The 4 Pillars to an active and healthy lifestyle for mums
by Dr MJ Ong, Australia’s Exercise Scientist of the Year 2019 Health & Fitness Coach for Perth Mums
Disclaimer: Returning to exercise after giving birth is a very personal choice and you should take as much time as you need and not feel the rush to return to your usual activity or to lose weight via drastic restrictive diets. It is okay to not be ready for change yet. Adopting an active and healthy lifestyle for the long term is the ideal solution for you and your family.
As a health and fitness coach for mums, the most common goal my clients have is weight loss and doing something to make themselves feel better physically and mentally. This goal can become tricky for many of us with the increased daily responsibilities and the invisible mental load that mothers experience.
In Australia, less than 50% of women aged 18-45 are sufficiently active for health benefits and disease prevention and this number drops to 3 in 10 when women fall pregnant.
This means that the majority of women are doing less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on a weekly basis. This applies to women generally, so we can imagine it would be even lower for mothers, due to the sheer number of barriers to exercise that they have.
I often hear mothers say, “Oh when my kids are older I will get time to go to the gym and eat better.” While there is some truth in saying that, because we do get more time when kids reach school age, this “free time” is commonly replaced with returning to work or juggling more kids.
So when will it be about you, mum?
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not highlighting these statistics to make anyone feel bad, add more things to your must-do list or call anyone lazy. As a WAHM, I understand the fatigue from broken sleep, the stress from managing little people’s emotions and pressures that women get to maintain a household, work and be a wife/mother.
The reason I’m writing this is to provide you with simple solutions to help you to start taking steps towards an active & healthy lifestyle that works for you.
In my online program The Bloom Method, I help mothers like you bloom by teaching you the 4 pillars to an active and healthy lifestyle.
But to start, we must realise that it will take some organisation to get us into the habits of being an active, fit and healthy mum and achieving this NOW and not later is essential in helping us manage the stress and pressure we face.
The hard truth is we will always be mothers but our health will not stay in the status quo and can change for the worse if we do not take time to look after it consistently. Diseases take time to manifest and that is why we need to look after us right now, not when an illness is upon us.
Eating well and exercising regularly also helps you work better at the cellular level, creating the energy you need to handle the demands of motherhood and life in general. I often hear mums say, “I don’t have time or energy to exercise or eat well.” This is when things are not in line in the right order. We exercise and eat well so that we can have abundant energy for life.
What then, is the four pillars to get us on track with creating an active and healthy lifestyle as mums?
Pillar 1: Keep things simple and honest
The first pillar is about stripping things back and doing an honest evaluation of what is happening in your life. I often get my clients to start a habit of journaling, to help offload the mental baggage – to do a brain dump so to speak.
That creates brain capacity for us to honestly evaluate our situation for what it is and identify reasons that are valid and those that are excuses. This process can often be uncomfortable, yet it is essential because we are taking responsibility for the action (or lack thereof) that brought us to our current state of health.
It also helps us to get in touch with how we learn new things and which approach to take when trying to establish new habits (ie. Are you someone who must go in on a clean slate or someone that will get success with baby step changes?)
Once we have a clear picture of what might work for us (I say “might” here because sometimes what we thought may not be until we try it out), we then look into health & fitness products available on the market, from the affordable meal/exercise plans and apps on our phones (if you can independently make changes to your life), to the more expensive in-person trainer or coach if you need extra support.
It comes down to what you prefer and whether the program will make you execute the plan and how it will keep you going at it consistently.
Some people can do in solo, some people need the support of another person. There is no right or wrong way, just what is right for you. And when we know what right for us, we can keep our “tool kit” simple and that helps create the right actions for an active healthy lifestyle, instead of overloading the mind with different plans of “attack.”
Similarly, there are so many different types of “diets” available telling you that meat is best, plant-based is best, low-carb is best, high-carb is best, low-fat is best, high-fat is best…and we go “oh-my-goodness what should I eat?”
In the age of information overload, we need to arm ourselves with knowledge so that we can make the best choice for us. It’s great if as we are learning this for ourselves we can “learn out loud,” so to speak, so that our children can learn along with us. And when we make a less than better choice, verbalise it “I had too many sweet things this week, I think I ought to balance out my meals with more vegetables or eat lighter at the next meal.” Such conversations help to model behaviour for our children.
In summary, there is two MUST KNOWS:
1) Weight loss is still very much about calories/kilojoules eaten and energy used each day, despite what may be promoted by different fitness professionals;
By using our hand as a guide at each meal, we aim for 1 cupped hand of complex carbohydrate, 1 palm-sized serve of lean protein, a couple of fists of vegetables (half a fist could be fruit) and half a thumb size of good fats at each meal.
With this combination, most individuals will be satisfied for a good 2-4 hours before needing the next meal and the need for sweet/savoury snacks will also be greatly reduced. There are certainly more in-depth and detailed ways to track what you eat on a daily basis, but let’s be honest, as a busy mum, do you have the energy to be counting calories and weighing your food before you eat it? With our hand as a guide, we always have it with us.
Importantly, by practising more mindful eating, we can re-establish our hunger cues and signal and prevent overeating. For example, after the first serve, ask yourself, “Am I satisfied?” or “Am I still hungry?”
