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Researcher Finds Dads — Not Just Moms — Battle Balancing Work, Family, Exercise

Some fathers are exercising their emotions as much as mothers when balancing fitness and family, according to a Kansas State University kinesiology researcher.

by Kansas State University
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Emily Mailey, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University.Kansas State UniversityEmily Mailey, assistant professor of kinesiology, researched working parents' struggles in establishing an exercise program in the study "Physical activity barriers and facilitators among working mothers and fathers," published in BioMed Central Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal.

As gender roles change and fathers become more active in their children's lives, they experience the same barriers as mothers: family responsibilities, guilt, lack of support, lack of time, scheduling constraints and work, Mailey said. The transition to parenthood is associated with declines in physical activity for mothers and fathers; yet programs to encourage physical activity historically have targeted only working moms.

"A decline or lack of exercise among working parents has mostly been recognized as a female issue," Mailey said. "The ethic of care theory — that females have been socialized to meet everyone else's needs before their own — explains why women feel guilty when they take time to exercise, though the same principle hasn't been studied for fathers."

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For the study, working mothers and fathers participated in focus groups about the barriers they encounter to a consistent exercise routine. The top barriers for moms and dads were lack of time and guilt.

"The guilt parents feel is because they think of exercise as a selfish behavior," Mailey said. "Fathers reported guilt related to family and taking time for themselves, whereas mothers reported guilt related to family, taking time for themselves and work."

Fathers reported their children as a barrier to maintaining an exercise program more than mothers. Fathers also said family-related guilt was associated with time away from their wives and children, while mothers' guilt was associated with time away from their children.

"Fathers mentioned feeling guilty about not spending time with their spouses," Mailey said. "That really didn't come up for the women. The men felt guilty about exercising after the kids go to bed because that would be time they could spend with their wives."

Although barriers for both parents are similar, working moms reported an additional hurdle. Mothers cited work and scheduling constraints as more of a barrier than fathers. Many active fathers found time to exercise during the workday, but mothers reported fear of being judged by co-workers for leaving to workout and lack of time to freshen up after a workout.

"A lot of active dads were taking time during the lunch hour or during the workday to exercise," Mailey said. "Moms felt more guilt for taking time out of the workday to the extent that most weren't doing it. If moms were active, they were exercising first thing in the morning."

Mailey said facilitators for establishing consistent exercise programs had a common theme.

"Regardless of their activity levels, parents view their families as the top priority," Mailey said. "Active parents were able to see exercise as something that contributed to the good of the family and that was not at odds with being good parents. As a result, they felt less guilty about taking time to exercise and were more apt to prioritize physical activity because they valued the benefits."