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Becoming a dad is good for your health, according to science

by News7

The costs of fatherhood are well known: financial responsibilities and related stress, diminished sleep, and less free time. But there are also plenty of mental and physical upsides that come from taking on such a pivotal caregiving role. 

These include greater stores of empathy, improved longevity, and more happiness and meaning in life. “Men also report improvements in diet and exercise and less substance use after becoming fathers,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a psychology professor at Ohio State University and a fellow of the National Council on Family Relations. “And dads who are more involved with their children are more satisfied with their lives and are more connected with friends, family, and community.”

A present father can also provide unmatched benefits for the kids they are raising. “Children who grow up with invested fathers have better social, emotional, and academic outcomes than children without such fathers,” says Lee Gettler, a biological anthropologist and director of the Hormones, Health, and Human Behavior lab at the University of Notre Dame.

Of course, related upsides also apply to mothers and all committed guardians and caregivers, but in honor of Father’s Day, it’s appropriate to highlight the seemingly superhuman benefits that come from being a superhero dad. 

Improvements to mental healthParenthood can be great for a father’s mental health by improving feelings of compassion, increasing life fulfillment, and by providing higher rates of satisfaction with job performance and work/life balance. 

“I and other researchers have consistently found that caring for and spending time with one’s children is associated with emotional benefits for all parents, and especially for dads,” says Katherine Nelson-Coffey, a behavioral scientist, researcher, and the director of the Social Connection & Positive Psychology lab at Arizona State University.

Nelson-Coffey has measured these benefits across multiple studies by comparing day-to-day activities in which men commonly engage while looking at who those activities were done with and what emotions were experienced during each one. “We’ve consistently found that fathers report more positive emotions and a sense of meaning when they are spending time with their children compared to the other activities they do during the day,” she explains.

New fathers also experience a flood of happy hormones. “We’ve published research showing that fathers’ oxytocin increases substantially when they first hold their babies shortly after they are born,” says Gettler. 

Another noteworthy change that occurs when men become fathers is that, as they spend time with their infants and young children, they experience a decrease in testosterone. “Higher testosterone focuses time and energy on mating efforts and competition, while lower testosterone shifts time and energy commitments towards partnering and parenting,” says Gettler, who co-authored the first large longitudinal study measuring such changes. 

The resulting empathy and understanding stemming from these hormone changes are among the reasons that, “on a behavioral level, anthropologists have been aware for a long time that those cultures where men live in close proximity to children tend to be less bellicose and less likely to initiate war,” says Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emerita at the University of California, Davis and author of the book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

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Beyond hormonal changes, fathers also experience many positive emotions when their children say something amusing, learn a new skill, or show tender affection through words or hugs. “Experiencing frequent positive emotions these ways are important building blocks for mental health and well-being,” says Nelson-Coffey.

In a supportive study that Nelson-Coffey co-authored and published this year, she showed fathers also experiencing a sense of gratitude that “predicted greater life satisfaction and fewer negative emotions over time.”

Gettler points to additional related research that shows that “partnered fathers who live with their children are also less likely to be depressed than single men without children.” He says this is likely associated with the happy emotions that fathers frequently feel while caring for their children and because of the satisfaction some men experience when providing for their family’s financial needs.

A broader social circleDads also often experience many new social opportunities because of their children such as meeting other adults through child-centered sports participation, parent-teacher conferences at school, playdate arrangements, and scouting.

Karen Fingerman, a human development and family sciences professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says such opportunities are especially appreciated when a family moves to a new city.

Supporting this, Nelson-Coffey points to one of her parenting studies, which found that men with children experience a greater sense of social connection compared to men without children. She explains that when men feel connected to others, “they are less likely to experience loneliness, which is a major risk factor for the development of depression and other mental health concerns.” 

More physical activity vs. the “dad bod”Beyond such mental and social advantages, fathers also experience many physical health benefits. For instance, studies show that men are more likely to avoid drugs and ditch harmful substances like tobacco and alcohol, in part, because “young children help fathers to consider and prioritize what’s most important in life,” says Jay Fagan, professor emeritus at the school of social work at Temple University and the former co-director of the Fatherhood Research and Practice Network.

Another related outcome Fagan points to “is a decrease in negative behaviors, fewer accidents, and less contact with the criminal justice system.” 

Nelson-Coffey says that eating habits also often improve as fathers work to model a balanced diet and healthier eating behaviors to encourage their children to do the same. 

Dads also commonly make more time to engage in physical activity and play with their kids—interactions that benefit father and child alike.

“When fathers engage in physical exercise and make it fun and a habit to take their kids, the kids also learn that exercising and staying healthy is fun and good for them,” says Natasha Cabrera, professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland.

And while there is scientific evidence that some men gain weight and what’s often called the “dad bod” after becoming a father, Gettler notes that it’s occurrence may sometimes be more cultural than related to parenting as he didn’t find evidence of this occurring in another country in recent related research.

Timing may also play a part in cases of new fathers packing on some extra weight. Nelson-Coffey notes that during the early years of fatherhood, fathers are more likely to be sleep deprived and are often less physically active, but that usually changes as their kids age and often because of their kids. “So, although there may be a cost in the early years, parents may benefit physically as their kids get older,” she says.   

Some of these physical health benefits help explain several studies that show “that fathers live longer than men without children, even controlling for marital status,” says Jason Carroll, the Wheatley Institute’s family initiative director at Brigham Young University in Utah. 

Efforts to be more physically fit and eat better likely occur because fatherhood ushers in greater life meaning for many men. “Becoming a father often gives men an expanded vision and a new sense of identity and purpose—changing a man’s priorities in life and giving him a sense that his choices matter,” says Carroll.

Not all upsidesOf course, even when certain mental and physical health outcomes are better for dads when compared to non-dads, fatherhood is an exceptionally demanding role that can be its own source of enormous stress.

“Fathers can suffer from depression because parenting is intense and difficult as much as it is joyous and rewarding,” says Cabrera. 

She points out that becoming a new father can also be intimidating and overwhelming for many dads, and that relationships with teenage children can be especially fraught with tension. When navigating these uncharted waters, many fathers experience high levels of anxiety and self-doubt. “Fathers also often feel the responsibility to work harder and longer hours to support their children, which can put a lot of strain on their physical health,” she adds. 

Children can also distract away from quality time with one’s partner and be a strain on one’s marriage, notes Nelson-Coffey. 

Because of such factors, “it’s important for all parents, including fathers, to pay attention to how they are feeling, both mentally and physically, and to take steps to strengthen their health,” advises Schoppe-Sullivan. While it may feel tempting or unavoidable to neglect one’s wellbeing, she says, getting enough sleep and exercise and planning plenty of “you time” is still crucial. “Healthy parents make better parents and better partners.”

Source : National Geographic

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