The "dad bod" is real: A 2016 study of 8,700 men found that in the first year after childhood, father’s body mass index, or BMI, increased by 10 percent. Three years after the birth of their first child, BMI had increased by 33 percent among new dads. Another study from Northwestern University, which looked at more than 10,000 men, found that first-time fathers living with their child experienced an increase in BMI equivalent to a weight gain of 4.4 pounds, while those living apart from their child still gained 3.3 pounds on average. Childless men lost about 1.4 pounds over the 20-year course of the same study.
The study authors suggest that the responsibilities of fatherhood may sap time that used to be used for healthy eating and exercise. When Dave, 35, became a new dad, he gained about 10 pounds in six months.
“Before we had a kid, I did most of the cooking and would say the majority of our meals were on the modestly healthy end of the spectrum,” he says. After his daughter was born, “friends were very good about bringing over frozen food and so forth, but that’s often toward the heavier end of the scale—lasagna and whatnot—and would sometimes involve pastries and other sweets.” He also relied on time-saving pre-made meals, which can be high in sodium.
“In more traditional households, if the wife was the one preparing the food, she is now rightfully too consumed with the baby to put too much time or effort into family meal planning,” says Elizabeth Burwell, co-owner of High Performance Gym in Greenville, South Carolina. In her experience with clients, “fathers are more likely to eat what’s convenient—food people bring over, fast food. These are not always the healthiest options.”
For Joe, another new dad who gained a few pounds, his new daughter meant less time to exercise. “I probably go to the gym half as much as I used to,” the 36-year-old says. He used to hate working out in the morning, but it fits in better with his new routine: “I really have to schedule [workouts] now” to get them in.
New dads face another challenge that can affect their weight: lack of sleep. While mom stereotypically has to get up to feed, studies have shown that fathers sometimes actually get less sleep than mothers of new infants. Both a 2004 study of 72 mother-father couples and another 2013 study following 21 mother-father pairs found that fathers had less sleep during the first month after birth than mothers. And while mothers in the first study were often able to play catch-up during daytime hours on maternity leave, the men didn’t get the same opportunities to grab the daylight shuteye.
Lost sleep can mean weight gain: Losing as few as 30 minutes of sleep each weekday can have significant effects on insulin resistance, increasing your risk for Type 2 diabetes, and result in weight gain. Some preliminary studies have shown that when you’re low on sleep, you’re more likely to crave high-carb snacks and more likely to eat more calories throughout the course of the day.
More than any of these causes, the biggest may be the “unimportant” factor, says Elizabeth Burwell: “In the face of having a precious new baby, worrying about a hot dad bod seems superficial and unimportant,” she says.
But maintaining a healthy weight during your baby’s life is about more than just looking good. Losing as little as five pounds helps put less stress on your cardiovascular system. Losing even more improves your circulation, is associated with lower risks of certain cancers and heart disease, and reduces your overall risk of an early death.
Okay, So What Can I Do About It?To fight off the fat from food, Burwell recommends keeping it simple. She likes Dave’s solution of pre-prepared meals but cautions that it is important to read the labels and opt for the healthiest options. “Buy pre-prepared healthy food from the grocery store, even though it is a little more costly. Keep quick, easy snacks around like nuts, dried fruit, carrots and hummus,” she says.
It’s important to move, too. When combined with smart nutrition choices, workouts are great for maintaining weight—and health. Exercise can slash your risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers by as much as half. And for those considering pulling a Costanza and installing a cot under their desk to get some shuteye, regular exercise has the potential to help with the lack of sleep issue: A preliminary study based on sample data published in the Mental Health and Physical Activity journal shows that physically active participants reported being able to fall asleep quicker, which is great for when the baby goes down for a quick 20-minute snooze.
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to get to the gym, try getting in a little bit of movement while baby is napping. Mike Whitfield, a trainer, weight-loss coach and author of "Rise and Hustle," suggests setting up this “silent” circuit so you won’t wake the baby, but can get strength work in at home. “These [exercises] are quiet and won’t wake up your kids. Plus, they hit a lot of muscle for mega calorie-burning.”
