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Staying Home

Fit and Healthy: Food and Exercise Tips after Baby

From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 5, 2008, pp. 32-35

"Staying Home" is a regular feature of the magazine New Beginnings, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of New Beginnings to help parents who choose to stay at home with their children. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

I love being home with my children, but I have a serious problem. Since I left paid work, I have gained quite a bit of weight. I am worried about my health and I miss my previous slimmer appearance. Do other moms have suggestions for maintaining a healthy weight at home?

Mother's Response

It can be hard to exercise when you are working 24 hours a day caring for the needs of little ones! Many mothers have found that when it comes to getting back into shape, just as with housework, a little at a time can go a long way. Making small changes and setting reachable goals have, over a period of time, changed my lifestyle. In your situation, it might help to focus on two main areas: physical activities and nutrition.

There are many ways to build exercise into your everyday life. Because I live on a farm, I can't walk to town to run errands, but I do park as far away as possible from buildings. When I am doing housework, I go as fast as I can to keep my heart rate up, and when I watch television I like to do simple exercises (like jog in place, step work, or standing abdominal work) rather than just sitting. Exercise with a baby can be especially fun, like lifting her up and down while you lie on the floor or going out with baby in a carrier or stroller. It also can work well to decide, as a family, to be more active. Planning ahead helps, and you can pick several days a week where you will go for a walk or bike ride or go to the park together. I like to get up early in the morning, while my husband is home but the children are still sleeping, and ride a bike. Some mothers keep exercise equipment in their living room and ride a stationary bike or use their treadmill while the children are watching their favorite educational program. Even turning up the children's music on the stereo and doing some dancing will help you tone up and have fun with your babies!

Better nutrition has been slowly evolving for years in our family. As with physical activity, a little bit at a time helps build better habits without being overwhelming. I started by reading labels very carefully and trying to eliminate three unhealthy ingredients: high-fructose corn syrup, anything hydrolyzed or hydrogenated, and any color/number additive. Just by keeping these out of my shopping cart, I was amazed how I was steered toward better food choices. I also decided to serve two vegetables with every meal, and made a dark green, leafy salad a part of every dinner. I also stopped serving foods that were not whole grain and looked for snacks that contained at least three grams of fiber and three grams of protein. I found these simple steps, done one at a time over a period of months, were much easier than counting calories or doing an entire pantry makeover all at once. My family was also more accepting of these changes as they happened gradually.

Remember the old saying about weight gain, "It takes longer to work it off than it did to put it on," so be kind to yourself and set reasonable goals. You will feel better about yourself and have more energy just because you have decided to make some changes.

Jessica Rau
Derby KS USA

Mother's Response

Many women feel better about themselves when they are staying fit and healthy. At different stages of motherhood this will be accomplished in necessarily different ways. When we have babes in arms, it may be the long stroll around the block to lull the baby to sleep, or the midnight paces up and down the hall (or stairs!). What a perfect time to straighten out our diets, when we are handing our older babies a good variety of food in close to its natural state, and trying to encourage good nutritional habits. (Don't we all want our children to ask for carrots instead of chips?) We can model healthy dietary behavior for our children by the choices we make at the store and in the kitchen.

In addition to the old advice of diet and exercise, another suggestion would be to limit when and where you eat. If you make a conscious choice not to eat privately, not to snack at the computer, while watching TV, or talking on the phone, you can cut more calories than most people realize. Make mealtimes social times with your family. Enjoy your snacks together on the deck or on an outing.

Jill Tyson
Cleveland TN USA

Mother's Response

Some mothers find that joining an established weight management program helps with peer support and motivation to continue on a healthy track. Being part of a support group helps with maintaining a healthy mindset, and can address the isolation some mothers feel when they go for long periods of time without other adult interaction. Many programs provide structure and helpful information to encourage healthy eating habits, and help members stay focused on a weight loss goal. Look for programs that focus on establishing long-term habits and offer a balanced and flexible food plan, not those that depend on quick weight loss, gimmicks, drugs, and special supplements. If you can't manage an established weight loss program for reason of time, finances, or availability, seek the aid of friends and family who will be supportive of your efforts, and keep in contact with them. Remember to consult with your health care professional before starting any weight loss program.

Talk to your partner and others about what you would like to work on in order to lose weight. Let them know what kind of help would be truly helpful. Some well-meaning friends and family can be too involved, and others may unintentionally sabotage your efforts. Keep the lines of communication open. Be assertive and stick up for yourself. Plan and rehearse what you might say to others in tricky situations, or how you might proceed in situations where food is involved.

