MAKING IT WORK

collage of personal photos from moms working out on a cloudy sky backdrop for article on why moms ex...

10 Moms Share What Actually Motivates Them To Exercise

Finding time (and motivation) to exercise can be hard for anyone. Here's what works for these moms.

I don’t have to tell you how hard it can be for mothers to exercise. Between hungry infants, toddlers constantly underfoot, chatty grade schoolers, and tweens and teens who need to be ferried to 17 different activities throughout the week — not to mention jobs, friends, a litany of domestic chores, and on and on — I consider it a small miracle that parents ever exercise at all. So I asked 10 mothers how they find the time and motivation to move their bodies when there’s so much else clamoring for their attention.

Before we go any further, I want to assure you that this isn’t a #NoExcuses #Hustle #Fitspo #NoPainNoGain article. I am going to accept all the excuses. Yoga doesn’t exactly hit the same when you have a toddler climbing on your back when you’re in downward dog. Gym membership might not be in the cards when you’re spending several thousand dollars on day care every month. I myself didn’t start incorporating exercise into my daily life until my children were older, more self-sufficient, and understood the concept of “leave me alone for 30 minutes.”

For me, exercise was about a lot of things: reclaiming my body after years of pregnancy and breastfeeding followed by another few years of an undiagnosed (and uncontrolled) chronic illness. It was about my mental health and the grudging acceptance that while bodies will always get the last laugh, things generally go more smoothly if you give your body movement and the occasional vegetable. What began as an obligation, though, turned into something I truly enjoy. Simply put, I like the way I feel after a long hike or haplessly flailing along to a YouTube workout. I’m proud of the fact that I don’t feel like complete trash after 30 minutes of cardio anymore. I like that I’m showing my kids that movement can be a priority, but also fun.

Of course, motherhood isn’t the only lens through which we process the world. But let’s also be honest: when you’re a parent, your children are (at the very least) on the periphery of all your decisions. While kids were often central to the decision these moms made about exercise — they wanted to take care of themselves for their children, serve as role models, or just get away from their kids for a little while — there are also so many other factors that came into play.

Kimmie, 41, Maryland

“I love how it challenges me and the way my body surprises me with what it lets me do. I wouldn’t exercise otherwise: I need the artistic piece!”Image courtesy of Kimmie

I’ve been poling on and off for 11 years now. I take class once a week, perform, and compete. I love how it challenges me and the way my body surprises me with what it lets me do. I wouldn’t exercise otherwise: I need the artistic piece! I had to quit pole during my first pregnancy due to hyperemesis gravidarum. I had HG the second time too, but I just decided to stick with it. Sometimes all I could do was watch my classmates and sometimes I had to leave to throw up. It got better once my HG faded. But I didn’t climb or go upside down for safety reasons. I took my last class at around 31 weeks.

I used to play The Chicks’ “Godspeed” to my pregnant belly. At some point I knew I wanted to do a routine to it. I came up with the idea to use my son’s toys. I start the routine cleaning up after I’ve put him to bed. The piece was about the deep exhaustion and deep love of a mother for her children. It was so special to have my kids in the audience. In the video, if you listen closely, you can hear them say, “Go Mommy!” They were delighted with my second-place finish.

Marybeth, 51, New Jersey

I used to be a figure skater, but when I got pregnant 21 years ago I stopped because skating is extremely expensive and time-consuming. That was the only exercise other than walking I ever enjoyed as an adult. I have time again, but jumping and falling on ice seems like a terrible idea now that I’m older.

Last spring a dance studio opened in my neighborhood and they offered adult classes in ballet, tap, and hip hop. I’ve always wanted to try tap, so I signed up and I love it. It’s so great to go and stomp out my feelings once a week. I am too focused to worry about anything else when I’m trying to make my feet do the right thing. And it’s been great for my balance, which I didn’t even realize was pretty terrible.

Shannon, 41, Ohio

“It’s very important to me to show her a female-presenting role model who makes time for herself and her needs.”Image courtesy of Shannon

Having a child at an “older” age requires a ton of energy that I don’t necessarily generate on my own every morning. But I love exercise: movement is my happy time and I’ve been consistent with it five to six days per week over the last 10 years. I have had a regular exercise routine for years and learned long ago that movement energizes me. But over the years, my “why” has changed: Now I work out because I want to be physically available to my child during all of her activities. She also specifically asked me to be able to carry her until she’s 7, so I have to stay strong for that for another year.

I used to do group Crossfit classes pre-pandemic, but the two-hour daily commitment was too much with a young kiddo, so I switched to at-home programming, which turned out to be very lucky when Covid hit. I own a Peloton bike, and ride two mornings a week for about 30 to 45 minutes before my daughter wakes up; I’m done by 6:30 a.m. I also have the Peloton app and really enjoy their walking, hiking, and running classes (I have a non-Peloton treadmill), and will add one of those in if I’m not doing a third ride on the weekends. My daughter either plays with her dad or is on her iPad during my weekend workouts. I also have dumbbells, kettlebells, and a barbell at home, and I do strength training three times a week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Also, having a female-identifying child, it’s very important to me to show her a female-presenting role model who makes time for herself and her needs. My daughter has watched me enjoy movement since she was born, and knows how important it is in my life. She’s a very active kid, and I hope that since she sees me enjoying movement as an adult, that she will as well.

