When you leave the hospital with a bottle of medication, it comes with a warning label or two; “Don’t operate a motor vehicle while taking this medication.” When you leave the hospital with a newborn, however, you’re handed a baby and told good luck. My daughter should have come with a long warning; “Probable side effects include extreme fatigue, difficulty sleeping, loss of personal time, alcohol abuse, terrible eating habits, weight gain and declines in physical fitness.”
Every dad-to-be knows to expect at least some of this stuff, but nothing can prepare you for all of it 24/7/365. Fatherhood changes you forever. When my daughter was born, my priorities shuffled. I had a renewed sense of purpose. Work wasn’t about paying for fun new toys, work was about securing my daughter’s future. Driving wasn’t about having a good time on the road it was about protecting the precious cargo in my backseat. There was, however, one thing that I would not allow having a child to change, I promised myself I would not allow being a dad to change me physically. At least not forever.
As much as pop culture fetishizes the “dad bod,” I wanted nothing to do with it. Hollywood celebs like Chris Pratt and Matt Damon eschewed the trend and worked their way out of child-induced bodily softening. You can, too. And you don’t need a Hollywood trainer, steroids or an in-home chef to get there. Staying fit as a dad affords you many benefits. You’ll be well-prepared to set a healthy example for your kid as they get older, have more self-confidence and learn to have more grit and mental stamina. What you do in the gym pours over into your life outside it, being a better dad is no exception.
The first few months of fatherhood are the hardest. Mom needs a lot of support and baby poops, pees, eats and wakes up just about every hour. Everything is stressful and new. But if you can make it through those first few months in the foxholes of fatherhood you’ll be golden for life.
Challenge 1 – Sleep and Stress
Getting extra work done from home, watching Game of Thrones and playing some Forza are important, but they’re not more important than sleep. Stress, lack of sleep, and the stress caused by lack of sleep will wreak havoc on your body. Your hormone levels will go berserk and when that happens, you’ll be fatigued and you’ll store more fat because of high cortisol levels.
Normally, the solution to a lack of sleep is simply more sleep. Unfortunately, in the first weeks or even months after the baby is born, sleep can be more of a prize than a guarantee. My daughter woke about every 2 hours to feed for the first 6 months, some kids sleep through the night almost immediately. Odds are you’ll be getting up at least once each night to change or help feed the baby. You have to accept that you’re going to have interrupted sleep and irregular sleep patterns for awhile, there are only two ways to counteract it:
- Go to bed earlier
- Get up later
Sleep training, I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of sleep training and I’m certainly not going to get into the politics of it, but I highly recommend you look it up. At 6-month minus 7 days, my daughter was getting up every 2 hours. At 6-months plus a few days, after sleep training, my daughter was routinely sleeping 10-12 hours a night. Now, 9-months in we are getting a pretty reliable 12 hours a night. The joy of having evening time back with the wife at night and a good nights rest cannot be overstated.
For me, getting my sleep figured out was the number one component to controlling stress. Number two was exercising and eating well. If you’re still stressed you can try mindfulness techniques, guided meditation or a mobility or stretching program.
Challenge 2 – Diet
If your child will be breastfed, know that your partner will be expending 500 calories a day to do so. Mom will crave all sorts of bad-for-you foods. Ice cream, chips, or my wife’s favorite; buttered bread dipped in milk. Partake alongside her and watch the sympathy weight grow. 500 calories a day turns into 1 pound a week turns into an easy 50 pounds of fat in year one.
If you don’t already help cook, this is a good time to start. You can take some of the load off mom and help control what foods you’re eating. Plan meals ahead and shop smart, no plan opens the door to ordering out. Cooking in bulk is a great way to cook healthy and set yourself up with lunches for the week as well.
Challenge 3 – Finding “You Time”
It’s really hard to find time to workout with a baby at home. Mom is tethered to the baby, leaving her to workout isn’t a good plan. I’ve had good luck with a few techniques.
- Workout with the baby. Give mom some time off, take your kid to the home gym, plop her in a bouncer or sling chair and play with her between sets. Or throw her in a running stroller or bike trailer and get some cardio in.
- Reciprocate. Give mom some time off so she can workout or do something she wants to do and trade off.
- When baby sleeps you monitor and workout. Thanks to technological advancements I can easily monitor my daughter with audio and video from my garage gym. While she sleeps, I workout. And if she starts crying I know immediately.
Challenge 4 – Staying Motivated
Having a newborn at home is the perfect excuse to skip a workout or several. Staying motivated is always hard, with a kid it’s harder. Step one for me was to make sure I was logging my workouts, it keeps me honest and reminds me to get out there and workout.
Also remember, it’s not just about you anymore. Your fitness in no longer yours alone. You need the energy to rock your kid in the middle of the night when she won’t sleep. You need to have the fitness to take her hiking, climbing, and cycling when she gets older. And if you want to be around and healthy when your kid is no longer a kid, now is the time to build the habits to get there.
Look good. What is better motivation for working out than looking great? Mom’s going to be navigating a wild ride of postnatal hormones, a tiny milk vampire, and healing exit wounds. You’re probably going to have a solid chunk of time to show back up to the bedroom in better shape. Get on it.
Forge Your Own Path
The most important thing I’ve learned about fatherhood is that there is no roadmap provided. The model for fatherhood has changed significantly in the last 50 years. More is expected of us, for good reason, helping with 2 a.m. feedings or going grocery shopping are the norm now. Dad isn’t simply a guy that goes to work, golfs on the weekend and shows up for meals anymore. Finding time for fitness is tough, but the rewards are many.