The Busy Parent's Exercise Schedule

Real parents dish on how they find time to work out with hectic schedules, clingy toddlers, tight budgets, chronic sleep deprivation, and zero athletic talent.

mom smiling doing yoga with baby
Photo: Stephanie Rausser

When it comes to reading advice about staying fit as a parent, the best experts are the parents making it happen. These fit parents find a way to work out even when it seems impossible.

Read on to learn their secrets and best exercise tips.

Exercise at the Office

Eliza Belle is a mom to Marley, 4, and Avery, 2. "The commute to my office is an hour and a half each way, and once I'm there, I'm always at my desk or in a meeting," says Belle.

"Sitting all day is exhausting, but I found it was impossible to fit in exercise before or afterward, especially because my husband is out of town for two weeks each month."

Why I make time

“These days, if I don’t get up and move away from my desk, I feel sluggish during the day. Exercising at work also helps me sleep better,” says Belle.

How I worked it out

"At least three days each week, I exercise at work. In the midafternoon, when my phone alarm starts to play "I Like to Move It," off comes my blazer, and on go my tennis shoes. My office is on the sixth floor, so I go up and down the stairs, walk around my floor, or do squats and push-ups with my office door closed for ten minutes," says Belle.

"I love that I don't have to get up even earlier than I already do and that I have time to spend with my little ones once I get home. If I count the evening walks we take around our neighborhood, I'm fitting in four to six hours of exercise each week."

Her top tips:

  • Be prepared: "I keep deodorant, a change of clothes, hair products, and a towel at work so I can get my workout in, yet still present myself professionally."
  • Make new opportunities: "On long days when I can't fit in my usual workout routine, I do squats or calf raises while on conference calls, or I sit up straight and squeeze in my core during meetings."
  • Forgive yourself: "I know I wasn't born with a workout gene! I give myself permission to miss a day every once in a while," she says. She keeps her eye on the greater reward—feeling good and being stronger.

Make Kids Your Workout Buddies

Chrissa Benson is a mom to Brockston, 4, and Maddix, 2. “My husband is a Marine serving in Afghanistan. When he was home, I could go to an early-morning barre class or out for a run, but after he was deployed, my workouts lost all structure. We don’t have family nearby, so I’m really raising our two kids solo,” she says.

Why I make time

"The deployments are hard, and exercise helps my anxiety tremendously. Even if there's a lot on my plate, I'll commit to five minutes of movement, and it almost always leads to more," says Benson.

"When I'm strong on the outside, I feel like Wonder Woman on the inside. That mentality has gotten me through days when I wanted to curl up and cry."

How I worked it out

"I can't do 30 to 60 minutes like I used to. Instead, I move my body when I'm with my kids. I do squats at the park, planks when we play trains, and triceps dips while we chalk up the driveway. I'll even squeeze in a lower-body barre sequence at the bathroom counter while the boys take a bath," she says.

"They also love when I turn up Bruno Mars, and we have a dance party in our living room. It's a great cardio blast!"

Her top tips:

  • Don't psyche yourself out: "Before you think about the reasons not to be active today, just do it."
  • No equipment? No problem: "Stationary exercises like push-ups, planks, or crunches are easy to throw in throughout the day."
  • Bring the baby along: "Buy a jogging stroller. You can also do walking lunges and squats while wearing your baby."

Find a Squad for Motivation

Charne Greene is a mom to Grace, 11 months. Pre-pregnancy, Greene says she didn't have a workout habit. But she says that changed after she became a mom and wanted to return to her pre-pregnancy weight.

"Getting into the routine of exercising was about more than fitting into my clothes. I realized that my athletic husband shouldn't be Grace's only role model for living an active lifestyle. I wanted to instill good habits in my daughter, too," she says.

Why I make time

"It's not easy to be confident when none of my old clothes fit. I really enjoy working out now, and emotionally, I feel stronger too," says Greene.

After Grace is old enough to go to school, I'll have what all the moms call Empty Stroller Syndrome—I'll still bring my stroller to class to carry my weights, even if I have no child in it!"

How I worked it out

"A friend told me about Stroller Strong Moms—a workout group that incorporates kids and strollers," says Greene.

"Three or four mornings a week, Grace and I meet moms at a park for an hour-long class. We do body-weight exercises like burpees, squats, and lunges; use hand weights; and go on runs. Afterward, the moms chat while the older kids play. These days, whenever I have a problem, I come to these women."

Her top tips:

  • Partner up: "Finding moms with similar goals helps you hold each other accountable."
  • Find little incentives: "A cute new outfit makes you more excited to work out. The occasional bribe works too. If I'm really having an off day, I like to motivate myself with Starbucks."
  • Follow fit moms: "On days when I miss a workout, I also turn to people I follow for workout inspo."

Get Up Early

Jennifer Mazzoni is a mom to Rose, 3, and Grace, 18 months. "During my pregnancy with my second daughter, Grace, I had a lot of pelvic pain and had to stop practicing yoga, which I'd been doing for years," says Mazzoni.

"I really missed it and planned to start back up as soon as possible, but the pain took a long time to subside. When I was finally ready, getting to an early-morning class at a yoga studio was impossible since my girls woke up at 6:40 a.m."

Why I make time

"I do have mornings when I think, 'Ugh, I'm too tired!' But most days, I push myself," she says. "I enjoy my time with my girls more when I've had 'me time' early in the morning."

How I worked it out

"Every morning, I get up at 5 a.m. and practice yoga in my bedroom," says Mazzoni. She also goes to bed early—9 p.m.—to ensure she gets enough rest.

"I set up a calming meditation space with my yoga mat, yoga props, and flameless candles. I practice to different YouTube videos so I don't get bored, and then I meditate for 20 to 30 minutes."

Her top tips:

  • Find your space at home: "It should be private and quiet, even if it's a corner in your bedroom. A decorated space is also a great visual reminder."
  • Start small: "Meditate for just one minute each morning or evening for a few days, then slowly increase your time. It's less overwhelming."
  • Get guidance: "Until you feel comfortable practicing yoga and meditating on your own, it's helpful to follow a guided practice. The Insight Timer app has free meditations, and I love trying out new yoga videos on YouTube."

Write Fitness Into the Rules of Your Life

Alena Gerst is mom to Gracie, 5, and Clark, 3. "I didn't have to prioritize exercise until I had kids—before then, it was just how I lived my life. I biked to work, jogged and played tennis with my husband, swam regularly, and took at least one yoga class a week," says Gerst.

"But after kids, parenting sapped my energy to do most things beyond working and dealing with all my obligations at home."

Why I make time

"My parents are in their 70s, and they still hike, swim, practice yoga, and cycle. I want my kids to see me making that same effort to take care of my body and have fun while doing it," she says.

"Plus, if I skip more than two days of working out, I'm irritable. Caregiving is rewarding, but it's also demanding."

How I worked it out

Gerst put a foldable treadmill in her bedroom and watches TV on the treadmill. "I have absolutely extended workouts because I didn't want to stop watching The Crown," she says.

"When I discovered a Pilates studio in my office building, I began scheduling a weekly class between clients. I also often use my lunch break to get in a quick swim at a nearby pool."

Her top tips:

  • Be with the kids first: "I try to get on the treadmill after we've spent a lot of time together. That way, they're less likely to come looking for my attention."
  • Go with the flow: "Even if I'm very tired from the rigors of parenting and life, I just get in the pool and keep moving, no matter how slow I need to go."
  • Keep your sense of humor: "Once I paid for a Pilates class but forgot a change of clothes, so I did it in my work clothes. No big deal!"
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