More new mothers are finding empowerment in exercise, but there's one major barrier
Updated October 24, 2019 08:21:48
Circling the athletics track at the end of her street, Sally Heppleston felt like a fraud.
She wasn’t a runner. In fact, for someone who had never even stepped foot in a gym, a foray into fitness hadn’t really been on the books.
But following the devastating stillbirth of her first child, Hope, and two more pregnancies in quick succession, Sally irrevocably found herself “spiralling out of life-changing grief into being a mum with two small children”.
“[Running] was my escape from the kids,” she said. “I needed something to do just for me.”
“I’d been grieving, I’d been mothering, and I just had neglected myself for so long, so the running for me was something to do out on my own.”
Though her story is unique, Sally’s experience is far from an anomaly.
She is one of a growing number of women finding empowerment through exercise as they navigate the unpredictable path of motherhood — and the demands that come with it.
“What we’re seeing is an increasing rate of women wanting to start running,” said Nicole French, an exercise physiologist and director of Exercise for Rehabilitation and Health.
“The biggest thing [they they’re telling us] is that lack of control. Everything is changing for them. They want to feel empowered in some way and they want to be in control of something.”
‘They’re very fearful of being judged as bad parents’
It should come as little surprise that the transition into parenthood often goes hand in hand with a decline in exercise.
In a trial examining physical activity trends across non-parents, first-time parents and second-time parents, up to 50 per cent of adults who were regularly active dropped their physical activity behaviours when they had children.
This deficit was still present after five years.
Ms French said sleep deprivation and a change in routine — or lack thereof — were often to blame.
“What many mums report is that in addition to these things going on, they can actually feel quite guilty about investing any time into themselves,” she said.
“They’ll also talk about judgement from family and friends if they’re not seen to be investing every single minute of the day into their newborn, and they’re very fearful of being judged as bad parents.”
It’s hardly a phenomenon limited to Australia. A recent survey of 1,000 mothers in the United Kingdom found six in ten felt that they were neglecting their family by taking time out to exercise.
It’s a sentiment Nicole Bunyon is attune to.
The mother of three and ultra-marathon runner founded Running Mums Australia, a grassroots community of parents with a passion for pounding the pavement, while juggling the demands of motherhood.
What started as a small following on Facebook has sparked a nationwide movement of mothers who identify with her message.
“When I was a younger mum with young children, I did feel guilty about taking time out to run or do my own thing, but over the years I see just how important it is for myself to have goals and work towards them,” she said.
“I think I am a better mother by showing my kids that I can commit to something, work hard at it and achieve it, no matter how hard it seems.
“It also means time for me as a mum to connect with myself, my friends and nature.”
‘I feel like I’m free, I feel like it’s my release’
While the physical benefits of exercise are widely acknowledged, according to Dr Justin Coulson, there’s also a psychological basis behind the pursuit of fitness.
The parenting expert says the sense of volition and autonomy that exercise brings can be an important circuit breaker for parents.
“When you’re exercising, it’s something that you’re freely choosing, it’s a passion. It’s just something you can do because it feels great,” he said.
“Whereas when it comes to family life, many parents will say to me, ‘I feel so trapped. And I get out on the bike, or I get out on my run… because I feel like I’m free, I feel like it’s my release’.”
With the support of her husband — who was conscious of the fact that she “needed an outlet”, particularly when her children were younger — Sally made sure she set aside time to lace up her sneakers.
In between “breastfeeding and nappies and the naps they they weren’t having”, she said it was something “I could really do for me”.
“And on my own, which was good because life is busy and noisy with little kids at home, so the running was a real outlet.”
Bleeding, prolapse and incontinence
Though exercise can serve as an important reprieve for those experiencing major upheavals in their home lives, experts have warned it’s not all liberation and lycra.
According to Ms French, the fruition of social media trendsetters “racing back to pre-birth bodies” is encouraging women to push themselves beyond their limits.
“I have heard and seen firsthand people jumping back into things like high intensity interval training classes two weeks after giving birth,” she said.
“A lot of the instructors that lead these programs, they sort of embrace it and celebrate it and glorify it, which is quite scary. They have this ‘good on you, I wish I had more people like you’ mentality.”
Ms French said the phenomenon was putting women at increased risk of bleeding and prolapse. Longer term, she said, those in the health sector were seeing “higher incidents of chronic lower back pain and incontinence”.
But it’s not just the potential physical consequences of overexercising that experts point to.
After becoming parents, Dr Coulson believes some couples begin to take their relationships for granted, and turn to exercise to meet their “needs satisfaction”.
“So they’re no longer looking to their partner and their kids to satisfy the relationship needs that they have,” he said.
“They’re saying, ‘well they’re always there and sometimes they’re a bit of a burden, but my mates on the bike never ask anything of me, they’re just fun and it feels good’.”
Though this type of “obsessive passion” can create stress within a relationship, Dr Coulson believes it has much darker consequences.
“I’ve had conversations with people who openly said, ‘I left the three-year-old watching Paw Patrol so I could sneak out for an hour [to exercise]’,” he said.
“That’s an obsessive passion and it’s disturbing. It’s concerning and it’s child abuse.”
‘I’m happy to stay fit, see my friends and have a coffee’
According to Dr Coulson, like all things in life, reaping the rewards of exercise comes down to striking the right balance.
“The research shows if we can be consistent three or four times a week and get out there and have that time, we still get to experience a sense of competence,” he said.
“We still get the ‘me time’, the volition, the autonomous ‘I’m out here doing what I want’. But we come back, we’re fresher, we’re able to contribute more and we have greater mental acuity.”
To develop realistic exercise expectations postpartum, Ms French adds, women should look at what their personal fitness and health levels were like prior to falling pregnant.
“The major thing is for mums to steer away from looking at a lot of that social media in and around trying to get back to this perfect body and everything so, so quickly,” she said.
As far as Nicole Bunyon is concerned, the “perfect body” doesn’t exist. She wants women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds to come together to embrace the benefits of exercise.
“When women see beyond what society perceives as the ‘perfect athlete body’ they can achieve great things,” she said.
A couple of marathons later — including the London Marathon, where she raised almost $25,000 for the Stillbirth Foundation — it’s fair to say Sally doesn’t feel like a fraud anymore.
But these days, the avid parkrun volunteer says she’s pretty content with sticking to “five or ten kilometres”.
“That’s about all I can fit in around kids and work or whatever, but I’m happy to just stay fit, see my friends and have a coffee afterwards,” she quipped.
First posted October 24, 2019 05:17:18