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Helen Glover: ‘Just ten minutes of exercise can make you a happier parent’

As a double Olympic rowing champion, Helen Glover was accustomed to grim early-morning starts and bone-deep fatigue long before the arrival of her first son Logan last summer. But staying active in motherhood – through easy ten-minute home workouts, daily buggy walks, and fun weekend family adventures – is helping her to cope with the new wave of physical and mental stresses she is now encountering as a frazzled parent.

“I now consider exercise as another part of being the best mum I can be,” explains the 33-year-old Cornish rower, who lives in Berkshire with her husband, the naturalist and television presenter Steve Backshall. “I try to do ten minutes in the morning so I have more energy in the day. If I have done something for me, the rest of the day can be about Logan.

“You can become almost lethargic – mentally and physically – when you are looking after a small baby that doesn’t talk back to you and so to get some endorphins makes you a happier mum. And if you are happy around your baby, that has got to be a good thing.”

Glover’s victories in the coxless pairs at London 2012 and Rio 2016, alongside her partner Heather Stanning, were founded on a brutal and unforgiving daily training regime. Letting go of that ferocious inner drive was, she admits, “quite tricky,” but she has learned to enjoy whatever opportunities for exercise she can carve out of her day. “It’s about your emotional as well as your physical health,” she insists. “Exercise makes me a happier and more confident mum. Parents shouldn’t think it is selfish to exercise or feel guilty. It makes you more energetic and gives you some time to yourself.”

For many stressed parents, the idea of regular exercise can feel much easier than the practical reality, as chores and responsibilities eat into every spare moment. But Glover believes the secret is to aim for short but regular ten-minute workouts. “After having Logan, I began with literally the easiest things you can imagine. I would get a yoga mat out for ten minutes and do some stretches and some core activation. I was doing simple planks – not even sit-ups – but making sure I was doing things with really good form. It was all about core and preparing my body for when I got fitter. It is amazing how much you can do with bodyweight exercises – just old school press-ups and burpees and things like that.”

As an elite athlete she used to consider ten-minute workouts pointless. She now recognises that they can be a potent tool for restoring and maintaining everyday wellbeing. “Whether you have just started exercising, or you’ve just had a baby, or you are returning after an injury, if you do ten minutes of core exercise every morning that adds up to an hour a week. You will feel different: happier, healthier. And ten minutes is manageable. You are not expecting any more of yourself.”

Glover suggests identifying “small pockets of time” throughout the day, such as combining playtime on the mat with a few stretches and lifts. Finding these gaps in your schedule can sometimes involve a simple rewiring of perspective. “Logan has been a rubbish sleeper so if he needs a sleep I put him in buggy and go for a walk. But I turned that into a positive. I take more steps now than I ever took when I was rowing. If you think: ‘Oh God, I have to walk him to get him to sleep,’ it’s a downward spiral. Now I think: ‘He needs a sleep so let’s go for a walk – this will be my exercise window and we’ll do it together.’”

Knowing that she’d no longer be able to get out for long bike rides or fitness classes, she has adapted her home set-up so she can exercise on the indoor rower or ride her bike on a turbo trainer. “I found it useful just spinning my legs around while he had a nap. People always said to me: ‘Sleep when the baby sleeps.’ But I found that if I did some exercise when the baby slept, that was a more beneficial use of time for me.”

Despite enjoying years of access to expert coaches and sports scientists, she has welcomed the freedom to seek out more functional exercise ideas for new mothers. “My generation is now very inspired by Instagram and Twitter and workouts are really accessible today. Although social media can be a problem in the fitness industry, it can be amazing if you are a new mum at home who doesn’t have access to facilities and you want to see some inspiring women showing you some easy home workouts.”

Glover has also used motherhood as an opportunity to return to some of the healthy habits of her childhood by combining fitness with outdoor adventures. She goes on short weekend hikes with Logan in a sling and enjoys relaxing bike rides with him strapped into a baby seat. In October she will lead stand-up paddle-boarding classes and other activities in her role as an ambassador for the new Active Living Package at Four Seasons Fairways in the Algarve.

“I grew up doing outdoorsy and adventurous activities and it was something I really missed when I started rowing as you never have the energy and you don’t risk injury,” she says. “So it has been refreshing to go back to my roots and enjoy other activities. And it makes fitness easier because you can say: what do I fancy today? Do I fancy a run? A kayak? Logan is an adaptable baby and he has always come with me. I still do public speaking work and he comes along. Steve worked abroad for a long time and Logan came out there with me to visit him. Logan probably rolls his eyes when we get in the car now, wondering if we are going kayaking or climbing today, but he enjoys it.”

As she is no longer training as a professional athlete, Glover has tweaked her diet by reducing her overall calorie intake but she aims for a healthy balance. On a typical day she has poached eggs and avocado on toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and either a bowl of cereal or some fruit for a snack. Dinner might be a vegetable lasagne with salad, followed by yoghurt and berries – and some chocolate. “My dad is an ice cream man and I have always loved sweet food and chocolate,” she confesses. “But I have a mentality that as long as the majority of my diet is healthy and full of fruit and veg and good stuff then I have no mental battle with stopping myself eating some sweet food.”

Escaping the punitive daily training of elite sport and embracing the simple pleasures of home workouts and weekend adventures has encouraged Glover to regard health as a much broader concept of general wellbeing, not just the pursuit of raw physical fitness. “I believe the power of exercise goes hand in hand with the importance of diet and mental health and everything else,” she reflects. “When you commit to looking after yourself through exercise you just get this level of self-care which means you want to continue that by eating healthy food, thinking about good hydration, and respecting your sleep. Exercise spills out into the rest of your life. I know that if I stop exercising, all my other forms of self-care will slide.”