Among the (oh-so-many) things that people don’t tell you about being a new dad is the fact that your body will have to adjust to it, and that it will take a toll on you. There are assorted back aches and neck pains, lower back issues for some of us, and if you’re not careful, you might end up with the dreaded burping shoulder.
From the time that your wife is told to not pick up anything heavy, or to overexert herself, you’ve been picking up the slack, right? Carrying all the groceries and heavy laundry hampers is just the beginning. Once you finally have a little baby to rock on your shoulder, little do you know that you’ll be assuming that position for many hours throughout the life of your child. And it does affect you, so it’s better to be proactive about addressing it, rather than waiting until it’s escalated to a bigger issue.
Let’s face it, you’re going to be spending a lot of time carrying things from now on, because one of you is going to be caring for the baby most of the time. While you may get to be the baby guy quite a bit, chances are that the mama is going to do it the most, and you’ll be the dude unloading and carrying all the stuff. And that’s o.k. That’s what dads do, right? So make the best of it and take care of your physical body so that it’s not taking a toll on your health.
9 Healthy Body Tips for Overworked Dads:
1. Lift With Your Legs
If you’ve never worked at a job that requires lots of lifting, you may have never paid attention to the saying that you should “lift with your legs, not your back”. It’s a simple thing, but one which can have a huge impact on how you feel at the end of the day.
Every time you bend over to pick something up, bend your knees first and use your leg muscles to pick it up, not your lower back. It’s a very common habit, and one that ends in a painful lower back eventually. If you go grab a shovel to dig in the garden on the first nice day of spring, after not being active all winter, remembering to bend your knees and lift with your legs will help you survive the day with a little less stiffness.
2. Be a Switch Hitter
Whether it’s carrying a bag over your shoulder or a kid on your arm, don’t always do it with the same hand every time. Your body might want you to use your non-dominant hand all the time, so that your other one is free for tasks, or you may use your dominant side if the load is heavy or sustained.
The danger of always carrying your kid on the same shoulder is that your body becomes unbalanced – the stress is always on one side of the body and not the other. By making an effort to switch sides regularly, you’ll give your body a chance to even itself up.
3. Defy Gravity
All day long, the weight of your body, plus that of everything you carry, is compressing you. You actually end the day a bit shorter than when you got out of bed because of that. And if you’re the least bit out of alignment in your posture or in the methods you use to lift or carry, your body spends all day trying to adjust for that as well. By the end of the day, your spine needs some relief. Unless someone gives you a gravity boot setup (for hanging upside down), a standard pull-up or hang bar is sufficient.
Start hanging from both hands, holding on as loose as you can without falling off, and slightly engage your shoulders (don’t just dead hang). Step down when you need to, repeating several times in a row. I also bring my knees to my chest a couple of times, both together and separately, and twist to the right and left several times. I usually end by arching my back while hanging, imagining my heels reaching for my head, and then gently stepping down.
4. Bend Over Backwards
We spend the majority of our time bending forward – bending over at the waist, or forward at the hips (at our desk or behind the wheel) – or lifting or pulling things in front of us, toward or near the core of our body. This means that we rarely get a chance to bend our spine the other way – unless we make the effort to do so.
One of the easiest ways I’ve found to help relax my back is to use a big fitness ball, laying over it backwards, finding the most comfortable position, and just relaxing into it for several minutes. If you have a natural gas tank (submarine shaped) outside your house, this also makes a great prop, or try laying backwards over the hood of your car.
5. Act Like a Baby
The shape that a baby takes in the womb is a natural, comforting position for the body to be in. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t that flexible anymore, so we’ll have to settle for what’s known as the child’s pose. This position has rescued my back and neck numerous times, and is a great one to follow the back bends.
Kneel down, pointing your feet behind you and sitting on your heels. Bend forward at the hips until your head touches the floor, placing your arms down alongside your legs, hands facing up. You can also turn your head to either side if that’s more comfortable. After a minute or two, you’ll probably need to adjust your body as it relaxes. The child’s pose is great for getting re-centered as well, regardless of any back issues.
6. Put Your Feet Up
Another simple method to help release lower back or sciatic region pain or stiffness is to prop up your legs at the knees. Lie on a firm surface, using pillows or a small table to prop up your legs at the level of your knees.
Resting in this position does wonders for your lower back and pelvis. For other tightness in the hips, try propping up only one leg at a time, letting the other lie flat on the floor. When sleeping, use a pillow or bolster underneath your knees (sleeping on your back), or between your knees (sleeping on your side).
7. Circle Around
If you ever find yourself at the mercy of the dreaded burping shoulder (DBS), you’ll be thankful for these range of motion and opposing muscle moves. DPS is caused by always holding a baby with the same arm, in the same position (for burping or putting them to sleep, or even just toting them around), and never doing anything to loosen up the shoulder and upper back. It might sound silly, but when you’ve got a sharp pain under the shoulder blade, or your neck is super-tight on one side, you’ll believe me then…
The first remedy is arm circles. Simple arm circles, as big as you can do them, one for each year of your life in each direction, followed by the same number in reverse. They shouldn’t be fast, but not slow, either. These will help loosen up your whole shoulder region.
The second remedy is to stand up, place your fists right at your ears, as if punching yourself (thumbs down), and then holding your fists in position, rotate your elbows forward until they touch in front of you. Return your elbows to the rear, repeating for each year of your age.
The third remedy is to lie on your back, arms at your side, and repeatedly try to lift your body off of the ground by pushing down with the back of your arms (elbows). Move your arms up away from your body – out to the sides – and repeat.
8. Use Your Head
To stand on… Getting the body inverted can be a powerful process for healing and aligning and toning the body. I won’t even attempt to give instructions for a headstand here, but there are plenty of great free guides to get you started. If you haven’t ever done a headstand, I suggest starting out by learning some basic yoga positions (asanas) which lead up to a headstand.
If you already have some headstand experience, what are you waiting for? Putting your body upside down takes a load off of the pressure on your organs and spine from gravity each day, and is a wonderfully fun thing to do, besides.
9. Make it a Habit
I know, it’s hard to believe when we’re young, but everybody ages, including us, and the best way to help our bodies stay healthy is through supporting it on a regular basis. If we don’t take care of our body over the years, it won’t take care of itself very well – we can’t expect optimum health with no effort.
We need a weekly, if not daily, habit of physical exertion – it doesn’t have to be traditional ‘exercise’, but it needs to be something that gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping. It should be something challenging and rewarding, and it should be coupled with a healthy diet (the scope of a full fitness plan and nutrition program are beyond the scope of this post). If we are willing to commit many hours each week for our livelihood, and for our family, we really ought to commit some to our own health – without that, nothing else really matters.
A foundation in the basics of yoga is a great place to begin, as are basic training and bodyweight exercises – speed rope workouts, push-ups and pull-ups, squats, wind sprints, overhead presses. None of these require much space or money, and the payoff in health and fitness more than outweighs the time involved, but your mileage may vary.
Of course, these tips could apply to just about anybody – grand-dads, grandmas, moms, and kids – so take what you can use, and leave me a comment if you have something to add to this.
And remember, it’s Natural Papa, not Doctor Papa, so don’t take anything I say here as medical advice.
Image: Perfecto Insecto at Flickr