Does Your Workout Eat Your Family?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called “A Workout Ate My Marriage,” about a husband and father of three young children who devoted 20 hours a week to his endurance training. His wife staged an intervention last summer: Her parents and his joined her in asking him to exercise less and spend more time with the family.

The man described in the Journal article is a triathlete, but he could just as easily be a serious hiker or skier or climber. I’ve been around the outdoor community long enough to know plenty of people who spend at least 20 hours a week on their chosen activities. I’ve been one of them. The article brought up questions I often ask myself, and that all outdoor athletes with families may want to consider: When does pursuing your sport — your exercise — conflict with the needs of your family? How do you balance physical activity with family life?

Before I had children, I spent most of my weekends climbing, hiking, or backcountry skiing, and many hours during the week training. If someone had said I was addicted to those activities, I probably would have agreed, with pride. Even before I met Jim and we had our children, my focus had changed. Still, I don’t always know how to balance sport and family life. When is it OK to leave my children for a week’s backpacking trip, or even a long day of backcountry skiing? When is it not the right choice? When does spending time in the outdoors edge into addiction?

The choices I see being made around me run the gamut. Some previously hard-core outdoor athletes scale way back once they have children, even to the point of stopping altogether. I know some parents who have made their outdoor activities a sort of family business, inducting their children into the guild, as it were, at a young age, without giving the kids an option. In other families, one of the parents sometimes spends so much time pursuing a sport that he or she isn’t much of a presence in the family. I’ve seen marriages splinter over the issue. Among endurance athletes, according to the Wall Street Journal article, there’s even a name for this: “Divorce by Triathlon.”

The man profiled in the article refused to cut back on his training. In September, he swam across the English Channel. Someone left this comment on the Journal’s website: “I think most kids and spouses would much prefer a consistent presence rather than a one-time, ‘inspiring’ event. What does he expect his kids to say? ‘My dad wasn’t around much, but his inspirational swim across the English Channel was way better than him actually spending time with me?’”

In our family, we’ve made the choice to share our outdoor activities with our children. We want them to learn about hiking and camping from us, and to build a store of memories of time spent together outdoors. For us, these long-term goals make it worth it to hike at a slower pace, or to wait to climb certain summits until we can stand on them together.

We do have to stay in good enough shape to keep up with the kids, though. Jim and I consider exercising part of our parenting, both for the role modeling and for what we hope will be longer and healthier lives with our children. We’ve struck our particular balance by exercising at times when our family life is less affected. In the winter and spring, Jim plays hockey two nights a week, leaving after dinner and getting back close to midnight. I row in the summer and fall, often getting off the water before the kids are out of bed.

I’m aware of a paradox: The more we parents want to pass on a love of anything, including being active in the outdoors, the less we may get to do of it. But by taking the time to share it with our children, the more likely they are to learn to love it. And that makes the time we don't spend doing our sport worthwhile.

Learn more
- Read “A Workout Ate My Marriage” (The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2011)

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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