Tuesday, 3 March 2015

No time to run: is role overload contributing to physical inactivity in parents?

Posted by Caroline Dodd-Reynolds

Last night during a Twitter exchange, it somehow came about that I would write a #fuseblog on barriers to physical activity and a healthy diet in working mums. Interestingly, my one-year-old daughter had just gone nicely to bed at this point and so my husband and I treated ourselves to a healthy(ish) home-cooked dinner, albeit at 9pm. Normal service was resumed however at 12.30am when we were woken by the sound of the one-year-old vigorously banging on her cot and shouting, ‘Is DARK!’ (yes, it’s the middle of the night). So here I am typing this blog with two hours of sleep under my belt. Primarily this is why I no longer do very much exercise-based physical activity, or indeed eat as healthily as I used to. I am sure there are many who can relate to this sleep-deprived existence. Certainly the transition to parenthood can be an experience of life-changing proportion. For me, the transition back to work after months of no sleep and complete displacement from my previous identity was interesting.

There is guilt at leaving my little one at nursery and then there is the race through the day so that I can leave early enough for us to have an hour of (potentially active) play before bedtime. There is guilt at not being able to attend the evening functions at work, the interesting lectures that I know would be pure luxury to immerse myself in. There is pressure to succeed at work, not so much to prove that I can be both a parent and an academic, but more that if I don’t, then there is little point in having endured the guilt. And what of physical activity? Well, please see my previous points as to why this takes a seat so far back that I can barely see it.

The Chief Medical officers recommend 2hr 30min moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per week for adults; an individual is classed as inactive if achieving less than 30min moderate physical activity per week. Time spent engaged in MVPA declines with age and in 2012, 67% of men and 55% of women aged 16 years and over were meeting recommendations. These data were self-reported and objective monitoring methods suggest these figures are inflated. Guidelines for reducing sedentary behaviour are less clear but should involve avoiding prolonged periods of sitting. I am a full-time Lecturer in Physical Activity and Nutrition and so the irony of spending hours (sitting) writing lectures on the perils of sedentary behaviour and energy-dense snacks, is not lost on me. I did a quick PubMed search including physical activity and working mums as key terms and found a lonely but slightly reassuring 10 articles.

One article describes succinctly and astutely the fact that much is known about motherhood as a transitional influence on the physical activity habits of new parents, but actually very little about those new parents (or indeed any parents) who work. Emily Mailey and her colleagues, from the Dept of Kinesiology at Kansas State University, talk about ‘role overload’ and how this is associated with negative health outcomes such as elevated stress, depression and anxiety. I am starting to feel better here. The 25 mothers and fathers who participated in focus groups for this study reported barriers such as ‘scheduling constraints’ which I think many working parents may identify with – for me it is the Outlook calendar that keeps me on track and I know that if I schedule 30min into it on a Tuesday, I do have time to nip out for a run and I am more productive for it. But then what if someone requests a meeting or tutorial? Interestingly, ‘prioritising’ is noted as a facilitator. One mother comments that she had to get up at 5am to fit her physical activity into her day. Indeed this is a thought that often crosses my mind. Another, is that working parents may well comprise a special population in terms of physical (in)activity habits and sedentary behaviour; when I was on maternity leave I was certainly more active than I am now.

Anyway, I’m writing this on a Friday (thank goodness for the weekend). I really must clean the bathroom tomorrow, and the car needs a good wash, these will get my activity counts up, great. Oh but then there is that paper I need to write, and next week’s lecture I have yet to prepare. I know realistically what I will be doing this weekend – and it may not comprise any minutes of MVPA, nor help my preparation for next week at work, but I know it is the finest choice and that my little girl will laugh out loud with delight when she sees the animals on the farm.

Feeling slightly more awake after some strong coffee, I have just read this blog back and am sad that it sounds rather negative. It isn’t meant to, but it has made me think a little more about how I spend my days (and the potential to ask for a standing desk at work). And in case you were wondering, I would not swap my little girl for any amount of physical activity. Mailey and co. talk about being a role model and being active with your children. In a good week with no illness, sleepless nights or marking, we probably do manage to achieve this to an extent. And my little girl is happy, active and eats a healthy but balanced diet (vegetables and chocolate included) so perhaps we are doing things right after all?

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