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5 Tips to Stay Healthy & Fit in the “Sandwich Generation”

helping a middle aged woman stay healthy and fit

Even the words Sandwich Generation make it sound daunting to stay healthy and fit. It’s as if we’re carrying around a sandwich in our pockets all the time, tempting us with high calorie bread, bacon, and mayo! If only it were that simple. If only we could just throw out the sandwich and leave our worries behind. 


Being a part of the Sandwich Generation isn’t that simple. The priorities of caring for both children and aging parents can make it difficult to prioritize our own health, fitness, and well-being. It doesn’t have to be that way. In this article, we’ll explore 5 ways to stay healthy and fit as a member of the Sandwich Generation


What is the Sandwich Generation?

For those of you not familiar with the term, the Pew Research Center defines the Sandwich Generation as middle-aged individuals who have both caregiving and/or financial responsibilities for their over 65 parents and under 18 kids. According to Pew, it’s likely that as much as 40-50% of you reading this article fall into this category. If you don’t right now, there’s a pretty good likelihood that you’ll end up there at some point as our population ages and lives longer. 


I probably don’t need to tell anyone who is dealing with caregiving responsibilities for their kids and their parents the toll it can take on health and well-being. It’s certainly hard enough to take care of kids while balancing a job and other life responsibilities. Add on top of that aging parents and it becomes very easy to put ourselves on the back burner (sometimes the way way back burner).


I’m not here to pretend I have all the answers to solving the challenges of living in the Sandwich Generation, as each situation is certainly unique. That said, I do have some helpful tips to consider to help you take great care of yourself, so you take care of others in your life that are counting on you.


Tip 1 to Staying Healthy & Fit in the Sandwich Generation: Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

Building off what I said at the end of the last paragraph, in order to take care of others you have to take care of yourself. You won’t be that effective of a caregiver if you’re rundown, unhealthy, and tired all the time. This is where the metaphor of “putting your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others” comes in. 


This is more of a mindset shift than anything else, but in doing so it is foundational to everything else we’re going to talk about. A lot of this really comes back to giving yourself permission to take care of yourself. We live in a culture that values (sometimes over values) self-sacrificing servitude. While serving others is certainly not a bad thing, when taken to the extreme, at the expense of our health and well-being, a good thing turns bad really quickly. 


Compassion fatigue is very real. It’s defined as the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma. This is clearly a state we want to avoid at all costs, as it hinders our health and well-being and prevents us from helping others. The bottom line here is that giving yourself explicit permission to carve out time for your self-care is critical not only to your health but to your caregiving abilities to those who count on you.


Tip 2 to Staying Healthy & Fit in the Sandwich Generation: Shrink the Change

It’s very easy to feel like taking care of yourself is insurmountable when you have caregiving responsibilities for the generation above and below you. It can be hard to feel like there’s even a minute to breathe, let alone an hour to exercise or 20 minutes to meditate. This is certainly understandable. You don’t have to boil the ocean when it comes to self-care, little changes can make a big difference.


What little change you make is up to you. It could be finding a way to add physical activity into your day (like we’ll talk about below). It could be talking to a friend on your drive to work. It could be making yourself a healthy lunch and eating it in the park. Whatever it is, start small, this makes it more realistic that you’ll implement the change consistently (which is the only way you’ll notice a difference). 


To shrink the change, I’d recommend trying to carve out just 5-10 minutes every day (to start) to do something for your self-care and well-being. It doesn’t matter what it is, anything healthy that positively improves your well-being will work as a starting point. If you’re not sure where to begin, the National Institutes of Health has some good suggestions. Once you’ve consistently implemented that 5-10 minutes you can build to greater amounts of time as your schedule allows.


The great thing about this approach is that going from doing little-to-nothing for your self-care to doing something will result in you feeling much better right away. The biggest gains are always seen when going from nothing to something. This will positively reinforce the self-care behavior, and hopefully will drive you to implement more behaviors as you feel better and become a more effective caregiver. 


Tip 3 to Staying Healthy & Fit in the Sandwich Generation: Leverage Physical Activity 

On a minute-by-minute basis, there is probably no greater way to improve your physical and mental health and well-being than physical activity. I’ll explain more about that in a moment, for now, it’s important to recognize the term I’m using here. I’m not talking about exercise, I’m talking about physical activity. Those two terms are similar, but they’re not the same. 


