How To Stay Fit With 6 Of The World’s Busiest Dads
The fitness routines and philosophies of six very busy and accomplished dads — what they do, how they make time, and why it matters.
Parents are too busy for themselves. Especially in the beginning, when kids become the new and total priority, everything else — hobbies, friends, careers, exercise — has a way of sliding down the list with every sleepless night, cold, or playdate. All you need, of course, is more time — something you can’t really find, no matter what time management gurus or people with a lot of disposable income (which can buy time) say. It’s not that you’re using your time unwisely — it’s that giving up on your own needs is actually an inflexibility. With some practice, we can all become a little more limber.
This is one of our key takeaways after talking to six very busy and accomplished dads — famous for excelling in their respective fields — about their fitness routines. They don’t so much carve out time for their workouts as see them as an integral part of a whole. These leaders in business, science, and ideas surf, run, fence, lift, and practice karate, and they find a way to do so without sacrificing family time or professional ambition. How?
While we all have to give up something to make it work, they don’t give up on themselves. If something matters, they find a way. They manage competing priorities, and they keep at it, with a hard-won mix of drive and flexibility. At the end of the day, their commitment to fitness doesn’t take away from but rather feeds their careers, their parenting, and their availability to the people they care about. But don’t take our word for it — see it laid out on the ground by these six dads.
Author Matt De La Peña: Get Outside
“What’s fascinating about having children,” says author Matt de la Peña, framing the problem in a characteristically optimistic fashion, “is that if you prioritize your children, you go in search of a schedule that allows you to be a present parent. It’s trial and error: Where am I going to fit in my work? Where am I going to fit in my health?”
De la Peña; his wife, Caroline; and their two kids — Luna, 8, and Miguel, 4 — now call Southern California home, but for years they lived in Brooklyn, where de la Peña’s fitness routine revolved around three-hour games of pickup basketball. (He was a college athlete who went to University of the Pacific on a full basketball scholarship.)
When de la Peña became a dad, he had to reinvent his whole routine. “I’d go play pickup basketball, and I’d be gone for three hours. I started to feel guilty about being away.” So he stopped and learned to shape his fitness routines around his kids.
“My wife and I are both very family-oriented, so we try to find things we can do where we’re still near them.” On the weekends, that means setting out with the whole family for an 8-mile walk through their neighborhood, or during the week, throwing his daughter in a jogging stroller and heading out for a run together.
When the kids are at school, the routine doesn’t change much — he heads out on a walk or run, solo, for an hour or so. “I don’t love jogging, but I feel like it’s efficient.” Three or four days a week, he also hits the home weight set. “I don’t care about gaining bulk. I just want to be healthy and skinny-strong.”
Growing up, de la Peña says exercise was just a part of his obsession with basketball and not something he even had to think about. “My whole world was centered on physical activity, and it was always pickup basketball, and it was never work. It was just fun; it was joyful to me.”
At some point, de la Peña says, you realize you’re past your physical peak, as an athlete, and your focus shifts. “What I’ve really learned in the past few years is that exercise for me is pivotal for mental health. There are two things I need to be happy in this world, aside from family. I need to feel like I’m making progress on a book, and I have to do that seven days a week. And at least every other day I have to exercise. It makes me a better parent. I’m more patient, I can handle conflicts… It’s not only good for us as people, it’s so much better for the people around you.”
Matt de la Peña is the New York Times bestselling, Newbery Medal-winning author of seven young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, and Superman: Dawnbreaker) and six picture books (including Milo Imagines the World and Last Stop on Market Street). He’s also a teacher and frequent speaker at schools and colleges throughout the country. De la Peña; his wife, Caroline; and their two kids live near the beach in Southern California.
Chef Bryant Terry: CrossFit, Calisthenics, Meditation
“We are all so busy these days,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Bryant Terry. “It can be hard spending time with my girls during the week, but I make it a priority to put work away and go on adventures, play games, and have nonstructured time with them on weekends.” While Terry’s daughters, 8 and 11, are busy pursuing music, art, and athletics, he’s busy writing, running a publishing imprint that focuses on the work of other groundbreaking BIPOC thinkers and creators, and innovating in his studio at the University of California, Berkeley, where he’s an artist fellow this year.
Maintaining a fitness routine was a challenge in the first few years of parenthood. “I gained weight because I fell off, and I was empathy snacking a lot.” But he learned that as important as having a dedicated fitness routine is the ability to know when to break it. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a parent is to go with the flow and be easy on myself when I don’t meet my normally high standards.”
