the teachers keep. I visit it once or twice a day. I also drink a couple of diet sodas during the day and again at night. I try to keep dinner healthy: it's meat, a veggie, and milk. But after the kids go to bed I sometimes grab another snack because dinner didn't fill me up, like a piece of bread with peanut butter.

I don't like how I look now, but I never feel like I have the time to exercise -- and I hate the gym. I did team sports in high school and college, like crew and downhill skiing, but being a gym rat doesn't appeal to me. My biggest problem is that I need some time just for me. I would love to find the time to get out and walk, or do some sort of team sport. I feel like everything I do right now is for my kids.

The nutritionist's advice

Freshen up your breakfast. You need some better choices for breakfast on the go. How about smashing a banana on whole grain flat bread, like Wasa crispbreads? (They're the size of a piece of toast and only 40 calories each.) Or add a thin spread of peanut butter to the crispbread. If you usually add cream to your coffee, switch to low- or nonfat milk. Café au lait (two-thirds coffee with one-third milk) can provide you with needed calcium and protein for staying power.

Plan satisfying meals. Make sure you are getting the protein serving you need, at least 4 or 5 ounces of chicken, meat, or fish. (Those school lunches are way too small for you -- no wonder you snack later!) Toss a salad with lots of color and variety of veggies; accessorize with small amounts of avocado, nuts, or cheese, such as crumbled blue or feta cheese, or shredded sharp cheddar. You can also top salads with egg, chicken, and tuna. Whole grains should be your go-to mantra for side dishes.

Snack better. Resist the chocolate jar during the day by keeping your own stash of hard candies. Or enjoy a few roasted nuts, such as almonds or walnuts, or a couple of pieces of dried fruit, such as individually wrapped prunes. At night when you're up grading papers, try a cup of calming chamomile tea or sliced apple spread with a little peanut butter.

The trainer's advice

Start by breaking down your weight loss into manageable goals. Instead of saying "I want to lose 50 pounds," start by aiming for 210. When you get there, set your goal to get below 200. When you reach 199, buy yourself something nice to celebrate. You need many mini-steps, as opposed to one big goal that looks like Mt. Everest.

Since you don't like going to the gym, I've designed a simple workout routine for you that you can do at home and won't take up too much of your time. The fact that you did crew and ski racing shows that you have coordination going for you -- it won't take you too long to get back into the swing of things.

Doing the following workout three times a week is a good start.

Polly's workout plan:

10 push-ups on the side of the coffee table. If you're not used to working out, doing a push-up from a more elevated position is easier than doing one flat on the floor. Rest your palms on the edge of the table and extend your body; push up just as you would from the floor. If it's too hard, try a higher surface -- even the counter -- to begin.

•10 squats. You can hold a water bottle in each hand and do bicep curls with them as you do each squat.

•10 reps rotating side plank, each side. Get into "plank" position: as if you're at the top of a push-up, arms fully extended. Then, shifting your weight to one arm, reach the other toward the sky, rotating your upper body sideways at the waist while keeping your lower body/feet mostly in position. Slowly move back to plank and on to the other side. If you can't do a side plank on the floor, lean your weight-bearing arm on a table, desk, or counter.

•10 crunches (easier on your lower back than sit-ups). Lie down with arms across your chest with fingers lightly rested on collarbone and knees bent with feet up in the air. Bring your chest up toward the knees and hold for two seconds.

Repeat this routine three to five times, with short, active cardio breaks in between.

Don't sit on the couch and rest. Walk, jog, jump rope, or do jumping jacks for five minutes. Then, repeat the routine. With cardio, time is key. The more you do, the more calories you burn.

You might want to find a personal trainer who can come to the house twice a week for the first couple of weeks to get you started and to make sure that you are doing things right.

After that, you can check in once a month for an updated workout as you make progress.

The life coach's advice

Polly, you need to get back to happy. We get a false concept of what that is when we read women's magazines, which often make us think that there's a perfect life out there and if only we were smart enough and had our act together enough we'd be there. So I'm putting you on a "happiness diet."

Write a list of all the things that you haven't been doing that you know make you feel good. Then, you have to make a commitment to yourself to create time for those things for the sole purpose of making yourself feel good. Don't think of them as things you "should" do, but things you want to do.

What are the things you can do to make yourself happy in five minutes? In half an hour? What takes a full hour? Schedule some of those things into your day, every single day. Plan them just like you plan your lessons at school. Maybe do the five-minute things during the week and the longer things on the weekend. Two weeks later, look back and see if you're feeling better -- what's worked for you and what hasn't? Then, can you up the ante? Can you take it to another level, by joining a book club or going to a lecture at the library? Look to do the kinds of things that will actually satisfy you deeply.

By Jennifer Dixon

Ready to start your own makeover? Where there's a will, there's a way. And a few cool gadgets and fitness accessories can add extra motivation to get off the couch and onto the treadmill, says Michael Lin, a certified personal trainer and co-owner of Verve Health & Fitness in Washington, D.C. Here are Lin's picks:

Heading outdoors for your next workout? L.L. Bean's Fitness in a Bottle packs everything you need into a standard-size, BPA-free water bottle: sunscreen, lip balm, pedometer, first-aid kit, and a black drawstring sack in which to carry it all. $29.95

No pockets? No worries. ShoeWallet is just the thing to stash your keys, cash, and identification card during your workout. The Velcro-close wallet attaches through the shoelaces and features a reflective safety strip. $9.99

When you can't make it to the gym or just want to mix up your usual routine, reach for FitDeck Stretch. Each card in this 56-card set contains specific stretches, such as neck tilts, wrist extensions, and side bends, divided into upper-, middle-, and lower-body workouts. $14.95

Don't want to give up fashion for fitness? You don't have to. Banglz are stylish bracelets and ankle bands that double as weights. Sold in pairs, the half-pound wrist version helps tone muscles, burns calories, and relieves tension. $24.95

Wish you had access to your own trainer and coach whenever you wanted it? Adidas has granted your wish. The miCoach Pacer works with your MP3 player to provide audible coaching and measures your heart rate, distance, pace, stride rate, calories burned, and elapsed time. You can also track your progress and get workout feedback online. $139.99

Pair your miCoach Pacer or your MP3 player with Sennheiser's PMX 680 sweat- and water-resistant headphones, featuring an ergonomic headband.

The opinions expressed on this page are of the experts and are not the opinions of WebMD. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.