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I would usually start something like this and say ¨I’m no expert¨, but I think at this stage in my parenting career, that would be a lie. I am an expert, ( it is something that i´m qualified in) and I’ve spent six and a half years trying to get to this stage in my life where we can all benefit from the same activity. And by no means has it been plain sailing acquiring this knowledge. But through trial and error and above all else, perseverance and patience, I have found all the pitfalls and am now happy to say that I am in a blissful place where I can no longer blame the kids as my excuse for not getting my steps in.

I will share what I have learned, in an attempt to make your life a little easier.

To put all this in context, I have been challenged in my life by depression and anxiety for as far back as I can remember. It’s always been there, even from when I didn’t know what ´that feeling´ was, in the pit of my stomach, or the back of my throat, when I´d feel physically sick from anxiety. Exercise has always been my crutch.

One of my many tools to help me cope with my affliction. Exercise allows me to feel control over my own body, when maybe I feel like I have no control over other areas in my life. It regulates my breathing and heartbeat when I would be hyperventilating from panic. And most importantly, it tires me out, so I am less able to engage with the mental chatter. And this quietening of the mind after exercise is probably the most important one now that I am a Mother.

The `mom-guilt´, the forever questioning your decisions, and the lying awake at night going over all the times you were mad at your children that day, wondering how they´ll ever even talk to you again after the amount of screaming at them you did that day, yes THAT mental chatter.

I was always very active, training 6 times a week or so between football training and my own evening runs. And when I found out I was pregnant, straight out of college at 24, I still continued to run about 8 kms every other day up to about 20 weeks pregnant, when it slowly tapered off to Pilates and going for walks.

Looking back, I think I was probably in denial about the whole situation, and once my daughter was born, I fell into deep postnatal depression. By the time she was 3 months old, I had full blown insomnia and wasn’t sleeping. I just turned 25 and felt like I was a different person.

I tried desperately to hold onto the life I had. I went back to football training 3 weeks after giving birth and I played a championship match 2 weeks after that at 5 weeks postpartum! All in an attempt to convince myself I had not changed.

I constantly felt like the baby was holding me back from my previous life and the change in my circumstances was overwhelming. I had a buggy that I could run with but I was too mortified to run with it, all part of the way I was feeling at the time.

Fast forward two years to when my son was born, no post natal depression, finally coming to terms with the life I was now leading. I now had a double buggy for running and I would run 10km trail runs with the all terrain double.

Things got a little trickier when the third arrived and my oldest was now 4. Too big for a buggy, no interest in a bike. With the 2 year old and newborn in the double buggy, I still managed my runs while the eldest was at playschool, but started to feel guilty about the fact she was missing out on the exercise as we would have done it before she would be finished school.

So after I had my run, I would then collect her and go walking, to let them have their exercise. I had my bit done, so I wasn’t completely frustrated at the slow pace, and the run would have me relaxed and be more patient with the kids.

The 2 year old loved his balance bike, unlike 4 yr old, so me and the 4 year old would walk with newborn in buggy and 2 yr old on balance bike. Without fail, the 4 year old would complain for the first kilometre.

She still does! But once she gets over this, she will be running the rest of the way.

Fast forward another two years and my kids are now 6, 4, 2 and the newest arrival is 10 weeks old. And we, as a family are ´happily´ able to walk 10kms! That is right, my 4 year old goes for 10km walks / forestry hikes.

Some would probably see that as child abuse, but I honestly feel like I would not be doing my job as his mother if I was not at least challenging him to try. My 2 year old girl can cycle 4kms on her balance bike and my 6 year old has come on 5km runs with me. We are now at a place where we are all getting equal benefit out of the exercise we do as a family. Here is how we achieved this with only minimal tears, (from me mostly!!)

1: Start small

Common sense here really, but do not attempt to take your kids out for a really long hike up a mountain for instance, if it’s your first day out walking with them. Rome wasn’t built in a day as they say. Blind sighting them like that will end in tears for everyone! You have to start small, and it will totally depend on your child’s age, but starting off with a walk around the estate, for example, then a walk to the shop perhaps and so on. Gauge how they get on the first few times and add on a few minutes extra with each walk.

2: Be intuitive

You will have to gauge how your own child is on a particular day. If the going is good, by all means push on but definitely do not fight against them if it’s just not happening for you. But here is where you have to be careful. If your child is kicking up a fuss, you have to know if it’s for genuine reasons or not. Are they hungry or tired? If it’s a yes, then don’t fight it. If there is no plausible reason for the lack of interest, only boredom, persevere! With so much encouragement and distraction.

3: Encourage

Your child has to know that what they are doing is such a great thing! In fact it is amazing! they are out in the fresh air, getting some exercise, it’s so good for them, they will feel so much better, they will sleep so much better. And if that all lands on deaf ears, tell them that their favourite soccer/hurler/footballer etc is only as good as they are because of all the exercise and ´training and walking´ they do.

4: Distract/Engage

And when that fails, distract them. ´Did you just see that bird up in the tree, I think he was looking at you. Look, I think there is a rabbit in the ditch up ahead, go and see if you can find him.´ Anything, no matter how outrageous, that gets them to forget about the walk they are doing is great. Or engage them in a story, or with the world around them. Talk to them about what is around you, or if they are older, it’s a great chance to connect with them and ask them about what’s going on with them, at school, with friends etc. They won’t notice the time passing if they are engaged in something they are interested in.

