Six ways to balance family life with staying fit

When there are kids in the picture, finding time for exercise can be difficult. Our fitness expert shares some tips for staying fit, both on your own and as a family.

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I’m not the type of dad who lets my wife do all the parenting. We have an equal partnership, including in raising the rugrats. We’re also both active people, so it’s taken a fair bit of teamwork and parental juggling to fit in fitness without putting the local teenaged babysitter on retainer.

But over the years, we’ve found a few things that work. So if you’re having a hard time balancing kids with exercise, then try out some of these tactics:

1. Join a gym with childcare or fitness programs for kids

This is actually my least-favourite option, unless it’s free.

My gym charges $5 for the first kid and $4 for the second one. Paying an additional $9 every time I want to work out — on top of the already expensive annual membership — is tough to swallow. Still, if you’ve got the money or can find a gym that offers free childcare, then this can work well for you. I think I’ve used this service at my gym a total of twice, because I’m cheap.

A better option is to join a gym that actually has programs for kids so they can get some exercise at the same time you do. Community-centre fitness facilities can be great for this; the kids can take things like swimming and skating lessons while you do your own thing.

2. Tag-team parenting
Sometimes my wife complains about being a workout widow, but in a good-natured way. I do ditch her with the kids on a regular basis to run, ride my bike, or hit the gym — but she leaves me on daddy duty almost as often while she goes to karate.

It’s a good system, because it’s quid pro quo and no one ever feels like they’re being taken advantage of. In addition to the weekend class during the day, twice a week I’m single-parenting in the evenings and putting the kids to bed myself while my wife has late-night karate classes. Other times, on weekends, I’ll get up early and hit the bike path and she’ll be on breakfast duty for the kids.

3. Spend your lunch hour working out
I did this for years when I had a regular job. I still got to help with the kids in the morning and get home right after work to do the domestic duties. It also kept me from joining co-workers for the Chinese food buffet at lunchtime, which was an added bonus.

4. Involve the kids
I’m a pretty fast runner, and I still can’t keep up to my kids on their bikes. My youngest took off her training wheels at five, and sometimes I take them down to the bike path and chase them on foot. When they were younger, they’d be pretty beat by the end of a 10K ride. But now they can go much further on their bikes than I can run.

I just remind them to stop every once in a while and wait for Daddy to catch up.

You can also get some pretty cool gear for this, things like backpacks for stuffing little ones into to take them on a hike, or chariots that you can push while running or inline skating or tow behind a bike. We had one of those chariots and it was great — until the kids started beating the tar out of each other when sitting next to each other in it. Then we had to stop using it.

Also, both of my kids are in karate — sometimes my wife will do their class with them, or we let them stay up late to do the adult class. I know there are other martial-arts programs where adults and kids always train at the same time, so consider this an option where the entire family can go and take all their classes together.

5. Become a runner
I tell you this for one very important reason: Running is easy to do anywhere. Much of my running is done while my kids are in karate class. While other parents sit in the parking lot eating fast food and reading the paper (and claiming they have no time to exercise), I am always suited up for a run while they’re in karate.

I’ve also spent many a child’s birthday party — for someone else’s kid — running. When I have to haul my child across the city to the roller rink, the bowling alley, laser tag, whatever, I’ve got two hours to kill. Going back home seems a little silly, so I go prepared to run instead.

6. Get a team of parents together
Catherine Decelles, a stay-at-home mom with two very young children, actually gave me the idea for this article when she emailed me about her innovative approach to staying fit year-round with a group of eight moms with little kids.

“There was a group of us who met through our kids’ preschool,” Catherine told me. “We realized we had a common interests like running, and it grew from where we each pulled in our girlfriends. We have eight of us that run together in the summer and cross-country ski in the winter.”

Twice a week while the older kids are in preschool, the moms meet up and run, with their youngest kids in chariots. When the snow falls, they switch the wheels on these kid carriers over to skis and tow them while cross-country skiing. (Just FYI, having a group of people you’re regularly scheduled to meet with is super motivating for exercise adherence.)

“When the older ones aren’t in pre-school,” Catherine told me, “we will meet at a playground and the kids will stay there with half the parents while the others run. Then they switch off for the other half. We bring a buffet of health food to eat too. The other great part is that the group of kids have all become really close friends because of this, and they get excited to go because they get to meet their friends.”

And the group doesn’t let unfavourable weather stop them either. “In bad weather we’ll take the kids to someone’s house and run from their home.”

My oldest is now 12 — he can look after his younger sister while my wife and I are out, and I am amazed at how much easier this has made things. If your kids aren’t there yet, it is definitely something to look forward to.

If you have any ideas that you’d like to share for fitting in exercise with young children, please feel free to mention them in the comments.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Body For Wife. Email James at