Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sweating with the Dishes

He says:

It can be very challenging to try and keep a house clean when you are a busy parent. The natural activity of a family both multiplies the cleaning tasks that need to be performed and also absorbs the time required to perform them. I often find myself in the bind of having to choose between taking care of the family, the house and myself. 

One of the easiest things for me to concede in this dilemma is exercise, and I have to admit that there have been periods of time when I’ve fallen into that trap. This concession (when I make it) has proven to be a crucial mistake. Leaving exercise out of my life has drained me of the energy I need to get through each day and leaves me open to injury - I’ve thrown out my back several times. 

After the birth of my daughter, my clever wife partially solved this dilemma for me with the gift of a jogging stroller. When we had only one child this was an adequate solution as it allowed me to care for my daughter and keep fit at the same time. But as my daughter has grown out of the stroller and with the arrival of my son, it now provides only limited relief. 

What I’ve found most effective for me now is a combination of jogging (when possible) and my cleaning workout. 

The cleaning workout started as a desperate attempt to slim down after the birth of my son and then again after his diagnosis of cerebral palsy. I’d gained enough weight on both occasions to burst out of my wardrobe - which was an both an added worry and a blow to my self esteem. It also put me on alert for my back, which when it goes out is debilitating. 

I began to cobble together a workout that could be done in my kitchen. It contained elements of the following: 

  • Warm up calisthenics from high school sports. 
  • Stretching and pushup exercises from John Peterson’s Pushing Yourself to Power.
  • Yoga exercises from Devotion Yoga and Rodney Yee books and videos
  • Stretching and core exercises from my physical therapy for my back
  • Stretching and core exercises from a personal trainer I had when I was newly married

I tried to make the workout as flexible as possible so that I could attend to the kids and resume without feeling like I’d lost my momentum. I also wanted something that would allow me to do small workouts - for as little as ten minutes - to take advantage of any free time I had available. 

Now possibly because there is time in the early morning and then again in the later evening I found myself again and again doing some light housework either before or after the workout. Lately I’ve begun to integrate those cleaning elements into the workout itself. Here are some things that I’ve found: 

  • Loading or unloading the dishwasher makes a great warm up. 
  • I can usually run a load of laundry through the washer or dryer over the time that it takes to work out. 
  • A fully cluttered room can be cleared in four or five 5 minute rest intervals between sets of pushups and squats. 
  • Sweeping before a workout helps me avoid random bits of food the kids have hit the floor with. 
  • Mopping after a workout is a great warm down. 
  • There is no better time to clean your bathroom than when you are already sweaty and ready for a shower. 

The other benefit that I find in integrating these cleaning activities into the workout is that it slows me down. These deliberate pauses keeps me mindful of my limitations and prevents me from pushing myself too hard. Taking 5 minutes to put toys away or change a diaper or get my son his next serving of breakfast, gives me time to be thoughtful about my level of effort and take stock of how I am feeling. I have cut short or extended workouts based on these small breaks and have had far fewer pulled muscles. 

The last benefit, and perhaps the most important, is that working out in small increments has allowed me to integrate some of my son’s physical therapy drills between my own drills. I can help him to walk or to climb or to reach from a swiss ball for a toy on the floor in equal 5 minute increments and then allow him some equal time in unstructured play. He seems to love it. 

And the fitness benefits have been modestly good and sustainable. I’ve been able to work out three to six times a week in this fashion. Also, together with the running and the healthy food that my wife prepares for us (which you'll hear more about below), I’ve dropped about twelve pounds from my all time high - I now fit into my cloths. Finally, and most importantly for me, because I’ve integrated the back exercises from my physical therapy (and have periodically returned for a refresher course) I have not had a recurrence of my back pain since taking this routine up. 

All that being said, please note that I’m offering this technique as a way to integrate exercise into the daily activities of cleaning and caring for a family. I hope you find it interesting and helpful. I am not a personal trainer or a physical therapist or a doctor and have relied on the advice of these folks to keep me from getting hurt. I would strongly recommend that if you decide to try this yourself, please consider talking to one or more of these folks to ensure you get off on the right foot. 

