Working mothers who feel in control of schedule more likely to embrace healthy habits

A present-focused mindset made mothers more likely to maintain a feeling of control as demands on their time increased.

working mom

Working, single mothers who feel in control of their schedules are more likely to fit in healthy habits like exercise, according to new research from Rice University, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Danielle King
Danielle King

In their study, researchers followed more than 100 single, working mothers over a week and examined how their different mindsets while balancing work and family tasks affected the likelihood of exhibiting healthy behaviors during their downtime. They found that family demands on working mothers make exercise much less likely when compared to people with fewer responsibilities. However, individual perspective made a difference.

"Regardless of how busy a mother was, when she lived in the moment and felt like she was in control of her schedule, she was more likely to make time for exercise," said Danielle King, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice and a co-author of the study, "Understanding how family demands impair health behaviors in working sole mothers: The role of perceived control over leisure time."

In addition, a present-focused mindset made mothers more likely to maintain a feeling of control as demands on their time increased, King said. This helped explain why some people with demanding schedules made time for health behaviors and others did not.

Interestingly, King and her fellow researchers found that mindset did not impact consumption of unhealthy food or excess alcohol.

So what can be done for the stressed-out mother who doesn't take time to exercise? King said various interventions could help, and she hopes future work will address this.

"Preferably, these will focus on teaching mothers how to focus on the present while offering them ideas and strategies to help so they feel like they have more control over their schedules," King said. "For example, making mothers aware of improved or diverse child care options might make all the difference in helping them adjust their perspective and make time to exercise — which, of course, is linked to better physical and mental health long-term."

The paper's lead author is Charles Calderwood from Virginia Tech. Other co-authors are Molly Minnen from Virginia Tech, Cassandra Phetmisy from Rice, and Kate Kidwell and Kimberly French from Georgia Tech. The study was supported by a National Science Foundation collaborative research grant to King, Calderwood and French.

The paper will be published in an upcoming edition of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, a publication of the International Association of Applied Psychology. It is online at