5: Bribe if you have to

I wouldn’t be one for giving my kids my phone or a tablet. In this situation I’d prefer them to engage as opposed to be distracted by a device, but on occasion, I have had to give my toddler my phone in order to make them sit in the buggy to allow me to go for a run. Sometimes bribery is the only thing for a quiet life but THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO NOT LET THIS BECOME A HABIT! Do not let them think this is the norm. They cannot associate one with the other. Same goes for snacks. By all means do it the odd time, if you’re pressed for time or not up for the fight. But make sure to nip it in the bud. Eventually they won’t need it and will be happy to sit quietly and look around if that becomes the habit. For older kids, this bribe may be a treat after a walk. For my kids it’s always been, the more exercise done, the bigger the treat. A long walk might translate to a happy meal for dinner for instance.

6: Consider the weather but don’t overthink it.

Children don’t take half as much notice of the weather as us adults. And unfortunately, living in Ireland, if we were only to go outside on days when the weather is good, we would hardly ever be outside. The key to getting outside if the weather isn’t that great, is just don’t overthink it. Don’t give yourself a chance to think about all the reasons why you don’t want to go out. Just put on your coat and go! If u get wet, so be it. You can dry off after. There’s nothing better then the feeling of warming up with a cup of tea after being out in the wind and rain after feeling you’ve achieved something.

7: Consider the clothing

Dress for the occasion. Wellies are fantastic for mucking about but not so great if you want to go for a long walk without your child complaining for example. They offer no support or warmth and may hurt if walking long distances. Opt for a good comfortable walking shoe or runner, even if it’s wet, you can wash them after. Jeans are also a bad insulator so you get cold a lot faster in these. Children heat up a lot faster than adults because their bodies are working harder than yours. It’s a good thing if they feel the need to strip the coat and hat off as they go along, it means their metabolism is going. Layering is key, and just make sure to put the layers back on once they start cooling down again.

8: Snacks

At the beginning, I used to have to bring snacks along to keep the kids going, I still do for the toddler. You don’t want to have to cut a walk short because someone is Hangry. Just keep them healthy. And don’t forget drinks for hydration if you are heading on a long walk.

9: Expectations

Have no expectations. That way, you won’t be disappointed and every little positive will be a win. This is different to setting goals. Do set small goals- it will help to encourage you forward and see your progress. Don’t lose sight of why you are even doing it. If you get out for some fresh air and exercise, even if it’s for 10 minutes, it’s a win. You don’t have to go for a 3 hour expedition every time you leave the house. But those days will come eventually, if that’s what you do want to set out and achieve.

10: Time

Try not to have too many time constraints around your exercise time. Children, like adults, sometimes need more and sometimes need less, depending on the mood. It’s great in theory saying you want to get 30 mins of outside exercise time in each day for example. But some days, your kids just may not be into it and 10 minutes is enough. Other days, they may want to stay out for 3 hours. Be tuned in to this and try and go with it as much as is possible for you.

11: Keep it fresh

Try not to do the same route if possible. If you have a couple of different places you can go, it makes it a lot easier to convince children to go out walking. Instead of asking “will we get out and go for a walk today?” Ask them “will we do the forestry walk or the riverwalk today? ” Not going is not an option and it doesn’t come into their heads. It’s a lot easier for everyone if you have variety and boredom becomes less of an issue.

12. Let them decide what suits them and let them take the lead.

As mentioned above, my first born didn’t take to the balance bike, but my second fella did. As a 3 year old, (first lockdown) he would accompany my husband on 5 km runs. Once he was able to do this, it made it easy for us to run with the smallest in the buggy, however we were still caught out with my oldest. She did not like cycling, so we bought her a scooter, one with 12 inch wheels for off-road because let’s face it, sometimes the footpaths are not even in a good condition for the small scooter wheels! And this works relatively well, but sometimes she actually just prefers to walk, or run. So if cycling is their thing, encourage that, or if it’s running, or walking or scooting, it doesn’t really matter what it is, once everyone is moving.

13: Push the limits

Try and encourage your kids outside of their comfort zone. It’s really important for building resilience and teaches them to react to things outside of their control. If you’re nearly back to the house, turn off and go a different way, making the walk slightly longer. They may freak out, but encourage them along. The sense of achievement they feel for doing “extra” will be massive for them and they’ll feel great in themselves. This will also teach them to dig deep and deal with situations that they may not be happy with, but just have to get through anyway. Life is full of these curve balls. Introducing your kids to this in a kind way will stand to them forever.

14: Enjoy it!

It has to be fun for everyone for this to succeed, including you! They’ll sense it off you if you do not want to be there and it will just stress every one out. There is no point in even attempting something like this if you don’t even enjoy walking yourself. If you prefer to get your exercise in away from the children and that is your ´me time´ as a way to de-stress, then that is fine too. By doing so, you´ll come back to them a better parent. Do not EVER feel guilty for that because we all need that too. Just try your best to get them out exercising in different ways that work best for your family, be it swimming or cycling or scheduled sports clubs etc.

These are just general guidelines and things we figured out as a family over the years. Every family is different so be flexible, try a few different things and see what works well for you and your family. The ultimate goal is for everyone to enjoy getting some exercise together so try not to lose sight of that and enjoy your family walks.

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