Try keeping track of everything you eat, and be aware of eating for reasons other than hunger. Try to avoid having "trigger" foods that tend to create the urge to overeat available in your home. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. If you think it's going to be hard to resist, avoid putting it in your grocery cart in the first place. Figure out which low-calorie, nutritious foods do satisfy cravings, and have them available instead. Sit down and eat with your children, if possible, instead of snacking and grazing throughout meal time.

Drink plenty of water. Try not to drink too many caffeine-laden drinks, and go easy on sweetened beverages. Start out with a moderate goal if you're not used to drinking water, and keep a drinking container handy throughout the day.

Find an activity that you enjoy that does not revolve around food. Seek out volunteer opportunities that fit with your lifestyle, find a playgroup of like-minded parents, or start a hobby.

Try out different physical activities that you can do with your children or fit into your schedule. If you walk or do a light workout and you have a young child, wearing the child in a sling or back carrier while you exercise adds to your workout. Some mothers use their children for "weight lifting." Exercise videos during nap times are a useful tool for others. Depending on the ages of your children, you might consider swapping child care with friends to give you time to work out at a fitness center or gym. Figure out when you like to exercise, whether early or later in the day, and whether or not you like to exercise with a friend. Some find it motivating to be accountable to another to keep on track, others like the release of stress and "down time" that an invigorating walk alone can provide. Making exercise work for you is the best way to ensure that it will continue. There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to physical activity.

Be patient with yourself and set realistic goals. Try not to allow setbacks to derail your efforts. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a lifelong commitment and no one is going to be perfect at it. Try to avoid an "all or nothing" mentality, and focus on your goals one day (or even one meal or snack) at a time.

Cathy Coon Bitikofer
St. George KS USA

Mother's Response

I can sympathize with your concern! When I worked full-time outside the home, I often didn't have time to snack during the day and was able to eat a healthy lunch without too much effort. At home, with constant access to food and little ones who need to eat more often, it's easy to fall into the habit of perpetually grazing or eating your children's leftovers.

I've done several things to combat the pitfalls of easy access: first, I never eat off my children's plates. If it's enough to be worth saving, I put it in the fridge for them to eat later. If not, I just close my eyes and throw it out. I also serve them the same things I'm eating. It's much less tempting to eat off their plate if it's more of what you already had, and it teaches them healthy eating at a young age. Second, I don't buy the things that are the most tempting to me. There is a particular snack that I just love, and I know if I buy it, I can eat the whole bag in a couple of days. This is bad not only for my health, but it zaps my energy, too. When I do buy chips, crackers, or cookies, I buy the baked kind in the individual, 100 calorie packs. (I realize this is more packaging that goes into our landfills, so I try to do my part in other ways to help the environment.) The single-serving packages really help me have a lot more discipline in my snacking. I also buy fruits and veggies that take almost zero preparation or effort to eat like grapes, apples, clementines, bananas, and baby carrots, so it's just as easy to reach for the healthy snack as it is the less healthy alternatives. I keep a large container of roasted red pepper hummus (check your local warehouse store!) when I need a spicier, more complex taste for my snack.

Next, I try to plan snack times for all of us. Right after school is a time when I plan to serve a snack. That way I don't find myself nibbling non-stop as I prepare dinner. I plan lunches, too. In the same way I had to think ahead for lunches when I was working, I have to plan for the noontime meal at home. I purchase things for healthy lunches and I put leftovers in single-serving containers. This makes it less tempting to overeat simply because it's available!

You can also plan your errands to start immediately after you eat breakfast or lunch. I used to frequently get caught in the trap of waiting until mid-morning to start my errands. Before you know it, it's lunch time. You're hungry, your children are hungry, and it's all too easy to pull through a drive-through or put those unhealthy convenience items into your cart to eat as soon as you get home.

I've found several ways to make exercise work. First, I've discovered you can get a lot of exercise in the course of daily life. When I'm out, I always take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator. I park in a far away parking spot (usually next to a cart corral, so the children don't have to walk so far,) which adds more exercise to my day. I wear my son on my back when I run errands, so I have the extra physical exertion of carrying his 25 pounds. I bought an inexpensive bike trailer so I can pull my children to the local grocery store, which helps the environment and my body! Second, get an accountability partner. My neighbor and I schedule time to walk together several times per week. If I've made an "appointment" to walk with her, I'm much less likely to blow it off than I would be if I were walking by myself.