Elizabeth, 47, Oregon

Exercise became really hard when I became a single mom. I have my kids 90% of the time and I work full-time. I do best when I’m in a routine. I have one of those glider thingies that the guy with the curly mullet and baseball cap hawked in the ‘90s, and I used to do a lot of my exercise around 9:30 or 10 p.m., after the kids were asleep. Now my teenager is still up, and that’s when he wants to bond. So I’ve had to adjust stuff over the last several months due to… just f*cking life, you know? Without a schedule, I default to guilty stillness.

I recently took a different job in no small part because I can bike to it. Riding a bike is one of the few exercises that I actually enjoy, and don’t just do out of a sense of duty, and I splurged on a bright blue bike that I call Betty Lou. I invested in rain gear and have been riding pretty regularly. I love commuting by bike because by the time I get home I’ve already done my cardio, and if I leave work stressed or in a foul mood, I’m better by the time I get home because of all the wheeeeee! While I always like the idea of family bike rides, I actually prefer doing it by myself because the differences in skill and speed and awareness make the reality of a group ride more “character building” than I like my exercise to be.

Tiffany, 39, Connecticut

“She really tries to actually do the class. Maybe because she’s used to it at home with me. The students love it!”Image courtesy of Tiffany

Exercise has to be fun and entertaining and I need accountability. I used to take Jazzercise classes, which combine dance aerobics and strength training, and loved it so much that I became an instructor.

My other workouts are practicing new routines at home, usually 30 minutes two to three times a week whenever I can find time, but it is mostly with my daughter in the room with me. We play the music loud and she tries to follow me or just does her own thing. If I’m using weights I give her something, like a water bottle, to pretend she has weights so I can concentrate. I bring her with me on the mornings I take class as a student. We stand in the back of the room to try to not distract with all the cuteness going on. She really tries to actually do the class. Maybe because she’s used to it at home with me. The students love it!

Char, 37, Washington

I exercise as my outlet for my “me time.” I find that by adding movement to my day, I'm more focused and have a better handle on things. As a shift worker whose schedule changes all the time, it can be tricky to figure out when to incorporate it, but I aim to exercise as many days as I can and don't beat myself up when I can’t. The time of day changes depending on my schedule: it might be weights and running at 4 a.m., 11 p.m., or 10 a.m. I have not excluded my kids; they know what I'm doing and encourage me and I encourage them to be active too.

Erica, 39, Georgia

“I primarily do it today to ensure my children have a good example of fitness and health.”Image courtesy of Erica

Movement and staying physically active are important to me because of my children. I go to spin classes at the Y — yes, it’s typically me and the seniors — in the morning after day care drop-off. Sometimes in the afternoon I’ll do a combo work call and walk. As much as I feel better — emotionally and physically — when I get moving, I primarily do it today to ensure my children have a good example of fitness and health. I wish I could do it even more, but hopefully they're getting the point!

This picture is from a special day at my daughter’s dance studio where parents get to join the class. Dance was a really big part of my life when I was younger — I used to go to dance class myself but haven't found a schedule that works for me recently — so this day with my daughter is something we both look forward to.

Izzy, 36, California

I exercise just to keep up with my kids — exercise is a tool to keep this meat sack going so I can catch my toddler who is so f*cking fast. To be honest, I hate exercise because it's painful, but it's more painful if I don’t. I know that, so I have to trick myself into it. My routine is just stretching, some light yoga, and biking my kids around town, because that's all I can manage with two small children and a chronic illness. I got an e-bike and only use assist when I have the kids on it or we’re on a steep hill. I try to go out every day. I dance in my kitchen. I count cleaning and sex as exercise. I don't want to lose my ability to do things.

Shannon, 39, Texas

“It is not hyperbole to say it has changed my life.”Image courtesy of Shannon

Growing up, I was always an athlete with a coach to tell me what to do, so I never had to think about exercise… until I did. I developed high blood pressure with all of my pregnancies and it ended up sticking around. I was at the doctor after the birth of my youngest and she basically said I was going to end up on meds. I thought, This is absurd, I’m barely 35, and I eat mostly healthy, so there is really only one thing missing. I started going to the Y and doing classes and running and then shortly before the pandemic we bought a treadmill. It is not hyperbole to say it has changed my life. Running is the single biggest factor controlling my anxiety and keeping my mental health in check and I have enjoyed the program I use so much that I now do strength training with it as well. I believe I am in better shape than I was in my 20s as a college athlete. I plan to celebrate with my first half marathon on my (big) birthday this February!

This picture is particularly meaningful to me. My youngest fell in love with running after watching me run on the treadmill with a trainer. He started doing it also and this was his first 5K. We ran together the whole time and he never stopped!

Samantha, 37, Arkansas

“I need them to pick a new activity where I can hop on the bandwagon.”Images courtesy of Samantha

As someone who has difficulty with holding myself accountable, exercising is easier when my kids are counting on me. My twins are 8 now. Earlier this fall, one of them participated in Girls on the Run and needed a buddy to do the final race. So I trained and ran a 5K with her. The other was in The Nutcracker and they needed parents for the party scene so I danced in that. Of course, now both of those are over, so I need them to pick a new activity where I can hop on the bandwagon.