Regular exercise can help you handle the demands of being a successful parent and nurture common bonds with your children, writes Patricia Carswell. But if it's motivation you need, look beyond the gym My aversion to sport was always a point of pride. "I don't do sport," I would sniff, citing a hamstring injury sustained during a mothers' race as evidence that games were bad for you. But as my children grew older and sport became a central feature of their lives, I started to feel a bit left out. I watched with envy the satisfaction they got from exercising - not to mention the sheer amount of food it enabled them to eat.
I can't be sure if it was curiosity or greed that finally peeled me off the sofa, but either way I found myself taking tentative steps towards a life of fitness - and with it discovered common ground with my children that I hadn't expected. Just as other parents were lamenting the lack of communication with their grunting teenagers, I was debating with mine over personal bests and running techniques. Instead of bickering over pick-up times we were discussing press-ups and planks.
As I started to develop a more youthful physique, my kids developed a grudging respect for their hitherto aged mother. "My mum can run that faster than that," laughed my son as his friends staggered across the line in training. A back-handed compliment, perhaps, but a compliment nonetheless. It's not just finding topics of conversation with teenagers that becomes easier when you take to the treadmill. Christine Knight-Maunder, a lawyer and mother of three, 40, finds that the benefits extend to her whole life.
"Since I started training seven years ago, I am stronger, a lot thinner and generally healthier. Exercising first thing in the morning puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day and I am definitely slower to rise to the bait, whether it is thrown at me at work or by my children." Most importantly, Christine values her exercise routine as "me time". "I think it's important because some time away from your responsibilities as wife, mother, employee and general grown-up is incredibly refreshing."
Corey Oliver, the founder of the Original Fitness Co in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is equally passionate about the benefits of an active life for busy parents. "The older we become the more sedentary we tend to get. We need to reverse that trend and become more active if we want to be in peak condition to handle the demands of being a successful parent. It's important to maintain your health and keep fit, as parents are responsible not only for themselves, but for their family."
Of course, it's easy to be aware of the advantages - anyone who's tried to outrun a toddler will vouch for the need for sprinting skills - but for many parents it's finding the motivation and the time that is the greatest challenge. If you're lacking in inclination and the thought of spin classes fills you with horror, there are plenty of other options: sport doesn't have to be gym or class-based.
A growing number of parents in Dubai have taken up rowing - a sport which, perhaps surprisingly, works the lower body as much as the upper. Monty Khwaja, the founder of Monty's Rowing School in Dubai Creek, talks enthusiastically of a sport that keeps him fit while taking him past flocks of flamingoes: by anybody's reckoning a more enticing view than the four walls of a gym. "We do have mums and dads that row," he says. "We take pride in showing people the art of rowing and seeing them discover all the benefits of this truly great sport."
Other spirited parents take advantage of their proximity to the sea to go scuba diving. Many hotels run PADI courses, and some go on overnight diving trips to Musandam: a watery world away from pumping iron. Even if this sounds heavenly, though, the chances are that what holds you back is time. Oliver acknowledges that it's not easy to fit anything else into a crammed schedule. "It's no wonder parents get out of shape; they don't have time to take care of themselves. Working parents spend at least eight hours a day working outside of the home; they also have to work taking care of the home".
Nevertheless, Oliver insists that it's worth making the time and advocates diarising exercise in the same way that you would with any other appointment. For fitness fanatic Knight-Maunder, the answer was to hire a personal trainer; it was harder to find excuses when someone else was involved. Meeting once a week, he got her started, encouraged her and, crucially, never laughed at her initial attempts at press-ups or bicycle sprints.
"Now I can hold my own with a group of younger men and women with whom I get together for a group exercise session." If a personal trainer is beyond your reach and you can't manage time away from home, making use of the hours you spend with your children can be the solution. Now that the temperatures are starting to drop, heading outdoors for a family outing can be an attractive option. The Corniche in Abu Dhabi and Jumeirah Beach in Dubai are perfect places for a family swim or even a cycle ride, and there are tennis courts in most residential areas. If you fancy getting out of the city, you could take the kids hiking in the desert. And if you crave some cooler air, there's always Ski Dubai or the skating rink at Zayed Sports City to raise the heart rate.
Whatever your age, body shape, interests or lifestyle, with a little determination and imagination you're bound to find something active that you can do. And if you start now, who knows? When it comes to next year's sports day, you might even pick up a medal instead of an injury.