As a final note, remember that just as you chose to do what was best for your child by breastfeeding, you are also doing what is best for them by living a healthy lifestyle and treating your body in a way that will supply you the energy you need to keep up with them. Good luck! I know you can do it!

Brenda Carroll
Shawnee KS USA

Mother's Response

There are several things that have helped me achieve and maintain a healthy weight. I try only to eat when I am hungry and to stop eating when I've had enough. Over time, I have become accustomed to about how much food I need per meal. Eating smaller meals and having healthy snacks in between meals is easy to do with children in the house, since they often eat in the same manner. Also, I have found eating at set times helps a lot. Set a "flexible routine" that works for you. I allow myself one treat a day, be it a few cookies, ice cream, or a piece of cake -- I just eat a reasonable amount. I feel that I am setting a good example for my children in the process, because I also allow them one small treat. I want them to know that dessert can be part of a healthy diet. I drink water often and limit soda to once or twice a week. Since I really enjoy soda, it becomes something special instead of a daily habit.

Since I just had a baby four months ago, I am still working on making regular exercise a part of my life. My goal is to exercise three times a week. My family owns a stationary bike, and I found it easy to exercise and read at the same time in the mornings when I was pregnant. I looked forward to my time just for me. I also own walking DVDs that I can do in my living room. I especially like them, because they are easy to follow and do not have complicated dance moves. My husband is a runner, and he has inspired me! Running is free, keeps my body healthy, and encourages me to set and accomplish a goal. My first goal: my town's 1K fun run/walk in a few weeks!

Gina Peterson
Los Alamos NM USA

Mother's Response

Each mother's body is different after giving birth. While one of the benefits of breastfeeding is a natural return to pre-baby weight, I've talked to a lot of mothers who have found that they actually hold on to a little extra weight until after they wean. I've been blessed to not have significant weight problems post-partum; however, I do have some extra padding and lovely stretch marks. While there are days when I look at my belly and think, "I wonder if my insurance covers liposuction," most days I remind myself that my body birthed three wonderful children, with a fourth to arrive in the spring. I see my flabby belly and stretch marks as my "badge of motherhood." I'll keep the body I've got for the privilege of being my children's mother.

That being said, I have found that rather than focusing on weight loss, focusing on lifestyle changes that are permanent and will enable you to be healthier is the best way to go. When I recently lost 18 pounds, one thing I found helpful was tracking calories. There are many calorie-counting programs and Web sites out there. Choose one that has guidelines specifically for nursing mothers, and keep an eye on your milk supply. (If it drops, slow down.)

Eating a balanced diet and being aware of portion size may help you to slim down -- my favorite trick was to eat from a smaller plate.

Exercise can be harder to work in. I find I like to exercise with someone because I'm a very social creature. I found a friend to walk with and we walk our local bike path regularly. Ask around -- you may find an exercise partner or someone to trade off child care so you can enroll in a program that you enjoy.

Prior to beginning any kind of exercise program or weight loss plan, check with your health care provider and let him or her know of your plans. He or she may have some ideas for you, or your health plan may cover a visit to a nutritionist who could help you with making optimal food choices.

Margo Trueman
Ridgecrest CA USA

Mother's Response

It can certainly have an effect on our bodies when we switch from one lifestyle to another. Are you able to see the factors that are contributing to the weight gain? For example, it's easy to snack and eat all day long at home, (and at work this is seldom an issue). And staying at home causes many mothers to be less physically active. Identifying the problem will help you create a solution that will work for you.

Incessant snacking can be a hard thing to stop, especially with snack food in the house. Ridding the house of high-calorie, poor-nutrition foods will help. Keeping sensible snacks on hand (nuts, raw veggies, fruit, and low fat cheese) will assure you are eating nutritious foods between meals. (Cutting up the vegetables beforehand helps, so they're ready to go when you want them.) Another helpful tip is to try to limit your television watching. It's easy to eat more (and do less) when the TV is on.

Getting some form of exercise is essential, though it's often not feasible to have a daily fitness routine. Doing little things (walks around the block, extra trips up and down the steps, dancing with your children) will add up. You'll feel a lot better about yourself and will be healthier if you can get your body moving.

Finally, an excellent book on the topic is Eileen Behan's Eat Well, Lose Weight While Breastfeeding. Good luck with your journey toward good health!

Rachel Leon
Rockford IL USA

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