Before becoming a mom, I used to go for long runs. After leaving work on a beautiful spring day, I’d drive home, lace up my shoes, and head out to the park. Making my way down a dusty trail, I’d admire the blooming dogwoods and rows of yellow daffodils. I’d breathe in the freshly cut grass and take pleasure in the heat of the sun warming my bare shoulders. Afterward, sweaty and tired, I’d sit on the porch with my husband; we’d eat dinner and drink a beer, enjoying the sunset.
Then I had a baby. The baby brought his own pleasures—a gummy smile, a joyful coo—but he contracted my life, too. Gone was my free time after work. Gone were those leisurely, long evening runs. Sure, my husband and I would take turns, swapping carefully planned minutes to accommodate self-care, but these moments felt fleeting. My husband usually worked 12-hour days. Often, it was just me alone with my baby.
So I began indulging in exercise snacks. There’s plenty of research showing that they can have major health and fitness benefits. One study last year found that short, frequent workouts actually build more strength than longer, less regular ones. Another study showed that multiple one-minute bursts of activity throughout the day can reduce mortality by up to 40 percent. For someone like a new mom who struggles to find time or motivation to move throughout the day, this could be great news.
But it’s not without its risks.
Assuming the schedule of a newborn (one where my day was punctuated by five or more short, dissatisfying naps), I began to graze on movement. I streamed 10-minute core workouts while he slept. Then, when he woke up and was ready for some tummy time, I did some planks beside him. When baby became fussy, I pulled out the Bjorn and strapped him against my chest. The extra weight was perfect for rounds of lunges across the living room floor. As I read to my son, I laid on my side, sneaking in leg lifts as I cradled him against my chest.
Cooking dinner felt like the perfect time to practice squats. Standing in line at the grocery store? Better get in those calf raises. Baby happily bouncing in his doorway jumper? Might as well get some jumping jacks in, too.
At first, I was gratified by my creativity at squeezing in movement throughout the day. I often heard other mothers talk about how difficult it was to find time to exercise. Sometimes, I wanted to interject in these conversations with my own strategies—a little bit here, a little bit there, you can exercise anywhere! But I was becoming aware that my habits were not always healthy.
In fact, I felt that if I were to say it all aloud, I might sound a little deranged.
Here’s what began to happen: By sneaking in a mini-workout anytime, I was thinking about it all the time. The exercise snacks left me constantly craving. I found myself unable to just sit still on the floor and play with or read to my baby. It became difficult to stand in the kitchen and cook without trying to fit in some sort of movement.
There was something about exercise snacks—those short bursts of endorphins throughout my mundane day—that felt addictive.
I suppose one could argue that there are worse things to be addicted to than exercise. Still, exercise addiction is something we don’t talk about enough. Laura Hallward, PhD, a kinesiologist who specializes in exercise and health psychology, says that compulsive exercise is a “socially acceptable prison cell.” When I spoke to her, she noted that compulsive exercise can often start innocently, with someone trying to get healthy or simply feel better about themselves. But then it can spiral.
For me, I found that my relationship with exercise became consuming whenever I was lonely or whenever my life felt chaotic—two features that characterize new motherhood.
Eventually, I realized it was beneficial to put boundaries on my workouts, in the same way that I might pre-plan a meal to keep from grazing on unfulfilling snacks. Though scheduling a block of time for movement isn’t always necessary for physical health, I found that it was helpful for my mental health.
Whenever I was able to go for a decent run, or lift a full sequence of weights without interruption, I didn’t feel the need to keep working out throughout the rest of the day. Rather than relying on short bursts of endorphins, I was able to achieve a flow state. I went for a run—and then I was done. Exercise was a part of my life, but not my whole life—which was precisely how I wanted it to be.