Sept. 25, 2000 -- In the months after the birth of my first child, I became intimately familiar with the early-morning sights of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. My wife was in charge of midnight breastfeeding; my contribution was to climb out of bed at 6:30, put our daughter in a backpack, and take to the streets.
I acquired a great fondness for this routine -- not to mention the legs of a mountain goat. Unfortunately, as our family grew it became impossible to maintain. We had another child two years later, then twins two years after that. I've never seen a four-child backpack, and I certainly don't have a four-child back. My vigorous morning jaunts soon became a thing of the past.
With so many mouths to feed, I had to maintain a strict work schedule. When I emerged from my office each day, there was no way I could wave to my harried wife and tell her I was heading out for a run. I'm not that callous, or at least not that brave.
Exercising With Small Fry
I know I'm not alone in claiming that just about the only way I can exercise is by including the small fry. Procreators all over America must be in a similar position. How can we maintain a fitness routine while looking after the kids?
I made a few bumbling attempts on my own. First I tried including my older girls in sets of push-ups. I let the 5-year-old (aka the 40-pound weight) lie on my back for 10 push-ups, then the 3-year-old (25 pounds) for 10, followed by 10 more with no resistance. The girls enjoyed the attention, though they invariably counted too slowly, robbing me of credit for the reps I had earned.
Things improved when a friend bought us an InStep double-wide jogger as a Christmas present. Thanks to this three-wheeled folding contraption, exercise was transformed from an act of supreme selfishness to one of pure altruism. I wasn't running, I was babysitting! And the children loved it. When the twins occupied the double seats, they entered a semivegetative state; when I took the "big girls" out, they urged me on by reporting on the pirates and grizzly bears they imagined were pursuing us.
Still, some streets in my town weren't conducive to running with the jogger, so there were limits to where I could go with it. My girls loved just racing up and down the incline of our driveway, but I soon found myself getting bored.
That's when I decided to consult a few experts.
Harnessing the Imagination
"Imagination is the key," says Al Green, ACT, a former University of Kentucky athletic trainer who now runs Human Performance Solutions (which provides athletic training services to schools and special events) in Winter Haven, Fla. "There are a ton of things you can do with children, depending on their age and where you live."
A sense of playfulness, he says, is crucial. "Try tag games," he says. "Or do agility exercises around the child." Instead of running around a cone, he explained, make your child stand still and run around him or her. Or if your kids are a little older, play fetch with them. "The kids throw the ball, and you have to retrieve it as quickly as possible."
At our local park, I invented a game of tag, in which I had to repeatedly tag each of my big girls, one after the other. They soon learned to spread the field and make me work. Sheila King, MS, who coordinates a program in fitness instruction for the University of California Los Angeles Extension, had another idea. "Kids need to see you being active," she says. "So run around the perimeter of the park. Every fifteen minutes, run to the sandbox to say hi to the kids."
And if there's a sudden crisis, a tumble off the low slide or a sand-throwing incident? "Then it becomes interval training," King says with a laugh.
A Gym Is Where You Find It
What's more, you can always use the playground equipment for your own workout. Marianne Goulding, MS, who served as resident expert for the popular videotapes Mom-O-Rama Workout With Baby and Mom-O-Rama Workout With Toddler (Brainstormes Unlimited, Inc.), suggested doing chin-ups on the monkey bars, step-ups onto a slide, and triceps dips using a bench.
I was skeptical, but I found that the playground's colorful structures worked surprisingly well as a makeshift gym. Every playground is different, of course, so you have to be creative. Mine had swinging grips, like gymnasts' rings, that I used for pull-ups and a series of toadstool-like stepping-stones that I used for triceps dips.
The only problem with this kind of workout is that some of the other parents tend to cast suspicious looks over their take-out coffees. Fortunately, the kids remain unfazed. As I did my dips recently, two youngsters came over to inquire. My explanation sounded shaky. But they soon joined in, and I found myself competing for the toadstools.
In fact, the possibilities are practically endless as long as you are willing to experiment -- and to adjust your goals a bit. "Fitness does not need to be counted in sets and reps," says Elizabeth Trindade, who has conducted "Strollercize" classes in New York's Central Park since 1993. "I personally believe that once you have children, the days of perfect fitness are over. That life is gone. This is the new one."
It's never easy to start a new life. I admit it would be nice to break away for solitary, carefree runs once in a while -- to experience an occasional 30 or 45 minutes of blessed irresponsibility. But having children, after all, is a lesson in compromises.
In fact, after implementing the experts' suggestions over the course of a few weeks, I felt pretty darned strong. True, I won't be running any marathons any time soon. But at least my kids can't lift themselves up by my love handles.
Phil Barber is a writer based in Calistoga, Calif.