Notice I used the word “satisfied” and not “full.” When we eat to the point of feeling “full,” that is usually an indicator that we have pushed our stomach to its capacity which is not necessary to sustain our daily activities.
By using our hand as a portion guide and sensitising our hunger/satiety signals, we can eat to fuel ourselves with the right amount of food and not overindulge.
2) The female body is different from a male body so there will be specific exercise and training considerations.
Women’s bodies are different to men’s because we go through monthly hormonal changes and these changes affect how we respond to exercise training. Many research studies on training principles involve male subjects so the results cannot and should not be applied to both genders as a blanket rule.
Of note to breastfeeding mothers, I do not know of any research studies on the hormonal patterns during breastfeeding and how it affects exercise training specifically at this stage.
What we do know is that for women on a usual menstrual cycle of 28 -30 days, the first half of the cycle (from the first day of your period) is when you can train/exercise at a higher intensity and our body will adapt and recover the way research suggests. But come ovulation time, the hormone progesterone starts to increase in our bodies. At this point, we can take longer to recover from exercise and training sessions can feel harder than in the first half of the cycle where progesterone is at lower concentrations in the body.
Without knowing this we may think, “what’s wrong with me? why don’t I want to get moving?” but really it’s because our physiology makes us want to go slower.
I think this is super important for women to know because it almost liberates us from thinking that we have no willpower to keep up with exercising consistently or that we are lazy. The fact is, at some times during the month in our cycle, we perhaps just need more gentle forms of movement.
Pillar 2: Mindset
Pillar 1 sets us up for pillar 2 which is mindset. Given the right knowledge about our bodies, we can adopt a growth mindset and look at health and fitness-related issues differently.
Instead of thinking we “fail” or have “fallen off the wagon” during our attempts towards healthier eating habits or getting more exercise done, we see it more fluidly, giving the situation more flexibility and less blame.
No one does better when they feel poorly about themselves. Much like the gentle parenting approach we apply to our children, we need to give ourselves that same empathetic treatment when we feel like we haven’t been looking after our health.
There are many 6-8 week health programs or fitness challenges on the market, and there are many success stories that come out of those programs because it is easier to give something focus in short bouts. However, the success of a program should be measured in relation to whether the results are maintained for the next 1, 5 or 10 years.
For many people, old lifestyle habits creep back in, because old habits really do die hard. Before we realise, the weight creeps back too.
How we approach this weight gain is important because whether a new, healthier habit sticks long-term depends greatly on our mindset about “failing to comply” more commonly known as “falling off the wagon.”
New habits pertaining to balanced healthy eating and regular exercise become difficult to maintain when things happen in daily life because it is something newer to you. Commonly, we beat ourselves up for “failing” and the fixed mindset comes in and we think “it is just not for me.” When we feel down, it becomes even harder to create positive action and change in the right direction.
However, with a growth mindset, we see it as another learning opportunity and we question, what are some habit-forming structures I can put in place in my life so that even when other things get stressful, I can still manage to have wholesome meals with 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables, my lean protein at most meals and a serve of complex carbohydrates to fuel the important functions of the body.
When we exercise and we need to have our kids with us, how do we do it creatively and still get that moderate-intensity session in? As mums with busy schedules, we need to remember that doing some exercise is better than doing NO exercise at all.
Pillar 3: Consistent habits
A growth mindset encourages flexibility in scheduling and learning for everyone. When we can be flexible with our weekly routine, consistent habits become possible. If we look at lifestyle, it really is a series of our habits put together. An exercise session is just one exercise session. Do it once, nothing much happens, but do it consistently for a month, 6 months to 1 year that is when the magic happens.
Much like one meal which is full of processed foods and high fat and sodium content, eating it once might not have a big impact on your overall health but eat it consistently over months and years, that’s when your organs start feeling the strain.
So how do we create consistent habits? Enter Pillar 4…
Pillar 4: Enjoyment
Enjoyment of the foods you eat and the movement/exercises you do is the key to adherence and consistency. The best healthy diet for you is made up of fresh, whole food from the three macronutrients groups (protein, carbohydrates and fats) that you will eat, not something endorsed by a celebrity or an influencer.
We start by choosing foods that we will enjoy and then experiment with cooking it in healthier ways. We also need to learn to experiment and taste new and healthier types of meals and decide what we like and enjoy, and what we don’t.
Similarly with movement and exercise, to do it consistently, we need to try different things and find out what we enjoy and can afford on a long term basis. And sometimes it might not be the actual exercise we enjoy, but the people we love meeting regularly or being in nature.
Such factors encourage us to repeat the action of doing exercise on a weekly basis. My group fitness club, known as The Active Mama Tribe, is a combination of the above, we are all mothers and we enjoy exercising in the outdoors (indoor location during winter months).
Lastly, to help busy mums create long term healthy habits, I created a FREE Habit-forming template that you can get by visiting my website.
The five-page template includes the top 5 habits you need to nail to improve your health straight away. Print out a copy of page 4 for each habit you want to create. Where focus goes, energy flows. By maintaining a log during your habit-forming process, you will be able to hold yourself accountable as you track your own progress. I hope you find this helpful.
And remember if you need more guidance, just send me a message on my website and we can schedule a free 30-minute healthy lifestyle status check over the phone.
Yours in health & fitness,