Alicia Sauer and her husband went from gym rats to couch potatoes faster than you can halt a treadmill. All it took was the birth of their first child. And then a second.
"My husband lifted weights. He used to work out at least five times a week," Sauer said. "Now he's lucky to get one day of yoga in."
The working parents from St. Louis Park, Minn., whose boys are 4 and 1, are hardly alone, according to a new University of Minnesota study. Its key finding: New parents have worse exercise and diet habits than young adults without kids.
While parenting isn't necessarily hazardous, it presents roadblocks to good health at a crucial stage in life, said Jerica Berge, a lead author of the study, published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics.
"We need to find ways ... to support parents during this high-risk time," she said, "so they can focus on their health as well as all of the demands of parenting."
Young mothers were as likely as peers to eat vegetables, according to the study. But they also consumed more total calories, more saturated fats and more high-sugar drinks. Mothers and fathers spent almost an hour less per week in vigorous exercise than others their age.
Mothers also had a higher average body mass index (a measure that combines weight and height) than other young women. Berge said parenting might be harder on mothers than fathers at first. But it's also possible that new mothers in the survey had higher BMIs because they still had excess weight from pregnancy.
"They were no different than non-moms on fruits and vegetables and whole grains," Berge said. "So my line of thought is they are trying to eat the right foods and trying to set the good example, but at the same time they are eating more of these fast foods like chicken nuggets because they take less time to cook.
"The commodity as a parent," she added, "is time."
Berge said parents might underestimate their activity levels, because they don't recognize how much effort goes into taking kids for stroller rides or chasing them at playgrounds.
The findings came as no surprise to Sauer and other parents who were watching their children at a playground in Minneapolis.
Kathleen Cassidy, who was watching her two girls busily push a merry-go-round, likes to think the playtime adds up. But it isn't the same to her as dedicated exercise.
A stay-at-home mom, Cassidy said she prepares healthy meals and buys organic produce, but doesn't work out. Her husband squeezes in exercise by biking to work.
"I exercised more when I was pregnant than when they were babies," said Cassidy, whose girls are 6 and 3. "If I work out twice a week, I feel like I'm a hero."
Cassidy's situation is common. Pregnant women often stick to rigid diets and exercise to keep their babies healthy, but lose that incentive after birth, said Dr. Christopher Balgobin, a family doctor in Apple Valley, Minn.
"They have a new baby, they feed the baby every two hours, they barely get enough sleep," he said. "The last thing they think about is what they're going to eat or when they're going to exercise."
The study, which compared survey responses from 149 parents with 1,371 non-parents, focused on people in their mid-20s who had children younger than 5. There was a practical reason: The data source was the University of Minnesota's Project Eat, which surveyed Minnesotans when they were adolescents, teens and young adults. So it couldn't evaluate whether older parents suffered the same problems, or whether diet and exercise improved for parents as their children aged.
Berge said there are compelling reasons to focus on young, first-time parents. If they can maintain good health amid turbulent change, it will help them later in life and set examples for their children, she said.
These parents also interact frequently with doctors, because their babies need checkups and immunizations. Pediatricians should advise them during these visits about diet and exercise, Berge said.
For Sonia Walters, one battle involves the temptation to eat food her two young daughters leave on their plates. She bought two lunches at a bakery recently to split with the girls and "definitely ate one and a half of them."
As for exercise?
"We're members of the YMCA," Walters said. "But all winter long we never made it there because everyone was sick in our family."
The will is there for the playground parents. Sauer bought discounted gym sessions online, but hadn't used them.
"A lot of it is just time," she said. "I work all day. I don't want to spend another hour or two away from the kids."