One of the things I really did not anticipate as a new parent is how little time I would have available to focus on my own health and fitness. While I certainly knew that my priorities would shift, I guess didn’t quite realize by how much.
With this in mind, I have started working out some unique ways of training that take up very little time, but offer a heap of benefit. I have been using these regularly since the birth of my first child, and I thought I would share the most effective workouts for busy parents with you so you can do the same!
How much spare time do new working parents typically have for fitness?
As a general rule of thumb, having kids takes time. To put it simply, your entire life goes from being focused on you, to being focused on keeping another person alive – a person who literally cannot do anything for themselves.
As a result, the time that you have available for physical activity decreases significantly (Hull, 2010).
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that before having children, most people in a relationship still have the capacity to dedicate approximately 6 hours per week to their own fitness endeavors – which many would agree, is a good chunk of time.
However, after giving birth, this tends to decrease to about 2 hours per week maximum.
That is a loss of 4 hours per week!
Does fitness decrease after having children?
With this in mind, it is commonly accepted that fitness will decline after having a child (Quinlan, 2017).
Not only do you have less time for activity, but you are also less likely to perform exercise during that time. See, after giving birth you enter a state where stress is high, and sleep quality is low. This leads to a significant reduction in energy levels, in conjunction with a marked decrease in emotional wellbeing.
As a result, exercise becomes a challenge.
And intense exercise? Don’t even think about it.
Now, taking this into consideration, you might be wondering how long does it take for fitness levels to decrease? And to be honest, this is where things can get a little bit scary.
See, there is a huge body of evidence clearly demonstrating that if you cease training completely, you can expect to see a significant reduction in your fitness levels within as little as 2 weeks (Neufer, 1989).
Which is why the tips to keep fitness levels outlined in this article are so damn important!
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Top hacks to keep up your fitness levels during busy periods
You will notice that in the above section, I mentioned that you can only expect to lose fitness if your training stops completely – however, as long as you keep up some sort of physical activity, you can at the very least expect to keep your fitness levels after having a new baby.
See, we know that it is generally much easier to keep your fitness than it was to improve it in the first place – and it all comes down to training intensity.
What do I mean by this?
To put it simply, even if you don’t have much time to exercise, you can maintain your current levels of fitness by completing smaller amounts of exercise – as long as it is performed at a high enough intensity to place your body under significant stress (Mujika, 2000).
This means that even getting out for 1-2 sessions of short high-intensity exercise per week will be enough to guarantee that you do not lose any of your fitness after having a baby!
Good news, right?
And it is this fact that leads us into our next section rather nicely.
What is the most effective short workout you can do anywhere?
Considering the above, I wanted to outline the most effective short workout you can perform anywhere to keep your fitness levels high.
And it revolves around high-intensity interval training (or HIIT, for short).
As most of you know, HIIT is a mode of training where you perform short bursts of extremely high-intensity activity, interspersed with short periods of recovery. With this method, HIIT allows you to spend a lot of time working near maximally, which is excellent for both building and maintaining fitness when you are short on time.
My favorite HIIT protocol is 30 seconds at 90% of your maximal intensity, followed by 30 seconds of light intensity recovery (think walking), for a grand total of 20 minutes.
This is a great option, as it gives you a whopping 10 total minutes working at an extremely high intensity. Moreover, it can be used with any modality of exercise – although I must admit, my favorites are running (or rather, almost sprinting), skipping, and rowing.
It is important to note that if you are after a postpartum workout, this is probably better left for 4-6 weeks after giving birth. Remember, you need to give your body enough time to recover before you step back into high-intensity exercise.
When is the best time to workout to achieve maximum benefits?
When you are short on time, there is merit in doing absolutely everything you can to get the most out of your workout – and for many, that even means working out at the optimal time.
Considering this, there is some interesting evidence to suggest that working out in the evening (think between 2 and 6pm) maybe your best option, Not only does performance tend to be higher in the evening (meaning that you get more work done per session), but growth hormone secretion tends to be elevated in the afternoon (Fernandes, 2014).
Both of these factors have the potential to contribute to better results for the time you put into your training!
