NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - It might not come as a surprise to busy parents, but a new study suggests that having young children may make it tougher to keep up healthy diet and exercise habits.
The study, which surveyed more than 1,500 young adults, found that those with children age 5 or younger generally exercised less often than non-parents. And among women, young moms tended to eat more calories, sugary drinks and saturated fat — the artery-clogging fat found in meat, butter and milk.
The fact that young parents would exercise less than their childless peers is “not too shocking,” said lead researcher Dr. Jerica M. Berge, of the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
It is, she told Reuters Health, in line with the general idea that parents busy caring for a preschooler do not have a lot of time — or energy — to devote to themselves.
If that is the reason for parents’ lower exercise levels, Berge said, then it might be helpful for them to change their ideas of what exercise means.
“You may need to redefine how you think of exercise,” Berge said. “It doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. You can find a way to fit it into family time. You could, as a family, go for walks together.”
Similarly, a lack of time and energy could make young parents’ diets less than ideal. “Quick-fix” meals, Berge noted, are more likely to be the types that are high in calories and fat — like macaroni and cheese, or chicken nuggets.
So she suggested that parents try to keep healthy snack foods, like fresh vegetables and fruit, on hand for those times they need a quick bite. And even if parents have to whip up a less-than-ideal meal, they can control their portion size.
The findings, which appear in the journal Pediatrics, come from a long-term study that has followed a group of young Minnesota adults since they were in middle school or high school.
The most recent survey covered 1,520 participants who were 25 years old, on average, at the time. Of these, 149 had a child — an infant in most cases.
On average, parents got less exercise than young adults without kids. Mothers reported less than 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous exercise — like brisk walking, jogging or swimming laps — each week; women without children averaged a little more than 3 hours per week.
Meanwhile, fathers got less than 5.5 hours each week, versus almost 7 hours among men with no kids.
When it came to diet, fathers did not differ from other men. But moms averaged close to 400 more daily calories than women without children; they also drank more sugary beverages and consumed slightly more saturated fat.
Women with children also tended to weigh a little more than those without kids. But, Berge said, since most mothers had babies younger than 1 year, some of that extra weight may have been pregnancy pounds that could still come off.
Still, Berge noted, the young mothers’ diet habits are a “concern” because if they are kept up, moms may find it hard to lose their pregnancy pounds, or may gain weight over time.
Berge said that ultimately, she thinks social support will be important to helping young parents maintain a healthy lifestyle.
She and her colleagues are looking at whether “neighborhood-level activities” — a bunch of neighbors deciding to go to the park together on Saturdays, for example — are effective.
“I think that kind of support is what parents need,” Berge said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/gQWeaI Pediatrics, online April 11, 2011.