Working It All Out

female and male runners on a marathon
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Working It All Out: Finding Balance Between Caregiving and Exercise

During the last year of my mother’s life, I would pack my workout clothes when I would travel to visit her. I’m certainly no expert, but at 57 years of age, I’d learned that going for a walk/run every morning helped me deal with the stress of my day, whether I was at work or being a family caregiver. This was especially challenging when I visited my mom. You see, I needed to get up early to get a workout in before my day of caregiving began, but she liked to stay up late and wanted me to stay up with her. It was quite the balancing act to make it all work out…and sometimes it totally crashed and burned!

I was up until about 12:30 one night, watching TV with her and then helping her get settled for the night. I finally got to sleep, with an alarm set for 8:30. Usually, when I was there, she would sleep until well after 9:00 am, and sometimes even 10:00 or later. My morning workout took about 45 minutes, so I usually planned to leave the house at 8:45 am and get back by 9:30.  That morning, however, my mom surprised me by getting up at 8:30 am, so no early morning workout for me. Well, I thought, I’ll get it in later when she takes a nap.

And then the second surprise happened. After breakfast, my mother, 97 at the time, nearly fell…again. She couldn’t understand why she was so prone to falls, and it worried my brother and me that she was at home alone for most of every day. But she was stubborn, obstinate, and insistent that she did not need help…until she did, and then it was too late. Fortunately, I was with her that morning when the almost-fall happened. I was visiting for a few days to give my brother a break, and my mother was in her bathroom. As she turned from the sink to leave the room, she cried out and I saw her body begin to collapse. She simply had not remembered to stand up straight and was in a sort-of squatting position. I quickly reached around and supported her. She sagged into me, and I coached her to stand up straight, which she finally did. She could not walk at all in those moments, so I had her sit down on her walker’s seat and I pushed her to her recliner in the den, where she spent most of her days. She napped as I wrote this, and I sat and pondered what to do for my mother, and how I would take care of myself today and in the days ahead, while also caring for her.

I share that 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 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. You can even walk around in the house, or run in place if it isn’t safe for you to be outside.
  • 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 tremendously 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 amazing afterward!
  • 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 FitBitRor even a simple pedometer to help you keep track of your movement. But start moving and keep moving to help you 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. 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, 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 would do yoga in the next room while my mom was napping.

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

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