21 Days of Exercise With a Baby

Many of my three week experiments start with the question “What if?” When I get curious about a specific challenge after artificially inducing one or more limiting factors, I almost always discover something new about myself and what I engage in. This is especially true around fitness and nutrition challenges. My favorite of these constrained experiments are the ones that reconnect me with a version of my ancestors from another era. As nomadic hunter-gatherers,  strollers and daycare have only been around for the briefest blink of time. Most of life’s waking moments were filled with movement and to keep your baby from becoming a predator’s snack, he was always clinging to the mother's body.

Far removed from my primal past, most of my days are spent staring at a box of pixels. I take short breaks for movement, but also schedule in at least one uninterrupted hour every day to work harder. So what if mom wasn't around? What if I couldn’t leave my baby behind for that period over the next 21 days? 

The Movements 

I decided to try and salvage as much of my regular routine as possible, which usually falls in one of these categories: 

Resistance Work

This simply means picking up heavy things. This could be bodyweight like a pull-up or push-up or, lifting weights. I used a lot of kettlebells since they provided flexibility while wearing a baby, but dumbbells work almost as well. The best movements are the ones that aren’t very explosive such as squats, lunges and presses. Pull-ups, push-ups, overhead presses, sled pushes and ring-dips/rows. Ones that are traditionally more explosive can still be done as long as the resistance is clear of your baby, but with much lighter weight and a more controlled execution. 

Outdoor Training

At least once a week, I do one of my workouts outside, immersed in as much nature as I can get to, while barefoot if possible. I spend most of my life indoors which is a far departure from my hunter predecessors. A workout is the perfect reason to reconnect with nature for an hour. The work is usually more along the lines of metabolic conditioning, but I also love doing pull-ups on trees or bringing a kettlebell outside. Hiking, stair climbing and bicycling are all great options. 

Yoga

My favorite thing about yoga is how efficient it is. In one session, you can touch on strength, balance, flexibility and equanimity. It’s true movement with purpose. I never do the stretching or mobility work as often as I should, so yoga is a great way to carve out a little time to address it. Also, if you’re like me and have a hard time sitting still long enough to meditate, yoga can be a gateway into a mindfulness practice. Now baby-and-me yoga classes are another story. Your baby will be crawling all over you and there isn’t much of a meditative quality about it, unless you count trying not to lose your mind during the chorus of a dozen screaming infants. That said, it’s very cute and a lot of fun. However, it wasn’t quite the physical challenge I was looking for and the afternoon scheduling was tough for me. 

How I Included My Baby

Wearing

I also have an eleven year old daughter, so I’ve been through many, many carriers and backpacks. The one i like the best by far is the Ergo Performance. It is designed so that almost all of the baby’s weight is carried on your hips, as opposed to your back and shoulders. One way to wear your baby is on the front, facing you. There is also an infant insert if you want to get started real early. I used this for long, multi-hour hikes when he was just four weeks old. This carrier also lets you wear your baby on your back, with him facing forward. 

Bicycling

I’ve also had a ton of bike seats, but this stem-mounted carrier by iBert is the one I’ve enjoyed the most. Getting the baby in and out is easy since you can hold the bike upright with your legs by cinching the front wheel with your feet and lets while facing the front of the carrir. I can also see his face while I’m riding and the center of gravity feels very stable. It will hold a baby up to 40 lbs. 

Free carry

I did a lot of hikes and stair climbing with a free carry. This really does create a whole-body workout. I would usually rest him on my hip and cradle him with my left or right arm until that bicep would fatigue, and then just switched. He isn't quite big enough to hang on during a shoulder ride, so that option was out. Occasional overhead lifts provided additional shoulder work and a smile from him. 

Disclaimers 

  1. I’ve had a movement practice for well over half of my life. And I’m old. That means I’ve been at this for about 25 years. I don’t recommend that anybody handles heavy kettlebells, does pull-up nor jogs up a mountain while wearing a baby. That said, there are always modifications. Do less weight, go shorter distances or keep the sessions brief. Do what feels good for your body and feels safe for you and your baby.
  2. I live in Santa Monica, which probably has more options for fitness than anywhere in the world. In ten minutes in any given direction, I can be in yoga, on the beach, in the mountains or in the gym. I know that most geographies pose limitations, especially around the weather. Hopefully you can find some alternatives. 
  3. My friend owns a gym that I can bring my baby into and I know that this isn’t the case with regular gyms. However, most of the equipment I use is easily accessible and can be used in a backyard or park. 
  4. On my last day, my wife came on a hike with us. Almost every time he glanced at her, he wanted to nurse. Prior to that, he had barely fussed during any of the other twenty workouts. Depending on the age and disposition of your baby, mothers may not have the same kind of experience with this as fathers. 

Discoveries 

If you choose, this can be a very challenging workout. You can get your heart racing and a break a sweat with no equipment and no carrier. Free-carrying him on hikes and stairs was a great whole-body workout and much more difficult than I expected. I also really like this option because I can see his face the whole time and he also has an unobstructed view around him. 

For about everything else, you can work hard, but not like you can without a baby. You intuitively just make all the movements a little smoother, and that’s hard. If you have a pace you just have to work at, be ready for that to all kind of go to hell with a baby. Sometimes it just takes forever to get out of the house and other times you need to stop a session for a diaper change or because he’s just unhappy because, well, he’s a baby. There’s also something counterintuitive about lifting as much weight as you can while wearing a baby. You just end up trading heavy weight for slower, higher reps and it’s a different kind of workout than you might usually do. 

I had just finished a book that addresses the topic of overtraining. When assessing your overall recovery, the author points out that the entire system must be considered, not just what body part you did the previous day or how sore you are. This includes factoring in how much you slept, what you ate and how demanding the rest of your days are. This all leads to the fact that it’s fine to work out every day, but not undergo a “managed” session every time. Managed means that it isn’t fun nor effort-free. It’s beyond challenging - you have to get yourself in a specific mental state in order to get through it. "Managed" is how I feel that most of my exercise is. Surprisingly, I never had to psych myself up for any of these workouts with my baby. I took a few days off in the middle of the three weeks because I felt like I was coming down with a flu. Aside from that, I just went straight through only because I looked forward to it so much.  

My biggest unexpected discovery was how much I loved this time with him. Wearing him for that period of time every day and going through this three week challenge changed my relationship with him in a way I cannot quite describe. He’d smile and stick his hands in my mouth while I did ring-dips with him on my front and start laughing hysterically when I did plyo push-ups with him on my back. There was something about working that hard and having him so close to me that was truly wonderful. 

-Elijah Szasz