She Says:

I just got back from my 20 year reunion and boy is my ass big.  

I looked around at all the faces from my youth, and we had all aged, gained weight, grown up, wrinkled, and matured.  It is inevitable I suppose, but I really was surprised to see that everyone had changed, that it was not only me.  

I had been very nervous to go and changed outfits 6 or 7 times.  I bought new Spanx.  I held in my stomach and redid my make-up, but at the end of the day I have the body of a 38 year old with 2 young children, who never gets to formally exercise.  I belong to a fancy gym but rarely have time to go.  My house has three floors and I am running up and down day and night, which is as close to cardio as I get these days.  With both kids in the stroller plus baggage I am easily pushing 100 + pounds to and fro each day, but none of it constitutes a real work out.  

My husband is far more creative and diligent.  He has found a myriad of ways to stay fit and incorporates it into his routine.  I remember when our first child was born and we were sleepless.  I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, nursing and pumping incessantly, never showering in between the 3 hour shifts.  I remember going out on our first date alone, and Dave complaining that he never has time to exercise, and I went berserk.

"Exercise.  Exercise!!! I haven't slept or showered for months.  Your down time is spent resting.  Mine is spent attached to the MACHINE (the breast pump) or the kid.  You get to go to work with grown ups every day.  I am a full time milk maid and my only hobbies include cleaning up puke and shit and everything else in between.  Exercise!"

Yeah, I was a banshee mental case.  When our son came along 2 years later, we had a similar argument.  Dave had managed to lose 15 pounds and publish a prize winning essay within 3 months post partum.  My accomplishments included eating an entire box of Cheez-It's in a single session.  I was sure he was getting the better end of the bargain, and that there must have been tremendous disparity in our responsibilities.  But I was wrong.  My amazing husband had just managed to incorporate exercise of the body and mind in an amazingly economical and creative way, and was able to go above and beyond his goals with a little ingenuity and hard work.  You can see in his post how carefully he has arranged his time and compounded efforts to get things done.  It is a testament to his personal fortitude and sense of self. 

After my son's diagnosis I went on Zoloft, and that has also had an impact on my weight.  I cannot seem to lose or gain an ounce, which I am told is a common side effect.  On rare occasions I do find time to get to the gym, but it does not seem to make a difference as far as weight goes.  It does do a lot for my morale, and I have to say I am really in it for the zen-like spa showers as well as their policy of forced prohibition against small children banging at the door.  

Between therapy sessions, insurance haggles, doctor appointments, my daughter's schedule, and my husband's needs, there is is very little time for me to eat, exercise, or properly take care of myself.  But despite this I do a lot of cooking and try to keep only healthy food in the house.  We eat meat only twice a week, and it is all kosher, grass fed, and pasture raised.  Every meal includes whole vegetables and fruits.  Our dairy intake has decreased and I am experimenting with gluten free cooking.  Take out has been minimized.  Cooking and writing have become my outlets, my best efforts to channel positive and healthy things into our lives.  I think our family is living better as a result of it, but I sure wish I could see more visible results in the mirror.


  1. I'm here to leave an encouraging post ;). Really enjoyed reading this and I'll be back! My husband cleans but is most productive working from a list I make for him. He's the laundry guy here, a tradition that started when I was pregnant with a toddler and couldn't go up and down the stairs to the basement safely. He's also the garbage, recycling, filing of papers guy. Me--pretty much everything else and all the cooking--not as good as what I'm reading here though! Like most everyone I used to live in Hoboken too--but then moved abroad for 18 years, got married and returned and now living in Westfield with aforementioned husband and two boys 5 and almost-2. Went to my 25th HS reunion I feel your pain.. :D

  2. Hi Anonymous,
    Thank you for stopping by our blog. How exciting that you lived abroad. We always talk about doing that someday - maybe when our kids are a bit older.

    Come back and visit again. We had a little break for the holidays, but we're back at the blogging again.

    Take care,