Working It All Out: Finding Balance Between Caregiving and Exercise

When I travel to visit my mother, now 97 years old, I pack my workout clothes. I’m certainly no expert, but at 57 years of age, I’ve learned that going for a walk/run every morning helps me deal with the stress of my day, whether I’m at work or with my mom. This is especially challenging when I visit my mom. You see, I need to get up early to get this done before my day of caregiving begins, but she likes to stay up late, and wants me to stay up with her. It’s quite the balancing act to make it all work out…and this morning it totally crashed and burned!

I was up until about 12:30 last night, watching TV with her and then helping her get settled into bed. I finally got to sleep, with an alarm set for 8:30. Usually when I am here, she sleeps until well after 9:00 am, and sometimes even 10:00 or later. My morning workout takes about 45 minutes, so I planned to leave the house at 8:45 am and get back by 9:30. Surprise! My mom got up at 8:30 am, so no early morning workout for me today. Well, I thought, I’ll get it in later when she takes a nap.

And then the second surprise happened. After breakfast my mother, now 97, nearly fell…again. She is perplexed by why she is so prone to falls, and it worries my brother and me that she is in her house alone for most of every day. But she is stubborn, obstinate, and insistent that she does not need help…until she does, and then it’s too late. Fortunately, I was with her this morning when the almost-fall happened. I quickly reached around and supported her. She sagged into me, and I coached her to stand up straight, which she finally did. She is napping as I write this, and I sit and ponder what to do for my mother, and how I will take care of myself today and in the days ahead, while also taking care of her.

I shared my morning’s experience to make a couple of points.

My first point is this: regular exercise does lots of great things for you. It balances your blood glucose levels, releases endorphins (the feel-good hormones), strengthens your bones and builds lean muscle mass. Working out helps you sleep better, too. It focuses you mentally and gives you more energy to be a better caregiver. It also relieves stress, as I mentioned earlier.

Regular exercise should include both cardio workouts, which elevate your heart rate, and weight-bearing exercises that build lean muscle mass and strengthen your bones. There are lots of resources out on the web or in bookstores that can give you ideas of how to structure a workout that fits your schedule. I’m no exercise physiologist, but here are some of my favorite workouts:

  • Brisk walking for 45 minutes (I occasionally do a little light jogging) in good shoes. I put in wireless earbuds and listen to a good book on Audible, or a podcast, or music with a beat that matches my pace. This is something you can do almost anywhere.
  • Yoga. You can do this in the privacy of your home or at a studio if you can get away. Start with a beginner workout if you’ve never done Yoga before. Yoga counts as weight-bearing exercise, and helps with flexibility as well as strength.
  • Free weights or machine weights. If you haven’t tried this before, be sure to go to a gym and work with an instructor first. You can really hurt yourself if you don’t know what you are doing!
  • Zumba. I love this because it’s like Latin dancing, but in a studio setting with other people. It’s fun, I sweat and get a great cardio workout, and I feel great afterwards!
  • Biking. Our town has some great bike paths, so my husband and I get on our bikes and ride! You can also take a spin class and get the same benefit, but I love the feeling of the wind in my face. You don’t need a fancy bike, but you do need one with working gears and a good bike helmet. Remember, safety first!

These are just a few of my favorite ways to exercise. The important thing is to find something you really enjoy doing, and then find time to do it several times a week. Enlist the help of a friend if the person you care for cannot be left alone, or take advantage of times when s/he is engaged in another activity, like sleeping or watching television, to go into another room. Even doing a few dips, squats, wall push-ups, or planks will make you feel better. If you are just starting out, get your doctor’s permission first, and then try to walk 250 steps every hour. Wear a fitness device like a FitBitR or even a simple pedometer to help you keep track of your movement. But start moving and keep moving to continue moving into your own old age.

My second point is this: always have a back-up plan in case your day crashes and burns like mine did today. When your original plan for exercise gets derailed, don’t just give up for the day. Know what Plan B is, and implement it accordingly. If your morning workout time gets hijacked, like mine did this morning, then you have an alternate plan for taking care of yourself later in the day! And if your day completely falls apart, which can happen when you are a Family Caregiver, don’t beat yourself up. Just breathe deeply, accept the current reality, and focus ahead on the next day. When I miss my morning walk, my Plan B is Yoga, which I also love. I can do it in the next room while my mom is napping. So, if you will please excuse me, I must implement Plan B before my mother wakes up from her nap!

Chris and I hope you will join the conversation, and share your heart on where exercise fits into your caregiving strategies, or what challenges you face when finding the time to work out.

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