He was a longtime runner before getting started with CrossFit, in 2019. Now he has learned to blend the two. “If I’m working out at home, I jump right into it after dropping my girls off at school. If I’m doing CrossFit, I usually hit a morning class. We have been exercising as a family more on weekends and on vacation, which has been fun.”
Another essential part of his routine is spending at least 10 minutes meditating every morning. “And I have a whole prayer and affirmation routine that I do while I’m showering. I mention those practices, because I understand that there is a synergistic relationship between my mind, body, and spirit health.”
Terry’s focus on health, wellness, culture, and equity is continuous with his work — his books, including Afro-Vegan and Vegetable Kingdom, highlight his dedication to a plant-based diet. While he eats ethically and believes in the health benefits of veganism, “I don’t think there is one perfect diet. We all should consider what is the perfect diet for us and not blindly follow a dietary model because it has been framed as the healthiest.” Terry’s adherence to a vegan diet, and routine of running, CrossFit, and daily meditation, might not be for everyone — but it works well for this renowned innovator — and his family.
Bryant Terry is an award-winning chef, activist, and artist, and the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Black Food, in 2021, for which he won the Art of Eating Prize; he’s also won a James Beard Award and an NAACP Image Award, and he is the founder and editor-in-chief of 4 Color Books. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters.
Climatologist Gavin Schmidt: Bike Commuting, Running
In past lives, NASA’s most senior climatologist, Gavin Schmidt, was a British unicycle hockey champion and a marathon runner. Since his daughter, Emmy, was born, the unicycle has been collecting dust, and he’s had to cut back on running, though he still gets out there. He says, “Finding the time to train for the level of fitness that you need [for marathons] was easier then, but maybe I was also just younger. So I limited my ambition, but I still love the runs.” This includes timed races, sure, but the forgiving kind. “There are these runs where they give you a time grace. They give your actual time, which kind of sucks, and then they give you your age-graded time — what you would’ve done if you were still 30.”
Schmidt gives himself plenty of grace. He appreciates when he can get out there, but his day doesn’t depend on it. He says, “I’m not one of those people that go for a run and then feel refreshed for the day. Not really, but I like going out because it’s an hour on my own. Also, you can’t really think very deeply when you’re running. I find it hard to do mental arithmetic. But, you are out in the park, and if the weather’s nice, it’s kind of joyous, and that’s just pleasing.”
When he can’t be bothered to lace up his shoes, he knows health and fitness are baked into his lifestyle. As a climate scientist, he’s concerned about his carbon footprint, so his family is vegetarian, and he does all of his shuffling to school and work on a bicycle. He says, “I don’t live far from my office and about a mile from the school, so everything is very bikable. We live in the city for precisely that reason, really.”
On Saturdays, he usually runs in the morning, but if not, he still gets a workout cycling his daughter to hockey practice and then struggling to get her in and out of her pads. He says, “I don’t know if you ever tried to get a kid into ice hockey gear, but it’s actually hard work, just getting into the gear.”
Gavin Schmidt is NASA’s chief climatologist and the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In that role, Schmidt develops and analyzes models that help us understand past, present, and future climate patterns. He lives in New York City with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, Emmy.
Entrepreneur Aaron Luo: Fencing
Every morning, Aaron Luo meditates and stretches before commuting from New Jersey to Manhattan to run the two companies he founded: Caraa, a luxury athleisure bag retailer, and Mercado Famous, a Spanish ham importer. After work, he goes straight to the gym or fencing studio, depending on the day, to train until 10 or 10:30. By the time he gets home for dinner, his sons Alexander, 9, and Sebastien, 6, are sound asleep.
“With kids, it’s a little hard,” he says. “It’s a gruesome schedule, but I’m running two businesses, involved in a bunch of different boards, and a few other things. If, on top of that, I want to kind of compete in fencing at a national level, I have to have discipline. Otherwise, there’s no way.”
Over the course of any given week, he’ll have two one-on-one coaching lessons, two or three open bouts, one group class, and three days of strength conditioning; a training session typically lasts about three hours.
Because he misses out on family time during the week, Luo makes family the focus on the weekends — but this doesn’t mean abandoning his fitness routine. Both of his young sons are now fencing, with dad as their coach. They train every Saturday and travel together for tournaments. “Fencing allows us to be much closer to each other,” Luo says. “We have a common language, something to talk to each other about, and something to look forward to. I used to just hang out with them, but I wasn’t always present. We’d go to Chuck E. Cheese or watch a movie, but I didn’t feel like I was bonding with my kids in those instances.” But when they’re fencing together or traveling to tournaments together, Luos says, “I block everything else out. It forces me to be more present with them.”
