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While the joys of parenting are real, so are the challenges. The physical and psychological stress of being a mom are well-documented—for good reason—and plenty of dads also contend with juggling work, parenting, and other day-to-day responsibilities.
Trying to balance these competing demands can spread fathers thin, increasing stress and potentially leading to negative health consequences. Many new fathers talk about how becoming a parent alters their views and priorities, and having a new person to think about often leads to significant life changes, according to a 2018 review of research on the health effects of fatherhood.
“Children are often a double-edged sword: They prompt men to strive for more income so that they can care for them properly, but [working more] keeps them away from their family, which can be stressful,” says Marianne Legato, MD, founder and director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine and a professor emerita of clinical medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York City.
But dads can take steps to protect their health, boost energy levels, and improve their mood.
In honor of Men's Health Week and Father’s Day, here's what you need to know about five common health complaints from fathers—with one quick fix you can try for each.
'I'm Tired All the Time'
Both moms and dads can suffer from exhaustion. Research suggests that dads are just as prone to burnout, disrupted sleep, and drowsiness as moms are.
Symptoms: Daytime sleepiness and a lack of concentration are classic indicators, but men may also notice an increased appetite or a lack of motivation to exercise, Legato says. If they have addictive behaviors—drinking or smoking, for example—those may surface, too.
One quick fix: You can improve the quality of the hours you do get to sleep if you avoid alcohol before bedtime, Legato says. While alcohol may help you fall asleep, it could keep you from staying asleep, she says. Deep sleep is restorative and helps to consolidate memory and refresh your ability to think clearly.
'I Have No Time to Exercise'
Parents of young children get less exercise than their childless peers. “Parents with dependent children are clearly more inactive than nonparents,” concluded the authors of a review on the topic published in the journal Preventive Medicine. But studies also suggest that fathers who work to stay physically active not only reap many benefits from exercise themselves but also tend to have more physically active children.
Symptoms: A burgeoning waistline could be a sign that you’re not getting enough exercise. But you also might notice that everyday activities, such as getting up from a table without supporting yourself, have become harder, Legato says.
One quick fix: Try to find a specific time in your schedule each day to exercise, Legato says. Try biking to work if you can. Research shows that people who regularly cycle experience physical and cognitive benefits. If you have a gym at work, go the same time every day. Park an exercise bike in front of the TV in your living room and use it while you watch the nightly news. Catching up on TV? Try our binge-watch workout. To start seeing the benefits, you need just 15 to 20 minutes per day of getting your heart rate up.
'I Eat Too Much Junk'
By the time you’ve barreled through back-to-back meetings and picked up the kids from band practice, it can take all your willpower to resist stopping at a drive-thru on the way home or eating leftover birthday cake for dinner. But years of bad dietary habits are not without consequences. Fathers are generally heavier than nonfathers, according to a 2018 study. In fact, an older study found that for every child that he has, a father’s risk of obesity goes up by 4 percent. Researchers have also shown links between a father's eating habits and those of his children.
One quick fix: Make it a priority to eat three healthy meals throughout the day, suggests John Santa, MD, MPH, a former director of Consumer Reports' Health Ratings Center. Many men "tell themselves they’re too busy for breakfast and lunch, and by the time they get home, they’re famished and they binge,” says Santa, who saw many male patients as a primary care doctor in the Veterans Affairs system. A healthy diet—one heavy in colorful fruits and vegetables and light in added sugars, saturated fats, sodium, and simple carbs—is linked to a range of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer.
'I'm Constantly Stressed Out'
Stress can cause all sorts of problems in the body, including muscle tension, high blood pressure, hormonal imbalances, heartburn, digestive and reproductive issues, and susceptibility to sickness. And according to a review published in 2017, stress in fathers—especially in new ones—is often coupled with anxiety and depression (see below). Stress associated with fatherhood can lead to unhealthy coping strategies, including smoking and extended working hours, according to a recent review of research. Some stress is good, Legato says, and can help you stop procrastinating at work, for example. But when these physical manifestations begin to appear, stress needs to be addressed.
Symptoms: A change in appetite, weight, or sleep are all signs that you might be stressed, Legato says, as are feelings of sadness or anxiety.
One quick fix: Physical exercise is by far the most important way to de-stress, Legato says, because it releases feel-good endorphins, makes you more flexible, and oxygenates your tissues. Regular, measured, and consistent exercise—rather than doing it in fits and starts—is best.
'I Feel Unusually Down'
Women are more likely to suffer from depression, but the condition can be particularly trying for men—especially busy fathers—because they tend to approach it differently. “Men are taught to cope and not complain,” Legato says, “so depression turns inward and can really destroy their health.” Depression lowers the body’s defenses against illness and promotes the release of stress hormones that can make you more vulnerable to insulin resistance and weight gain.
Symptoms: Men experiencing depression may appear angry or aggressive rather than sad, according to the National Institutes of Health. They may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, a racing heart, tightened chest, digestive issues, or changes in sleeping and eating patterns. After the arrival of a new baby, "some symptoms of depression ... experienced by mothers and fathers are similar, such as deep feelings of abandonment and powerlessness," notes a review of the research. Other symptoms, however, such as alcohol and substance abuse, "may more frequently manifest in men."
One quick fix: Admit that you’re down, Legato says, and then make an appointment with a mental health professional so you can consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy, which is often covered by insurance.