New Year, New You: Why Rare Parents Exercise

Exercise offers both physical and mental benefits, including stress reduction—a necessity for parents of kids with complex needs. Finding time for a one-hour session may not always be feasible, but maybe you can squeeze in a few moves here and there, like with squats or curls.

Exercise activates a waterfall of chemicals in your brain that are major mood boosters, like dopamine. By cutting down on the amount of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, exercise can help relieve some of the mental strain that comes with caregiving. Exercise  also releases endorphins, improving your frame of mind and boosting happiness.

We spoke with three rare moms about why they fit exercise into their overwhelmed lives.

Kayla Lyman

Kayla Lyman started making time for exercise when her son Phin, who has FOXG1 syndrome, was five. She realized how critical building her body was as Phin grew bigger, but remained unable to move and support himself. Today she’s growing a business to virtually train other parents on exercise techniques to build strength to help with caregiving.

Morgan Moyer

Morgan Moyer’s son Leo, who has Partial Trisomy 18, was 10 months old when she realized she needed to refocus a little time on herself. Seeing her health improve, and how greatly it benefited her family, motivated her to begin her own business. Today, the mom of three children, including another son with Hopkins syndrome, is a certified health coach.

Aracely Lopez

Aracely Ixe Lopez had competed as a bodybuilder before her second child, Meleane, was born in 2020 with Prader-Willi syndrome. Three months after her birth, she started stretching and doing mobility exercises to alleviate lower back pain caused during labor and delivery. She’s staying home to care for her daughters right now and hopes to compete as a bodybuilder again.

Here’s why they exercise:

1.   Build strength

Kayla Lyman and Phin

Lyman needs to stay strong to care for Phin each day, ensuring she can lift him off the floor and transfer his body to different positions. Regular squats, in particular, train her body to automatically squat properly, keeping a tight core and not hunching her back, while going down to the floor and up again. “I can dance and play with him, jump and spin, carry him for longer periods of time, the list goes on,” she says. “This strength directly affects his care in innumerable positive ways.”

2.   Prevent injuries

Staying strong also can reduce the risk of chronic pain and injury, which is common among parent-caregivers. In one study, almost all of the caregivers studied reported they experience significant musculoskeletal discomfort, and 66% say the pain directly affects their overall quality of life. “There is no way to completely eliminate injury, but there is a way to fortify our bodies to make the chances of injury much less likely,” Lyman says.

3.   Relieve stress

Parents of kids with special needs can experience high levels of stress. “You are 100% in survival mode,” Moyer says. “It’s so overwhelming. It’s so emotional.”

After her husband found her in tears one day, they agreed he’d step in for one hour, two days per week, so she could take a walk or exercise. That little bit of time changed everything for her. “You realize how much you need to be doing it,” she says.

Since then, Moyer tries to never go more than one day without exercising, and it’s something she never regrets. “When I don’t take care of myself, I don’t have as much energy. I don’t feel as good. I’m way more impatient around my children,” she says. “It just snowballs.”

4.   Be a role model

For Lopez, focusing on her own wellness serves as an example to all three of her daughters, including Meleane, whose genetic disorder can sometimes cause hyperphagia (a constant desire to eat).

Aracely Lopez

Meleane is always watching her mom and dad, and sometimes emulates them by picking up weights and working out, just like her parents.

“We don’t know if she’s going to have hyperphagia,” Lopez says. “But the one most important thing in her life is movement. She has to burn those calories … It is vital for her survival to be constantly moving and physically active.”

5. Feel confident and joyful

Plenty of tough decisions and second-guessing come with parenting a child with a disability. Lyman rebuilds her own confidence as she bolsters her strength and mental health during a workout.

Kayla and Phin Lyman playing on swing together

“Pushing myself in the gym or in a workout at home creates more confidence to push myself in healthy ways in other areas of life as well,” Lyman says.

What’s more, exercise has given her a toolbox of activities that bring her immense joy—from rock climbing and strength training to simply dancing in her kitchen. “Feeling my best fuels my caregiving abilities, my mothering, and how I am able to show up in my own life for myself,” she says.

6.   Connect with a partner

Caring for a child with disabilities presents tremendous challenges, and parents of kids with disabilities are at increased risk of divorce. But making time for date nights can be easier said than done. Working out together is one way Lopez and her husband carve out quality time. She began with exercising in her living room, but over time the couple decided to slowly build a home gym in their garage.

Aracely Lopez and Husband at a gym

She and her husband also work out at a professional gym when they find the time.

“We don’t have very many people who can care for our child,” Lopez says. “So, when we have time for each other, it’s so easy to say, ‘What are we going to do together? We’re going to train.’” She says it gives her a mental break, too. “I love pushing myself and focusing on myself—if even for a minute. I just forget everything else.”

7. Build a Business

Both Moyer and Lyman began businesses based on fitness, after seeing their own lives change.

Morgan Moyer and Leo

Moyer says once she realized how good she felt and how much the positive change in her mental and physical health benefitted her family, she wanted to make something more of it. She remembers thinking, “I want something that helps me live a healthy lifestyle, but also really supports me and my family.”

In time, she was able to quit her full-time job and focus on her boys and their needs. “It was the greatest blessing in the entire world.”

Getting started

Ready to get started, but don’t know how? Moyer shares this advice: Find one activity that you can commit to daily and get it done. “It has to be something you enjoy,” she says. “Once you’ve been able to slowly implement one teeny tiny habit and it’s really part of your routine, then you can add on something else.”

Tying physical activity to something that you do regularly also helps cement exercise as a habit, and spreading movement out over the day can make adding exercise easier. For example, do a couple of squats or some toe raises each time you wash your hands. Do arm curls in the kitchen when you’re waiting for the microwave. If you like yoga, start the day with a sun salutation as soon as your feet hit the floor in the morning. When you’re out of the house, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or park farther away from a building entrance. It’s all good for you—physically and mentally.

“You’re the biggest cheerleader for your child,” says Lopez. But the only way you can be a good caregiver, she says, “is if you work on yourself and you give that time to make yourself stronger— physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”

References and Further Reading

Harvard Health Publishing, 2020, Harvard Medical School, How Does Exercise Reduce Stress? Surprising Answers to this Question and More

National Library of Medicine, 2023, Chaudhry, S., and Gossman, W., Biochemistry, Endorphin

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