How to look out for number 1

As I was brainstorming subjects for my Fitness Solutions column, there was one item that popped up more than once. Because of what I do and the types of people that I see, many of my interactions are with a client’s family, friends and support staff, all working to help a loved one access the services I offer. For lack of a better term, you could say that I speak with many people in the role of “caregiver.” These include parents who juggle jobs and the seemingly endless demands of their children as well as caring for aging parents.

While the caregivers I work with are heroic in their selflessness, many of them are exhausted, stressed out and so focused on helping others that their own health and fitness is compromised. At the very least, many of them are on the verge of burn out and are barely holding on. As a business owner, a husband of someone living with MS, and the father of a teen and a tween, I speak from experience. The rewards of helping someone that truly needs you are immeasurable, but … it ain’t always easy!

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve sat through the demonstration of how to apply your oxygen mask in the case of emergency. The most important instruction is to apply your own mask before attempting to aid someone else. Simply put, if you have passed out because you can’t breathe, you can’t help anyone else and then you’re all in big trouble. The analogy holds true for caregivers who don’t get enough sleep, go hours without eating and skip daily exercise because they just “don’t have the time.”

Eventually, they become the ones who need to be helped as they struggle with high blood pressure, back pain, obesity, diabetes or some other chronic condition. At this point, they start to suffer along with their loved ones.

Taking care of yourself while helping others doesn’t lessen your ability to look after them, it actually enhances it. Having energy and physical stamina allows you to focus better, be more creative and to be more productive for longer. There is also a very good chance the your quality of care you give will improve as your fitness level increases.

From my own experience and from observing successful parents, guardians and allied health professionals over the past 25 years, I’ve come up with some strategies that can help you to put yourself first … so you can take even better care of your loved ones who depend on you.

1. Do not skip meals. There’s nothing worse than trying to focus on something important when your blood sugar is dropping. It leads to rushed work that is less than stellar.

When you cook healthy meals, make extra. Store your leftovers in plastic containers or freeze them for later use. With a bunch of meals already prepared and ready to go, you won’t have the excuse of “I didn’t have time” when you’re heading out the door.

If you’re in the habit of packing lunches, set up one extra lunch bag for yourself and fill it so it’s ready to grab when you need it the next day. Even if you’re eating at home, there’s nothing better than looking in the fridge and seeing a complete, packed meal for you when you’re hungry.

2. Schedule exercise time for yourself that is an unbreakable appointment.

If you use a day planner, schedule three workout sessions per week for you and you alone. You’ll decide what exactly to do on those days after you’ve made the appointment.

My family knows that unless the house is burning down or someone is in the Emergency Room, I am going cycling on Sunday mornings! It is MY time for rejuvenating and making me feel like I actually matter.

3. Multi-task. Get your workout by running to the bank to make a deposit, write a meal plan while your kids are swimming, steam some brown rice while you fold laundry or do a core workout while you watch TV. Figure out how to do more than one thing at a time to “find” more time.

4. Forget the “All or Nothing” mentality. If you think it takes huge effort and time to get great results, you are wrong. Just 10 minutes of focused, efficient exercise is often enough to get you moving in a new direction (and always better than doing nothing). As you get stronger and “find” more time, you can expand on this and continue to improve.

I know that it’s a hard concept to embrace when you feel like you’re the one holding so many lives together, but, once you start taking the time to make YOU better, you’ll be amazed at the positive spillover effect it has on those in your care.

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