Fatherhood should come with a warning label: “Fatherhood is used to treat existential crises. Probable side effects include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, change in sex drive, loss of personal time, alcohol abuse, terrible eating habits, weight gain and steep declines in fitness.” Of course, every dad-to-be knows to expect at least some of this stuff, but nothing can fully prepare him for how it feels, which is admittedly terrible. But the rest of the label should read – and this is the part that so many dads miss — “If these symptoms persist beyond the first six months, you’re doing it wrong.” (Except for the part about personal time; you’ll never really get that back.)
It’s true what they say, that fatherhood changes you forever. When my daughter was born, it reshuffled my priorities, gave me a renewed sense of purpose and, in time, uncovered a love so deep and unflinching and completely unreasonable that still, two years later, it strikes me like lightning every single day. But it doesn’t have to change you physically (enter the paunch and eternally sore back). At least not forever.
Even as pop culture fetishizes the so-called “dad bod” — that soft, pudgy midsection that says “I go to the gym occasionally, but also drink heavily on weekends and eat eight slices of pizza at a time” — in Hollywood celebs like Chris Pratt (one kid), Matt Damon (four kids) and, oddly, Leo DiCaprio (no kids), the first two have already worked themselves out of that rut of roundness. You can, too (even without the help of a Hollywood trainer), and the rewards are many. You’ll have more self-confidence, set a healthy example for your kid, maintain a semblance of sanity, and improve your mental stamina for the daily trials of parenting. In other words, you’ll be a better dad.
All you have to do is make it through those first few months in the trenches of fatherhood. Consider this your survival guide, complete with the workouts, gear and advice that helped me push through the dark days and emerge on the other side in the best shape of my life, with a couple of marathons and an ultra mountain bike race to show for it.
Because There’s No Roadmap
There’s no road map for being a dad, save for the one provided by your own dad. But, in case you hadn’t noticed, the model for fatherhood has changed over the last three decades. More is expected of you, from helping with 2 a.m. feedings to granting your lady her own free time, which means you have to work harder to find time for fitness.
Don’t eat like her. Your baby mama will crave all sorts of bad-for-you foods — tubs of ice cream and greasy bags of salt and vinegar chips — in startling quantities (she needs something to replace alcohol, right?). Partake alongside her, and you’ll gain “sympathy weight.” Keep it up after the kid’s born, and you’ll continue to pack on stubborn pounds, even as wifey instantly drops 15 pounds at birth and, through breastfeeding, sheds weight like she has a tapeworm.
You don’t get “me time.” Resist the urge to ask your lady for time alone for workouts. Her time, after all, has become “we time,” tethered to a pre-verbal poop machine that needs her for survival. Instead, try offering her some time and headspace to herself and either a) exercise with your kid (see below) or b) hope she reciprocates.
Go to bed. Work is important, and so is Game of Thrones, but when the baby wakes up every other hour for a feeding, you’ll wish you went to bed at nine.
Look your best. Between navigating a wild cocktail of postnatal hormones, leasing her breasts to a tiny milk-sucking vampire and healing the, um, exit wounds, she’s not going to want sex for quite a while — probably months. Staying fit gives her one less reason to say no.
Train like you’re prepping for competition. You already know the due date. Circle it on your calendar, and train for it like it’s a marathon or century ride, because — trust me — the first few months of fatherhood will be the longest, most difficult endurance event of your life.
It’s not just about you anymore. Your fitness, like everything else, is no longer yours alone. It’s also in service to your family, to have strength to open stubborn jars and ridiculous plastic packaging; endurance to take your kid on long, meandering hikes of discovery; and energy to rock him another 75 times when all you want to do is pass out. It also helps to couch it in those terms when convincing your wife that you need to go on that 75-mile Saturday morning group ride.
Train your baby to sleep. Look it up. I’m not getting into the nuts and bolts of it (or the politics, for that matter) here. All I’m saying is that it worked for us, and it only took two (two!) nights. The sooner your baby sleeps through the night — we didn’t try until 10 months after the birth, and immediately regretted waiting so long — the sooner you’ll start to feel normal again.
