I'm at high risk of becoming inactive.
As an Olympian, I never thought I would be in this category, but at the same time I'm relieved.
Making the transition out of sport and taking on new roles – including motherhood – has made it hard to be sufficiently physically active on a consistent basis. According to the research, coupled with my own trials and tribulations, it turns out that being a new mom is a big hurdle in finding the time and energy to get regular exercise. Just knowing this has allowed me to make my expectations more realistic.
New mothers are among the most at risk for becoming physically inactive. Evidence shows that there are two major points of decline of physical activity levels over one's lifetime. The first point corresponds to parenthood, in particular for new moms – up to 50 per cent of previously active women become inactive in the transition to motherhood. The second point occurs for both men and women around 65 years old.
Even after the heavy demands of early parenthood pass, most women do not regain their previous levels of activity. This is a major concern not only for mothers' individual health but also because parents' physical activity levels are key in determining those of their children.
Physical activity is critical at every stage of life. It supports mental health, reduces the risk of chronic disease and helps maintain the mental and physical stamina necessary to meet the demands of everyday life.
After having my own child two years ago, I now understand that the challenges facing new mothers are universal and go beyond my individual lack of willpower to squeeze in a workout. There are plenty of days when I have the best intentions to be physically active and know that I will benefit from something as simple as taking a walk, but have been too exhausted to even get off the couch. In our culture, we tend to not recognize that although healthy behaviours are simple – including eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep and working out – our environments often limit our ability to make them a habit.
My current mantra is a far cry from my days as an elite athlete, when I would spend 30 hours a week training. Today, my goal is to gain the most benefit from investing the least amount of time into physical activity by doing high-intensity workouts. Consistency is key. I aim for 40 minutes of high-intensity cardio three days a week, with a full-body, 40-minute interval training session one day per week.
Since I am currently pregnant, I have reduced my workouts to three days a week of high-intensity cardio, fit in yoga when I have the time and make the effort to take walks with my son. I look at my progress on a monthly basis – some weeks I do more, some I do less, but as long as I hit my target over the month I consider it a success.
Even though my new fitness goals are modest, there was a time when I found myself unable to meet them. So I decided to eliminate my commute to the gym and bought an indoor stationary bike system for my road bike, making my workout time more efficient. For interval training I use the free Nike Training Club app, which requires almost no equipment, just space to move.
I used to enjoy the social aspect of going to the gym, but the time saving of working out at home allows me to be more consistent in my routine. And I get the added flexibility of sharing childcare responsibilities with my husband. After my son goes to bed, or when I have a moment to slip away for a workout that fits his schedule during the day, I jump on my bike.
With walks to the park and grocery store with my son, my current training routine happens to fall almost exactly within the Canadian guidelines of getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week, in 10-minute intervals or more. This was not by design – I simply planned my program so I could succeed.
My fitness level is nothing compared to what it was as an elite competitor, but that doesn't bother me. I don't worry about fitness benchmarks. My new goal is built around feeling good. I know that if I commit to my fitness regimen I will have more energy, manage my emotions more effectively, sleep well and focus better at work.
Although the Canadian guideline can be helpful in offering a target, research shows that just understanding the recommendations is not the most effective form of motivation. The enjoyment we experience from exercising is one of the strongest motivating factors.
But let's be realistic: Juggling all the pressures of a daily routine while squeezing in physical activity is difficult and not always much fun.
I use several techniques to increase my enjoyment. I always blast a great playlist, appreciate the opportunity to quiet my mind and relax (rare these days), and remind myself that I have never regretted taking the time to work out.
Understanding that physical activity is a real challenge for new mothers, identifying barriers and being realistic about my objectives has allowed me to once again make exercise a regular part of my life.
Jennifer Heil is a humanitarian and an Olympic gold and silver medalist in the sport of freestyle mogul skiing. She is the co-founder of B2ten and has raised more than $1-million for the Because I Am a Girl initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @jennheil.