After a quick warmup, perform this four-move circuit by doing one set of each exercise, before moving to the next exercise without resting. Once you’ve finished all four moves, rest for one minute and repeat. Since time is short, try to fit in as many rounds as you can in three to four sessions per week—see if you can increase the total number of rounds you do each week.
Starting with your lower body, perform a bodyweight split squat, Stand with your right foot about three feet in front of your left. Keeping your torso upright, bend your knees to descend until your knees both form 90-degree angles, with your front knee tracking over your ankle. Press back to standing. Perform the squats for 30 seconds on each side.
Next up are pushups. To perform this exercise correctly, get into a plank position with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Maintain this rigid body line as you bend your elbows to lower your chest to the floor, keeping your elbows fairly tight to the sides of your body. For a safer pushup for your shoulders, your arms and body should form the shape of an “up” arrow, not a “T.”
If regular pushups are too difficult, find a step, bench or the arm of a sofa, and perform elevated pushups. Place your hands directly beneath your shoulders on the arm of a sofa or a step of the staircase, and create the same rigid body line described above. Perform the exercise in the same way. Do eight reps per round.
Third, you’ll perform a pulling motion to strengthen muscles you need to take care of the baby. “You’ll not only burn fat, but you’ll also build a stronger back and arms so you can carry your child a lot easier,” Whitfield says. “Those car carriers get heavy!” If you do not have access to a chin-up bar or TRX suspension trainer, you can certainly do wall stick-ups. In this move, place your back against the wall with your feet six inches away from the wall. Stick your arms up straight overhead, then slide your arms down the wall, moving your elbows until they are in line with your shoulders to create a "touchdown" position. It is important to keep your head, shoulders, elbows and wrists in contact with the wall throughout the entire movement. Perform the movement for 30 seconds.
Finish the circuit with a core move; Whitfield suggests mountain climbers. “You’ll find playing with your child on the floor a lot easier, and you'll keep up with them when they [start] to crawl around,” he says.
To perform a mountain climber, assume the classic pushup position with your hands directly beneath your shoulder, feet shoulder-width apart and your body in a straight line from head to heels. Maintaining this rigid body line and keeping your hips parallel to the floor, lift your right foot and pull your knee in toward your chest. Return to foot back to the starting position, and repeat pulling the left leg up. That’s one rep. Rapidly exchange in this way to perform 20 reps per round of the circuit.
Build the Bond While Burning Fat with IntervalsWhitfield also suggests burning fat and a few extra calories—and, more important, building a healthy bond with your child and giving mom some rest—by breaking out the stroller. Taking your child for a 20- to 30-minute walk every day can mean an additional 80 calories or more burned.
You can torch even more—and have more of that burn be from fat—in even less time if you turn stroller time into interval training. Such training, which alternates bouts of hard work with rest periods of easier movement, has been shown provide similar benefits as continuous endurance workouts in less time. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, regular interval training has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, help you continue burning calories after your workout ends and improve body weight without losing muscle.
Your bursts of higher intensity work don’t have to be long, either. To get started, try walking hard (or jogging) for just 15 seconds, then walking slowly for 30 to 60 seconds before repeating. Try to alternate fast-and-slow like this for 12 to 15 minutes after warming up. Even quick bursts like these can be effective: When participants in one study did bursts of just 8 seconds during a 20-minute workout three times per week, they lost four pounds of fat in 12 weeks. To get the same fat loss from steady-state work, scientists said you’d have to exercise seven times as long.
While the people in that study were sprinting, varying your pace even a little bit can have a big effect. Scientists from Ohio State University found that walking in bursts of just five inches per second faster helped study participants burn up to 20 percent more calories than walking at a constant pace. That’s the kind of efficiency a new dad needs to avoid the dreaded "dad bod"—and it could help keep you trim for a longer, happier life as a father.