How to Stay Fit When You Become a Father
New fathers face a multitude of time-consuming dilemmas: helping to feed the baby every two hours, changing dirty diapers, bath time, doctors visits, getting them to sleep (the list goes on, but I’m sticking to a word count here). Much of early fatherhood is spent meticulously caring for this new life–so much so that you can forget to look after yourself. And although your heart may be in the right place, if you’re not taking care of your own mental wellbeing and physical fitness, how are you supposed to take care of someone else? Recent research has shown that up to 38% of new dads worry about their mental health and 20% of them felt isolated during their first year of fatherhood.
Everyone’s situation is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to our mental wellbeing, but it can be helpful to hear from others and how they are navigating parenthood. That’s why Men’s Health and Dove Men+Care wanted to connect with Chris ‘The Bull’ Baugh, an ex-professional boxer and personal trainer who takes mental health just as seriously as physical.
Chris became a dad on January 22, 2021, and since then he’s experienced pitfalls and peaks, and grown both as a parent and as a man. Here he explains how his fitness flagged, how he got it back, the importance of taking time out, and how he’s integrating fatherhood into his passions.
Take time off
“I’m an ex-professional athlete, so I can’t let myself go completely. But when my little girl first arrived, I did nothing for six weeks. Sometimes we have this voice in our heads that tells us we need to do more, but I knew that nothing was going to be more important than soaking up those newborn memories, because you’ll never get them back. So for a while I just ate what I wanted and cuddled up with my daughter, and I recommend every new father to do the same.
“I think there’s a damaging narrative where people assume that dads can’t do anything in the beginning, that it’s all about the mum. That’s not the case at all. You can be involved with your baby as you want to be. My girl had trouble feeding, so she was bottle-fed a mix of breast milk and formula. If dads have the opportunity to feed their kids, they should do it, because it creates an incredible bond. You just need to remember to cut yourself some slack, because being a parent is unpredictable.”
Studies have shown that taking time off from your career has positive benefits for new fathers and their partners. A study by Dove Men+Care and Promundo found that fathers reported being more satisfied with their lives (87% vs. 50%), jobs (82% vs. 52%), and sex lives (77% vs. 44%) when they had more time to be involved with their children’s upbringing. An additional study also found that mothers were less likely to experience depression when fathers were more involved in infant care.
Join a fitness community
“Becoming a father can be lonely. If you’re on paternity leave, or a drink after work with your colleagues is no longer an option because you have to get home for bath time–which is important and you should be doing–that reduction in social interaction can hit you. But finding a time to join a fitness community can compensate for that.
“Your fitness goals will never be more important than being emotionally present for your baby”
“My mental health, like everyone’s, swings up and down and I have to work on it to keep it positive. Running has helped me a lot with this, and I never used to be a long-distance runner. Just before I had my child, I was running 15K solo in the mornings to calm my mind. Now I love doing it with friends or at a run club, sometimes competitively and sometimes just for the fun of it. It’s such a good way to connect with people, chat and be pushed to your limit. It’s hard to talk to someone when you’re trying to get a new deadlift PB, but I believe a lot of fitness should be social, especially because so many of us have been cut off from each other for so long in lockdown.”
Don’t forget your passion
“Getting back into boxing has been great. I retired in 2016 to start running a business and take up more functional fitness, but since my daughter came into my life, my love for boxing has come back–both coaching and practicing it.
“It’s been so stimulating to work with professionals again. It really helps to have something you feel grounded in when everything changes in your life. Yeah, you’ve got to run around after your kid, but you’ve also got to remember what you’re about. You’re a father and your kids are going to watch and look up to you, so set an example. If you’ve got something you’re passionate about, you should share it with your kid, because it’s going to light both of you up. If you only focus on your child and stop doing everything you love, it might tick a few boxes for a while, but what I want to do is show my daughter what a passionate, invested and fulfilled person looks like.”
There’s a misconception that burning the candle at both ends results in a better output of work—whatever your career may be. However, a recent study of 1,500 employers offering paid family leave found that over 80% of employees experienced a positive impact on employee morale and over 70% of employees reported an increase in productivity. Chris has seen a boost too, both physically and mentally, since taking a well deserved break from his 9-5 to support his new family, proving that paternity leave shouldn’t just be a luxury to a lucky few, but a mandatory employee benefit supported by businesses around the globe.
Paternity leave has also been shown to have an extremely positive impact on mothers. A 2019 State of the World’s Fathers study found that over 65% of women say mothers would have better physical health, and over 72% say they would have better mental health if fathers took at least two weeks paternity leave.
“In the beginning, keep your expectations super-low and aim for 20-minute workouts. Still push yourself, just in small bursts. Don’t expect to immediately go back to how you were before your break, because it’ll just knock your confidence and you’ll be more likely to quit.
“New fathers are always going to be tired, and in periods of fatigue we generally drift into things that numb us: TV, social media. So my advice would be, when you’re not with your child, put the electronics to one side and just go to bed. This will help you keep your energy up.
“And don’t think for a second that your fitness goals will ever be more important than being mentally and emotionally present for your baby. I do need training to keep myself steady, but taking six weeks off isn’t the end of the world. Just listen to yourself and find out what your body and mind really need.”
Dove Men+Care supports fatherhood and all the challenges it comes with, from championing paternity leave by researching its benefits for new fathers and their families to breaking down the stereotypes that hold men back from experiencing the positive effects of care on themselves and on others.