Before I became a mother, fitness reigned high on the top of my to-do list. Exercise made me feel strong, reduced my stress levels, taught me how to set goals, allowed me to maintain a healthy weight, and reinforced moderation in my food choices (all the dessert and wine, please!). Then I got pregnant. Workouts naturally changed, but I still stayed fairly fit. Working out remained a priority, as I hoped it would assist me during the intensely physical experience of labor. That proved to be true, and after a smooth delivery with minimal complications, I assumed that I’d be back to my active self in a couple of months.
I gave myself time to completely heal for a few months, and then quickly realized that my relationship with exercise had changed. Most days, I was flat-out exhausted, and I soon realized that I could no longer devote hours and hours to fitness anymore. Nor did I want to—my life had changed.
But I knew staying active would do wonders for my mental and emotional health, improve my energy levels, and of course, allow me to slowly regain body strength. Exercise became vital “me” time, and eventually, I learned how to prioritize working out in my new role as a mom. Here are a few strategies that worked well for me.
Between work, parenting, marriage, cooking, cleaning, driving to and from places, teaching yoga, writing, family and friends—just to name a few things!—my first lesson was to lower my freaking expectations and be ruthlessly realistic.
I took a hard look at my life: an hour of formal exercise a day? Not feasible right now. Working out five days a week? I’d love to, but highly unlikely. And even though I knew plenty of other mothers who did seem to find plenty of time to work out, I had to focus on what was possible for me.
At first, this felt defeating, but then I realized that with a kiddo, you’re pretty much continuously participating in active movement. Laundry. Dishes. Carrying my son on my hip. Walking up and down stairs. Taking the dog out. Unloading groceries. All of that “non-official” motion totally counts, and it adds up.
I started to view exercise as complementary to my life rather than the be-all, end-all item to complete every day. If I could make it happen, great; if not, oh well, there’s always tomorrow.
Create a Loose Plan
For years, at the start of every week I looked at my calendar and wrote down my workouts to hold myself accountable. I discovered that this strategy worked well as a mom, too, because mom brain is very real.
Let’s be clear: I cut myself a lot of slack with these written down intentions. My weekly workout plan is more like . . . a set of loose suggestions or an outline of an ideal state. For example, I’m currently following a running training plan that outlines four runs a week—to which I’m like, who has that kind of TIME?! (Answer: myself, a year ago.) I definitely can’t run four times a week nowadays, but maybe I will run one or two times.
If I don’t plan it out, I know exactly zero workouts will occur. And in comparison to zero, one or two workouts feel like a major victory.
Find Your Sweet Spot
Now that I’m a mom, I don’t really take a traditional lunch break. I either work through that hour (which means getting more things done, which means getting home sooner to see my baby) or whenever I can, I workout during my lunch break.
A lunch break workout has become my fitness sweet spot for two reasons: First, it clears my head and consequently allows me to work better and smarter in the afternoon. Second, I’m more likely to get it done during the day than in the morning or at night.
Lunchtime workouts are a perk of a semi-flexible work schedule, of course. I’m responsible; I certainly don’t hit up the gym when I’m on a deadline or when my boss needs me to take care of something or when I have meetings. But I try to work hard all morning, and if it’s possible to take a break away from my desk that involves physical movement, I go for it. I come back to my desk refreshed and recharged to think creatively and tackle remaining tasks. And then—this is the best part—I get home and my workout is d-o-n-e, so it doesn’t cut into family time.
One thing I’ve learned as a parent: Change is the only constant. Things are constantly flipping on a dime. When it comes to working out, I have to be constantly prepared to take advantage of a window of time.
As a result, I keep a packed bag in my car stashed with the following: a t-shirt or tank top, shorts or pants, socks and tennis shoes, dry shampoo, face wipes, deodorant, and extra hair ties. If the opportunity to work out arises last minute, I know I can grab my bag and go. If the bag sits in my car unused for five days (which absolutely happens), so be it. At least I’m prepared, and that’s half the battle.
Keep It Short and Give 100%
These days, I aim for quality over quantity, which means shorter, more efficient workouts in general. I may take the 45-minute class, run fewer miles, do yoga in my living room, and knock out a few push-ups while making dinner—but you better believe I make it count. I sweat my ass off, I do all the reps, I’m out of breath the entire time, I utilize good form, I make the most of it. If I’m dedicating any amount of time to exercise instead of doing the one million other things I want to do in my spare time, and instead of being with my family, then it needs to be worth it.
Decide Why It Matters to You
Nobody is going to force you to work out. It’s not mandatory. You don’t have to find time for exercise at all, whether you’re a mom or not, if you don’t want to.
So think about why it matters to you. Is it to lose the baby weight? Is it to feel sexy and confident again? Is it to wear a bathing suit or fit into your favorite pre-baby jeans? Is it to calm a busy mind? Is it to relieve aching body parts? Is it to become stronger? These are all legit reasons, and your motivation can stem from multiple places.
For me, I realized that fitness improved my mood. It made me feel calmer, happier, and ironically, more energized despite my exhaustion due to waking up with a baby a few times each night. I happened to lose the pregnancy weight fairly quickly, but my strength and endurance took a major beating in those early newborn days. I noticed that my back twinged every time I leaned over the crib, my arms shook when lifting the carseat, and my legs buckled when I tried to stand up from a deep squat playing on the floor.
Working out, quite frankly, allowed me to regain some of the strength I needed to get through the day as a mom—and that motivated me to prioritize exercise.
Be Kind to Yourself
I try to let go of the “all or nothing” mentality and cut myself some slack. This requires compassion and grace, which is easier said than done. Some days, I’m too tired to work out. Some days, I just don’t have the time. Some days, I can’t make it happen due to things outside of my control. And some days, I just don’t want to, which is OK.
Because if I were to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t wish I had exercised more. I will wish I had stared deep into my son’s baby blue eyes and examined his dark, soft lashes. I will wish I had enjoyed the sunshine on my face while holding hands with my husband and drinking an icy margarita. I will wish I had relaxed on the couch while my dad was in town and chitchatted about anything and everything. I will wish I had slept in (oh my god, I will wish I had slept in).
If my son has taught me anything so far, it’s to be fully present for each moment as it comes. When I am able to work out these days, I try to enjoy it. I let it reset my personal tank so that I can be the best mother, wife, sister, friend, and daughter possible. Exercise is an essential part of my life, but it’s not the most valuable.
This article first appeared on The Everygirl and can be seen here.