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Keeping Up With the Kids: Entirely Reasonable Fitness Goals for Dads

"Fittest at 40" isn't an option for most busy dads. The bar needs to be lower. If you can keep up with your kids, you're good. Here's how to do just that.

Frank “Turtle” Raffaele is a 46-year old restaurateur in New York City with three daughters, ages 7, 9, and 12. He’s always cared about his health but recently revved up his fitness routine and became a vegan. “I was full-on absorbed with fatherhood but I myself didn’t feel like a kid anymore,” he explains. He now religiously gets in his daily 10,000 steps for cardio and pumps iron because “I learned that the main responsibility of being a dad is carrying a lot of things — kids, bags, luggage — so weightlifting gets me acclimated to holding things while walking.” 

Raffaele is an inspiring figure, sure, but dad fit needn’t mean “fittest at 40.” While stories from impossibly fit pro athlete dads, inspiring double-digit weight loss fathers, and the ever-posting fitness influencers might have the loudest voices, the reality for most dads of a certain age is that they want to simply keep up with their children. 

Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum, a San Diego-based physician and founder of wellness company Barbell Medicine hears just this from many clients. “Fatherhood is one of the most common reasons people come to see me,” he said. “They don’t say, ‘I don’t want to be weak anymore,’ but if you get people to be really honest, there was some experience where they couldn’t keep up with their kids. They were out of breath.” 

The enemy in Feigenbaum’s sights is sarcopenia, age-related muscle mass loss. Older dads are often more attuned to the problem, Feigenbaum explains, because they remember feeling stronger and better. Younger dads haven’t felt those pangs yet, but are at least cognitively aware that they need new habits if they not only want to live longer for their children but also “compress morbidity” (i.e. enjoying more active, quality years that could be lost to struggles with illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer).

But where to start? One thing is for sure: What works for Raffaele won’t necessarily work for a younger dad with a newborn, nor an older dad with a teen. Instead, ask yourself, what will help you keep up with your kids this year and next? To answer, we pinpointed the most basic physical needs for kids of different ages — from carrying infants to moving furniture for college kids — and offered the most basic moves to help you keep up.

The Pregnant Dad (Expecting)

The Dad Moves: When your kid is coming you need to get in better overall shape because, well, you’re about to go through a rather physically demanding time. The best way to do that is to take a note from expecting moms and to act pregnant.

The Workout: Don a weighted belt (typically between 10 and 36 pounds) and be there beside the pregnant mom in your life while strolling and doing moderate exercises recommended by the Mayo Clinic: Wall pushups, fitness ball squats, side planks, step-ups, and leg-lifts. These moves all point to carrying strength, the one physical demand you’re going to face. Keep up with these moves and you’ll be ready to strap an infant in and take them with you wherever you go.

The Infantryman (0-18 months)

The Dad Moves: Welcome to the world of the papoose pa. Your child might weigh less than 25 pounds, but they grow fast and you’re going to be carrying this new weight everywhere. Fortunately, you have all the weights you need in the sometimes-fussy, sometimes-wet, always cuddly bundle that is your kid.

The Workout: Ditch the weighted belt and wear that kid in a carrier everywhere you walk. Avoid steep and slippery slopes and staircases, but seek out long hills and the slog of snow or sand. You’re in basic training now — and your drill sergeant needs a diaper change.

The Toddler Chaser (18 months to 4 years)

The Dad Moves: Toddlers want to escape, to get away, wriggling and giggling into the other room or straight into the dangerous street. For this, you need to be quick. Well, quicker than you are right now.

The Workout: What you’re looking for to keep up with your kid is a bit of power, agility, and speed. For the first two, practice daily lateral slides, lateral bunny hops, and medicine ball skaters. For the speed, set up shuttle sprints (remember those?) to get your workout in order to get your dashes in order.

The Three-Legged Racer (5 to 9 years)

The Dad Moves: By grade school, it’s time to get competitive. Just say “yes” to any race a parent can enter with a child, whether it’s a block party competition or charity event. The goal here is simple for you and your kid: to crush the competition. All those dads who entered that three-legged race or mile relay race without thinking about the glory that comes with being first over the finish line? They don’t know what’s coming.

The Workout: Run yourself and practice together. You need to work your way up to — at a minimum — two miles every other day so that you’re in basically fine shape. Then, bring your kid into the mix. Remember, while you’re vocally out to win, really this is meant to be a bonding experience. And whether it leads to a high-five over your first-place finish or a laugh-riot defeat, it’s a damn fine excuse to get in shape.

The Adventurer Dad (10-18)

The Dad Moves: It’s time to take your kids on a hike. This is the time in life to get them to fall for nature. Furthermore, the psychological and cognitive benefits of time in nature — and endless fodder for questions and conversation — make outdoor exploration a lifetime joy for families. That said, mountains don’t climb themselves. You’ve got to be prepared for this one. 

The Workout: Stairs are a hiker’s best friend. These don’t have to be the lung-burning stair workouts you see by the high school, but you do need to climb. The goal here is to build some quad strength and muscle memory to help you on your hike. So aim to walk (or run if you’re ambitious) 8 flights of stairs a day. The summit awaits.

The Prime Mover (18-26)

The Dad Moves: There is no “empty nest” without filling another. Moving furniture was easy enough when you were 22, but requires some advance planning in your somewhat advanced age. Bad backs creep up on you, don’t they?

The Workout: Focus on deadlifts, squats, and farmer’s walks. Together, these three will shore up your back and give you just the strength you need (and, frankly, no more).

The Bouncer and Bounder (26+ and 0-18months)

The Dad Moves: Congrats, you’re a grandpa! It’s practically a legal obligation for you to bounce grandkids on your knee, and there could be lots of them beyond just “Vera, Chuck, and Dave.”

The Workout: Remember all those years ago when you were first expecting? Yes, it’s time to get back to the pregnant dad workout. This time, your weighted belt should be a little lighter (10 pounds will do) and between all those wall pushups, fitness ball squats, side planks, step-ups, and leg-lifts, leave room for ample rest. What’s the rush?

Are You Fit to Be a Dad? Take The Chair Test

Wondering whether your dad fitness is up to snuff or all your candle’s snuffed? Take the “chair test,” a fool-proof (and often humbling) measure of strength that is an excellent baseline for dads of all ages. Here’s how it works: Stand in front of a hard chair. Sit and stand again and again with your arms crossed in front of you. Then time it and see how you measure up. If you don’t make these numbers, you might need to work on you:

  • Under 35: 10 times in 10 seconds
  • 35 and 55: 10 times in 13 seconds
  • 55 and over: 10 times in 18 seconds

A more demanding test popularized by a study out of Gama Filho University in Rio de Janeiro has subjects rise straight from a cross-legged position on the floor, losing points for wobbliness or the need to lean. The results strongly correlate to mortality rates, according to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information and the European Society for Cardiology