Prioritizing your own health is the greatest gift you can give your kids this year

Marsha Parker did it and she's inspiring us to do it, too. ✨

Prioritizing your own health is the greatest gift you can give your kids this year

If you've been on social media at all this week you've probably been served plenty of ads about losing weight and getting toned in the New Year. All those before and after weight loss photos are supposedly "inspiring" but some just end up making us feel bad about ourselves.

That is why we love the story of New York mom Marsha Parker, who appeared on Good Morning America this week and is gracing the pages of the latest issue of People magazine.

We love Parker's story because this isn't the story of a mom who lost weight to look better in a before and after on Instagram. Hers is the story of a mom who found out how to prioritize her own health as much as her child's. She learned how to put her own proverbial oxygen mask on first, and that's a story we can all learn from if we want to thrive in 2020.

Learning to take care of mama, too 

When Parker's now 10-year-old daughter, Kumari, was born in 2010 Parker did what comes naturally to parents: She put her daughter's needs first. Of course, that is what parents are supposed to do, but along the way, she neglected her own health.

Parker is hardly the only mom to experience this phenomenon. It starts early, with about 40% of new moms skipping postpartum doctor's appointments, and when we neglect our own health in the early days of parenting it is easy for it to become a pattern.

Research out of the University of Minnesota indicates that (despite chasing our little ones) moms get 1.5 fewer hours of physical activity per week than women who don't have kids. We're also more likely to drink sugary drinks and have higher saturated fat and caloric intakes than our childfree counterparts.

And for parents on a limited budget there is another factor at play: Foods that aren't healthy are often quite cheap. And research shows that when budgets are tight parents will sacrifice their own nutritional needs for their child's.

That's what Parker did for the first five years of her daughter's life. While she would serve Kumari the healthiest produce she could afford, Parker would serve herself a plate of $1.25 fried chicken to make the healthy foods stretch further for her daughter.

The shift began when Kumari noticed her mom wasn't eating the same healthy foods as her. An early reader who was diving into books about nutrition, Kumari knew her mom's plate should look more like her own.

"She'd say, 'Why don't you eat vegetables?'" Parker tells Motherly, recalling how her daughter would look at her mom's dinner of fried chicken and fries and ask, "Where are the vitamins in that?"

Inspired by Kumari, Parker made changes to her priorities and eating habits and funneled the new energy those nutritious foods gave her into physical activity—first with a kickboxing class and then the Mile High Run Club, where runners train to music on treadmills in a group setting that's similar to a spin class.

When Parker told Kumari how much fun she was having learning to run, the little girl wanted to train, too. The pair began running outdoors together. "We went to the track and she just yelled out 'I love running with you, this is so much fun!' And we've been doing it ever since."

Parker lost 155 pounds and gained a new relationship with her body, her plate and her daughter.

"I finally realized that loving my little girl also means being healthy for her."

Parker didn't start taking care of herself because she needed to stick to a New Year's resolution or look good in a new dress (although that is a fun side effect). She did it because she realized that science proves that as parents we are powerful role models and it isn't enough to just tell our kids to eat our vegetables and get moving, we have to do it, too.

"I needed to be healthy to take care of my little girl and I need to lead by example because although I was giving her healthy foods if she continued to watch me eat unhealthy foods, she would've followed that example instead," she tells Motherly.

Parker's right. Research indicates that positive parental role modeling is a better way to encourage healthy eating the just controlling the child's diet.

"I couldn't keep on knowing that my old habits would lead her to a path that would result in preventable diseases," Parker tells Motherly.

She started taking care of herself to prevent her daughter from getting sick, but it did wonders for mama, too.

A mama moving her body

When Parker started modeling self-care at the kitchen table and on the running trails her daughter followed and now the two are enjoying life as athletes. Kumari is involved in competitive swimming and continues to run and train for half-marathons with her mom.

Parker says that while running and kickboxing really helped her, she also recommends strength training to other mothers trying to do what she did.

"Weight lifting is very important to being healthy and keeping the weight off. A balanced workout is the key. It doesn't have to be heavy weight but any amount that will help increase lean muscle mass to aid in metabolism."

Working out together can be a bonding experience

One of the reasons why mothers get less exercise than women who don't have kids is because we often don't have time. It can be really hard to go to the gym when you don't have childcare or when you only have so many hours in the day after work.

For Parker, getting her steps in required a perspective-shift: For so long, she didn't want to take time away from her child to workout. Then she discovered that the two aren't mutually exclusive.

"Your goals can co-exist with one another," says Parker. "You can be a great mom and still be active. You can drag the kids with you and they'll learn to like it. They're so resilient and adaptive, they'll like it."

[A version of this story was first posted March 8, 2018. It has been updated.]