Exercise is a subset of physical activity that is designed to improve one or more aspects of fitness (body composition, aerobic capacity, muscular fitness). It is very specific and normally performed at a higher intensity. Physical activity on the other hand is very nonspecific, done at a lower intensity and performed to improve health. People conflate these two terms all the time and it hinders their ability to improve health. 


Exercise is great and I recommend you perform it  (I’m an exercise physiologist after all). But in keeping with the theme in tip #2 it might not be the best starting point for you. Exercise normally requires a longer period of time and may require equipment or going to the gym. Given time is the biggest barrier for the Sandwich Generation, exercise could be a bridge too far. 


Physical activity, on the other hand, can be performed anywhere, anytime. It can be performed for as short as 1-2 minutes. We know based on several research studies that all movement counts and goes towards improving health and wellbeing. In fact, as I mentioned above, physical activity can have profound impacts on overall health with even low levels of performance. 


The World Health Organization recommends getting in 150 minutes of physical activity each week. That’s about 22 minutes per day, if you can find 4-5 blocks or around 5-6 minutes each every day you can achieve this guideline. If you’re looking for a list of physical activity ideas, the National Institutes of Health has some good ideas here. Finally, don’t fret too much about getting to the 150-minute-per-week threshold, the biggest improvements in health and wellbeing come when going from zero minutes to 15-20 minutes.


Tip 4 to Staying Healthy & Fit in the Sandwich Generation: Include those you’re caring for in your self-care behaviors

Certainly, the behaviors you’re implementing to improve your health and well-being can do exactly the same thing for those you’re caring for. Granted it might take a little creativity, but if you’re willing to do so, you can figure out how to incorporate your parents and/or your kids in your self-care behaviors. 


A simple example could be playing with your kids or going on a walk with your parents. Maybe it’s preparing and eating a healthy meal together. The options here are only limited by your creativity. Incorporating those you care for into your self-care has many benefits.


First and foremost, if they’re involved it limits the guilt you might feel not spending time with them. It also adds the all-important social component to self-care behavior. We’re much more likely to engage in self-care when we’re supported socially and doing it with people we care about. Finally, you’ll get the dual benefit of the activity improving your health and well-being AND the health of the person you’re caring for. All of this makes the inclusion of the person/people your caregiving for a potent tool.


Tip 5 to Staying Healthy & Fit in the Sandwich Generation: Set a goal that connects your self-care to your values of caregiving

In this article I wrote on Using Values and Goals Setting to make New Year’s Resolutions Stick I talked about the idea of using your own core values as the foundation for goal-setting. I realize we’re not talking about New Year’s resolutions here, but the fundamental issue remains the same given what we’re talking about. In fact, it might even be more applicable. 


Caregiving for your parents and your kids comes from a great sense of love, responsibility, and service towards others. Caregiving is rooted in values, so it makes sense to use your values to set self-care goals. You can certainly read the article I linked above if you want an in-depth explanation, but I’ll give you the short version here.


Pick one self-care goal you want to implement (maybe it’s physical activity). Instead of just setting the typical SMART goal, go a step further and ask what personal core value(s) that goal sits atop. Maybe you want to be more physically active to be stronger to be able to help your physical caregiving abilities for an aging parent. Maybe you want to have more energy to have more meaningful playtime with your kids. Whatever the goal and value combination might be, I think you can see how tying a goal to value can be helpful. People give up on their daily walk all the time, it’s much harder to give up being strong to care for your ailing father.


You Can Do It AND You HAVE TO Do It

I hope this article demonstrates how you can stay fit and healthy as a part of the Sandwich Generation by implementing any and all of the five tips I’ve laid out. More importantly, how it demonstrates why you HAVE TO stay fit and healthy. 


Your aging parents and your growing kids are counting on you. They’re counting on you to do more than just be there for them, they’re counting on you to be there to help them thrive. That will only be a reality if you are thriving yourself. Follow the tips I’ve laid out here and you’ll thrive. 


If you’re looking for some professional support for your fitness, health, and self-care needs, don’t hesitate to chat with an Applied Fitness Solutions coach. They specialize in helping you take control of your health to ensure you thrive to help those you love thrive too!


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