Of course, there is always a chance that kids won’t want to follow their parent's passions, but in this case, Luo’s logic seems to hold. He says, “What little kids wouldn’t want to run around with swords, battling each other?”
Aaron Luo is the CEO of Caraa, the luxury athleisure bag company that he co-founded in 2014, and Mercado Famous, his latest company, which provide premium Spanish charcuterie direct-to-consumer. Luo lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons.
Designer Chris Spadazzi: Surfing And Mountain Biking
“My fitness routine is based on an organized hierarchy, with whatever’s the most fun being at the top,” says artist and designer Chris Spadazzi. “For me, that’s surfing, which kind of borders on religion — it’s the thing I always have to come back to.”
For Spadazzi, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jessica, and their 7-year-old son, Leo, that means getting up on weekdays at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, driving to the nearest beach, at the Rockaways, and essentially paddling out in the dark. “If you’re trying to maximize your time, you’re not surfing at sunrise. You’re surfing at nautical twilight, which is when you can just barely start to see the ocean. It does feel a little spooky, sometimes, when you’re paddling out and you can’t tell exactly where the lineup is, where things are breaking.”
After an early-morning surf session, he changes in his car, drives home, takes Leo to school, and opens his computer by 9.
While Spadazzi does everything he can to surf during the week, “surfing on the East Coast and in New York City, with a lot of job and parenting responsibilities, it can be pretty fickle. We might get a swell that’s good for a couple hours in the middle of the day and sometimes that’s just not possible. So there are backup plans.”
The first backup plan is mountain biking, followed by biking in the city and, at the bottom of the hierarchy, going to the gym. He aims to do something at least every other day and averages six days a week.
In the months after his son was born, he didn’t surf at all. “Then you get back to it,” he says, “but you’re getting back to it as a different person, with much different responsibilities.” Pursuing fitness naturally puts you in a better headspace to deal with the rest of your life, including your kid, says Spadazzi, but adds: “It’s important for your kids to see that there are things that you have as an adult in your life that bring you joy and that you’re interested in and pursuing.”
“There are so many of these podcasts, and they sort of lead off each other: All these things you have to do — get up early in the morning, jump on a trampoline, jump into an ice bucket. You’re told you have to have all these practices, that they’re all just 10-minute practices, but they add up. For me, fitness is just committing yourself to going to the gym — or finding something that you really enjoy and finding your way into it a little bit more.”
Chris Spadazzi is an artist, fabricator, and designer who has produced jobs for museums and other institutions including the Met, Cooper-Hewitt, Stanford University, and the Hirshhorn. He currently works as an architectural designer at Studio Joseph. Spadazzi, who for years ran his own industrial design firm, has built over a dozen of his own surfboards. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jessica, and 7-year-old son, Leo, who’s currently learning to bodyboard.
Author Adam Gidwitz: Karate
Adam Gidwitz does all of his writing outside, at a local park, where he’s safe from the distractions of the Internet. Unless it’s pouring rain, he’s out there every day of the year. When it comes time to exercise, he often finds he doesn’t have much willpower left. “I’m not the kind of person who exercises on my own very often,” he says. Between working and parenting, “I spend so much of my life being disciplined that making myself exercise is beyond my capacity for willpower and self-control. So I put that into the hands of a sensei. Sensei tells me what to do and I just do it. If it’s 500 kicks, then I’m doing 500 kicks. There’s no thinking about it. I need that.”
For the past 11 years, he’s been training in karate at Karatedo Honma Dojo, where he joins classes two to three days a week. The weekday classes fit perfectly into Gidwitz’s schedule, but the Saturday class threatened to encroach on family time. So he started bringing his daughter along on the weekends and ultimately became the assistant sensei for the children’s class. There’s a phrase they use often in training sessions: osu, which, Gidwitz says, essentially means, “I will try harder,” or in the context of the dojo, “patience, strength, and determination.” That’s something he wants to share with her.
“I find it so valuable to watch her learn what it means to try hard,” which Gidwitz says. “The sensei repeats in the children’s classes that everybody kicks differently, everybody punches differently, everybody stands differently, everybody has a different amount of flexibility — the only requirement is that everybody tries hard.”
Adam Gidwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Grimm books, as well as The Inquisitor’s Tale, a 2016 Newbery Honor book. His bestselling novel A Tale Dark and Grimm was recently adapted for an animated Netflix series. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.