Wednesday 24 January 2018

Too tired to be healthy

You need to be fit to have kids in your forties, says Pat Fitzpatrick. The problem is trying to find the time and energy to get out the door for some exercise.

FAMILY MAN: Pat Fitzpatrick with daughter Freda and son Joe. Photo: Daragh McSweeney
FAMILY MAN: Pat Fitzpatrick with daughter Freda and son Joe. Photo: Daragh McSweeney

Pat Fitzpatrick

I started a Couch- to-5k programme last week. It's one of those ones where you install a chirpy American woman app on your phone and she gets you slowly into jogging. The idea is that you go from couch potato to someone who can run a 5K in eight weeks.

Like most of these things now, it's described as a journey. I lasted two days, until my back said, you must be joking. I ended up waddling around the house for a week, like a duck with diarrhoea. That's a short journey. You could call it Couch to 100 metres.

This journey wasn't brought on by too much cheap Cava over Christmas. I wish. Like the fairground owner at the end of Scooby Doo, I blame the kids. My kids, both under three.

As with most dads who waited until 45 to start a family, I need a sharp spike in fitness just to keep up with them. A friend of mine who's a few years ahead on the kid front, warned me that I'd be too old to run around after them. I thought he was just having a bad day. I should have listened to him and started training there and then. Rather than building up to a marathon, I'd be gearing up my exercise for the arrival of our first child.

The problem, then and now, is to find the time to do it. I used to play squash and five-a-side regularly. That's a nice social way to strike back against the man boobs as I moved into my mid-forties. (Social is good in terms of exercising when you have kids. Running around with other middle-aged men is a great break for your mind.) That little fitness regime had me out of the house for about three hours every week, including journeys to and from the venues. If you can spare that time for yourself with two kids under three, then you are either very rich or a deadbeat dad. I don't qualify on either count, unfortunately.

At least the jogging was something I could do on the spur of the moment, whenever a rare spare 30 minutes came my way. And then my back said, act your age. You can't risk a bad back with a toddler and a baby. It's all about bending and lifting at that stage of proceedings. On top of that, my wife warned this would happen if I started pounding the roads for the first time in my life at the age of 48. It's fair to say there has been an atmosphere of "I told you so" around our place in the last few days. As hard as it is to admit this, it's fair to say I deserve it.

So the jogging is out. That's bad news. The game has changed in the last 10 years for middle-aged men in terms of fitness. Gone are the days when you could feel good about yourself after bringing the dog for a walk twice a week. If you are not doing something ultra or extreme these days, people think you are like a lazy version of the father in The Royle Family.

Three friends of mine, whose kids are well reared, are now in training for triathlons. I've a cousin in his fifties playing some kind of rugby. (Not tag. That, at least, is something I could understand.) You hear bizarre stories of men in their sixties looking for hip replacements because they want to do an ultra-marathon. And yet, like a lot of other late-life dads, I can barely find the time to go for a run. Or to be honest, the energy. I didn't cut out the squash just because it took up too much of my time. I also cut it out because I felt it would have been insulting to my playing partner if I fell asleep during an important point.

I'm wrecked tired. People had warned us about the mind-altering levels of tiredness you experience with smallies in the house. But really, nothing can prepare you for the hallucination-level exhaustion. We're not talking about the kind of inertia I used to feel five years ago, when I'd be looking for reasons to skip five-a-side soccer on a wet Wednesday night. Those were the days when exercise would actually revive me. I'd barrel back in the door, full of life after running around aimlessly for an hour, telling the wife that I'm basically Cristiano Ronaldo trapped in an older man's body. That's not how exercise works when you haven't managed a full night's sleep in a year. I actually had to give up a game of squash recently because I couldn't stand up straight. Exercise is just making me feel more tired. That kind of carry-on can make a guy feel very old.

None of this is good for my health. Not least because exercise is so important for your immune system. That matters when you are sharing a house with little germ factories. If there's one thing worse than trying to give a toddler a bath with a bad back, it's trying to do it when you have a barrel of snot clogging up your sinuses.

Sleep deprivation is recognised as a form of torture by the UN. (I'm still waiting for a squad of blue-helmeted soldiers to arrive at the door and tell the kids to cop themselves on.) It's not that we're up all night with the kids. But a recent study showed that being woken once at night leaves you feeling as if you only had four hours' sleep. That might have been OK for Maggie Thatcher. But it will never work for me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm amazed that these two little gems have parachuted into our lives. A lot of mornings, I wake up and realise that I missed them when I was asleep. I love lying on the ground and letting them crawl over me for a bit of bonding. (Lying down also means I'm ready to grab a quick nap if they get distracted by something on the telly.) There is an incredible newness about young kids at close quarters. Their porcelain skin, sparkling silky hair, the way my daughter's lips look like she puts on a bit of lippy before getting out of bed in the morning. They are vibrant and vital and healthy, even with a six-foot snot hanging out of their nose.

They make me feel old and worn-out in comparison. I want to do something about it. There's the Catch-22 for a lot of middle-aged dads. Our lovely little kids make us want to get out there and rejuvenate ourselves with a bit of exercise. The same lovely little kids who suck up all our time and energy so we can't get out the door.

I know all this will pass and we'll probably be sleeping through the night within the next few months. (Jinx, touch wood.) But I also know it's much easier to get out of the habit of exercise than it is to get back into it. And given that I am currently self-medicating the tiredness with about 40 Crunchies a week, the scoreboard is surely showing Cholesterol-1 Me-Nil.

There's only one thing for it. And it isn't jogging. The "told you so" and waddling like a duck is never worth it. No, I'm going to get a bit selfish and take an hour a week to get back on the squash court. I'm sure my wife won't mind if it stops me looking like a 93-year-old coach potato. So, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to ring my old squash partner. With any luck, he'll have me back.

What's needed here is organising some time for yourselves, says Dr Ciara Kelly

This is such a common problem and I've been there myself - but don't give up hope of normal life reasserting itself.  It will!

So many parents of young kids feel that they simply can't make any time for themselves because they are too busy, or indeed, they are too tired or they would be letting their partner down, but it simply isn't sustainable to keep going at the pace you are, with all work, no breaks and no sleep.

Something has got to give - be it your health, your marriage or your sanity. What's needed here is some planning and organising. Look at your week with your partner and work out where you can fit in some protected time for exercise, and at least one night a week where you're not on duty and can stick in the ear plugs and get a full eight hours. Even those two changes will allow you to feel you have some control and that you are winning the battle for supremacy with your toddlers.

Low back pain is often an issue when you first run if you're not used to it. Try to get some weight off, if needs be. Do lower back and hamstring stretches before running. And shorten your stride so you run with smaller steps. Running off road or other hard surfaces can also help.

But don't give up! All of this will get easier and you will be in better shape to enjoy it if you take some steps now to put plans in place for a healthier future.



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