A Concrete Plan
How to Get Fit Again
The first part of incorporating fitness early on is to be realistic. You’re probably going to lose some fitness, especially in the first few weeks. But if it’s an essential part of your identity, as it is for me, then you should do whatever it takes to stay active and, in the same measure, self-actualized. You just have to be on the lookout for how to incorporate workouts into your crazy schedule.
Start running. It’s probably self-serving of me to tell you to pick up my sport, but nothing else is as simple (lace up and go), independent of other people’s schedules and efficient at burning calories as running. You can burn 500 calories — about the equivalent of a day’s breastfeeding for wifey — in a hard, 35-minute run while baby’s snoozing. Before long, you can start bringing the kiddo along, too (see gear), for added resistance and companionship.
Run shorter, faster. Half-hour too long for you? Sprint intervals take less time, and have an equal aerobic impact. Try this simple, 15-minute workout when you’re really time-crunched.
1. Warm Up (5 minutes)
2. Sprint (30 seconds)
3. Recover (15 seconds)
4. Repeat 2-3 four times.
5. Cool Down (5 minutes)
Push and pull your body. Bodyweight training can be every bit as effective as weight training, and it doesn’t require any special gear. Push-ups and pull-ups are some of the most effective upper-body workouts, and you can bang out quick sets whenever you have a few free seconds. I started with sets of 20 push-ups, and now I average 250 a day in sets of 50.
Let someone else watch your kid. It’s increasingly common, especially in cities, for gyms and fitness clubs to include free babysitting in the cost of membership. You may have to pony up a bit more (although many YMCA’s also offer childcare), but it’s worth it for the win-win-win — baby gets socialization, mommy gets a break and, of course, you get your workout.
Ride your bike to work. This is a no-brainer, especially if you live within five miles of your workplace. When I reported to an office, I logged more than 2,000 miles a year just getting to and from work. Now your fitness is incorporated into your daily routine, nobody can call it selfish, and it helps you unwind from the stresses of the workday, so you come home more relaxed and, god willing, patient.
Your baby is a weight — take advantage. It sounds callous, but your kid adds resistance to exercise and, well, you’re going to be holding her a lot. Rocking her to sleep? Do some squats. Feel like stretching your legs? Strap her into a carrier and haul her around. The rhythmic motion of your body will put her to sleep, and you get a peaceful weighted ruck carry.
Gear to Get it Done
Chariot CX 1 Multisport Carrier by Thule $879
The CX easily converts to a jogging stroller, cycling trailer and, for hardcore dads, a Nordic skiing pulk. Since she was an infant, I’ve used this model to haul my daughter out on 10-plus-mile training runs, run and ride her to and from daycare, and generally get her involved in my fitness. The ride is super smooth — even off road, thanks to adjustable suspension — and the disc brakes stop on a dime when you’re navigating traffic or steep terrain. Most importantly, my daughter loves riding in it, and looks forward to cruising the local trails and back roads with her dad.
Body Cardio Smart Scale by Withings $180
The brand-new Body Cardio, the fourth-generation smart scale from Withings, will keep you honest by wirelessly logging your weight, as well as deep body metrics — body fat percentage, lean muscle mass, bone mass and water mass — to its smartphone app, where you can keep an eye on which way you’re trending. Plus, pulse wave velocity analyses scan for stiff arteries and high blood pressure, so you can keep a handle on ticker health.
Osprey Poco AG Plus Child Carrier $290
When you’re ready to go beyond the local nature trail, and bag a bigger peak, the Poco AG Plus goes the distance with plenty of cool features – a built-in sunshade, lots of onboard storage for snacks and rain gear, and a hydration sleeve — not to mention the world’s most comfortable backpack suspension. At $290, this is an investment, but the adjustable cockpit grows with your child until the pack tops out with a 48.5-pound carrying capacity (for reference, my two-year-old weighs about half that).