How do I exercise when my kids are at home?

According to the internet, it's easy to work out with kids in the house. Nearly every parenting website features a list of 10-minute workouts that can be completed while putting away dishes or folding laundry. Others describe how to use your kids in weight-resistance routines. Some describe how to snag free childcare during your workouts. 

There are, or course, plenty of obstacles to these workouts. You're sleep-deprived. Your free time is limited to nonexistent. You don't want to skip precious time with your kids or spouse. You can't afford babysitters or the cost of a gym. There are pony beads on your yoga mat and play foods in your DVD player. 

But I think there's another, bigger challenge behind all of these very reasonable reasons not to work out. Hard workouts are as much mental as they are physical: we have to challenge our brains to believe we can withstand the challenges to our bodies. And that mental challenge is made even harder by working out with kids in the house. What if I get up early to work out and accidentally wake up the kids? What if they come downstairs with me and get hurt by one of the many basement hazards? Or what if they play upstairs while I work out and I don't hear their screams over the noise of the treadmill?

The what ifs make working out seem dangerously selfish.

Last year, I wrote about why moms don't have time to shower. We do have time, of course, but those ten minutes can feel like an unacceptable risk: "If our kids get hurt while eating, or playing, or going to school, that’s unavoidable. But the thought of our kids getting hurt while we’re taking time for ourselves fills us with preemptive guilt. We 'can’t' take a shower because we are meant to be super moms."

I think that's true for working out, too. We "can't" work out because of what might happen during those three miles, if Jillian's shouts drowned out our kids' screams. 

I have spent the last few months conducting a unscientific experiment: run on the treadmill 3-4 times per week and note whether or not my child suffers lasting injury as a result. Sometimes this meant getting up at 4:30 to run before anyone was awake. Other times, it meant leaping on the treadmill during a four-year-old's unexpected afternoon nap. But most of the time, it meant running while he was awake and encouraging his participation with the good fruit snacks. 

Here's what I've learned so far:

1. Workouts are quiet. 

One estimate puts treadmills between 40 and 60 decibels. That's a wide range of noise, considering that decibels are logarithmic, but let's put that range in context. The range for a washing machine is 50-75 decibels. Vacuum cleaners are a bit noisier at 60-85 decibels. Garbage disposals? 70-95 decibels. 

I do laundry, clean floors, and wash dishes with my son in the house, and at none of these times do I fear he is in mortal peril that I will somehow miss on account of the noise. Using the treadmill shouldn't be any different. 

2. Kids are loud.

None of the above appliances come close to the sound of a crying baby, who can measure around 110 decibels. Kids can be even louder. It's almost as though they were evolutionarily designed to get our attention. And they will, as evidenced by one of my recent workouts.

On one of those rare nap days, I hopped on the treadmill, only to be interrupted a few miles in by a shriek from across the basement.

"....... cracker!"

"Sweetie, [huff] I can hear that you're asking me a question, [puff] but I can't hear what you're asking. [I'll skip the rest of the heavy breathing, but just assume that's what's happening in the punctuation marks.] You'll have to come over here to ask me."

"....... CRACKER?"

"I still don't know what you're saying. Do you need help?"

"NO! ....CRACKER!?"

"Did you step on a cracker? I'll help you clean it up in 22 minutes and 30 seconds. [I'm slow, but that's how I manage conversation while negotiating with an unseen preschooler whilst running on the treadmill.]

"Cracker....STOP YELLING AT ME!"

"I'm not yelling at you. I'm not mad at you. I just can't hear you over the treadmill and if I get off the treadmill I know I won't finish this run." 


He was fine. He was not trying to get a cracker, or making a mess of a cracker, or choking on a cracker. He was eating a cracker while sitting on a toy tractor. 

Thinking of the snack tractor helps when I'm trying to talk myself out of a work out for safety's sake. If the kid can get my attention about the snack tractor, he can certainly get my attention if he's seriously hurt. 

3. Kids deserve to test their limits.

After a summer spent running, I'm excited about smaller jeans. But I'm most proud of pushing against my perceived limits, of running farther and faster than I have before. 

I've been trying to think of my workout time as a chance for my son to test his limits, too. I've come up from 30-minute runs to find him doing a 200-piece puzzle, writing a book, and making his own painter's palette out of cardboard. 

Last week, he disappeared during my last mile. I came upstairs to find the tiny bathroom stepstool atop one of our kitchen stools, and a larger bathroom stool perched at the top of the stairs.

I asked what he was doing with all the stools and he said he was "trying to get the green spinny thing," the salad spinner shelved above the refrigerator. But he couldn't get the last stool all the way down the stairs and decided to wait for me.

Later I told my husband I was never running with kiddo in the house again, but this week, I'm thinking that's entirely the wrong lesson. My son didn't almost fall after climbing a stack of three stools. He decided not to stack three stools once the task seemed too much for him. I'd rather that he limit his limit-testing to things like jumping off the couch or drawing with permanent markers, but he proved to me that, even if he attempts some dangerous things, he'll probably be alright. 

What was the salad spinner for? Making toy cars go really really fast. Like his running mama.