Now, just to be clear – this is what we consider optimal.
However, if you can only exercise in the morning, then exercise in the morning!
Obviously getting in any exercise is always going to be better than no exercise. So, if training in the morning means that you are going to get in more sessions on a consistent basis, then stick with that.
This is a trying time, and often taking the path of least resistance is your best option.
What is the least amount of exercise you can do to not lose fitness?
This is a bit of a loaded question. See, how much exercise you need to keep your current level of fitness is entirely dictated by your current level of fitness!
If you are of a moderate fitness level, and only previously trained 2-3 times per week before having children, then you can probably get away with 1-2 HIIT sessions per week to keep your current fitness levels.
However, if you are of a much higher fitness standard (for example, someone who runs marathons on the regular), then it Is going to be much more difficult for you to maintain your high level of fitness. In fact, in this scenario, you might actually need anywhere between 3 and 5 HIIT sessions.
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The best home workout you can perform to keep strength and muscle
This is well and good, but what about training to maintain your muscle strength and muscle size? So many of us spend a huge amount of time in the gym trying to build muscle and develop strength. But, after having children, simply getting into the gym can be completely out of the question.
Fortunately, there is an answer – and it lies in bodyweight training.
By using the same high-intensity principals outlined above, you can get in a solid workout using bodyweight exercises alone. Using the above method appropriately, you can stress your muscular system enough to maintain muscle strength and size.
My favorite at-home workout is this one here, where you work through the exercises in an alternating fashion, spending 30 seconds on each exercise:
- Jump squats
- Clap push-ups
- Walking lunges
- Close hand push Ups
- Alternating single leg hip lifts
- Wide hand push-ups
- Bodyweight squats
- Plank hold
Complete six rounds (24 minutes) of the program 1-2 times per week and reap the rewards!
How to ease back into fitness after a slowdown
The last thing I wanted to touch on was how you should ease back into exercise after a period of no exercise at all.
If you have taken a bit of hiatus from training (whether it be due to the birth of a baby, or any other reason), you want to make sure that you ease back into it. Obviously, after a period of detraining, where you lose both strength and fitness, you are going to be at an increased risk of injury. This means that you want to slowly build your exercise tolerance back up to its pre-exercise levels.
Start with a single session per week for the first two weeks, and make sure that they are at a moderate intensity. This means they should be about 60% as challenging as your old sessions.
After the first two weeks are up, you can start to increase the intensity of your training up to about 80%. You can also increase the number of sessions to 2-3, depending on how you are feeling after each of your training session.
Finally, at the six weeks mark, you can increase your intensity up to 90-100% and really start pushing yourself. While it will still take some time to get your fitness back to where it once was, you can be confident that your body can tolerate the heavy training loads required to do so!
I should note that you should use some common sense here – obviously the longer your slowdown has been, the slower you need to build yourself back up. So, make sure you take it slow and pay attention to how your body feels.
Being a parent means that you will have less time to exercise than ever before – but that is no reason to despair. If you structure your training right (and use the at-home workout tips in this article), then you can still see some great results with very little time commitment.
While this type of training is far from easy, it is damn effective – so make sure you give it a go and keep your fitness levels high (even after the birth of your little one).
Hull, Ethan Edward, et al. “Influence of marriage and parenthood on physical activity: a 2-year prospective analysis.” Journal of Physical Activity and Health 7.5 (2010): 577-583.
Quinlan, Alison, et al. “Evaluation of a physical activity intervention for new parents: protocol paper for a randomized trial.” BMC public health 17.1 (2017): 875.
Neufer, P. Darrell. “The effect of detraining and reduced training on the physiological adaptations to aerobic exercise training.” Sports Medicine 8.5 (1989): 302-320.
Mujika, Iñigo, and Sabino Padilla. “Detraining: loss of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations. Part II.” Sports Medicine 30.3 (2000): 145-154.
Fernandes, Alan Lins, et al. “Effect of time of day on performance, hormonal and metabolic response during a 1000-M cycling time trial.” PLoS One 9.10 (2014): e109954.