Staying Fit as a Parent

Parenting is rewarding – but it can also be emotionally and mentally draining, even on the best days. One of the biggest struggles is to be present – spending marathon hours with children can start to feel zombie-like (for me, at least). Because of this, I have never regretted putting on Bluey for a half hour while I hit the treadmill, or insisting on family routines that prioritize gym time. I’m so disproportionately energetically renewed after workouts that I am a much better mom – more present, more creative, more consistently able to do the “hard things” with a good attitude, and also way more fun. Staying fit as a parent is an essential, not a luxury.

But finding that time and energy to exercise in the first place can be a real challenge. 

In that spirit, I brought on my friend Jeff Dalzell (of Jeff Dalzell Fitness) to write an essay on parenting. While sometimes I feel like I have my hands full with my one daughter, Jeff is a true parenting pro – he’s the primary parent to three kids under four. As personal trainers with kids, we are definitely a minority in a fitness universe that is dominated by young, child-free (and often single) people. When we met at a fitness conference earlier this year, we pretty much torpedoed the barbecue dinner conversation by shouting potty training tips to each other across a crowded restaurant.

(And if you want to hear me and Jeff talk about parenting, eating healthy with kids, and more family-oriented fitness topics, check out our recent podcast episode, too!)

Jeff’s specific priority in fitness and nutrition is helping parents get in shape so that they can be more present to their families. His essay here is incredibly insightful, and I wanted to highlight one quote in advance:

“More isn’t better. Better is better. I can spend an hour and a half playing with them, or I can spend three hours just existing in the room as a shell of myself.” 

If you feel like this as a parent, that you want more quality time with your kids that feels dynamic and rewarding, then don’t buy into the lie that exercise is something that takes you away from your kids. Quality is truly better than quantity, and it’s essential that you fill your cup first. Staying fit as a parent is a form of self-care that protects your physical, mental, and emotional health.

Exercise as Self-Care for Parents

Author: Jeff Dalzell

Jeff Dalzell

There’s a story about two lumberjacks.

Every morning they start chopping wood at the same time, and every day they stop chopping wood at the same time. Every day, one of the lumberjacks disappears for an hour in the middle of the day. And every day he chops more wood than the other guy.

This goes on for months and eventually the one who works all day finally says:

“I don’t understand. Every day we start at the same time, every day we stop at the same time, every day you disappear for an hour in the middle of the day, and every day you chop more wood than me. Where do you go for that hour?”

To that, the second man replied: “Oh, that’s when I go home and sharpen my ax.”

Taking time to take care of ourselves as parents isn’t selfish. It’s actually selfish not to. Because, if we don’t, it’s like we’re trying to chop wood with a dull ax: frustrating, inefficient, and harder than it needs to be.

Parenting is already hard.

Honestly, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And second place isn’t even close.

There are times I wonder why nobody told me what it was like before. But then I realize, they probably did tell me, but I wasn’t able to understand what they were saying. It’s like trying to explain pizza to someone without taste buds; there’s no point of reference for them to possibly comprehend it. Because nothing can prepare you for this.

My wife and I had three kids in 19 months. No, that’s not a typo.

Now, we have a 4-year-old and twin 2-and-a-half-year-olds. 

To answer some popular questions: yes, we have our hands full. No, we weren’t planning on it (or even having more than two kids). Yes, twins run on my wife’s side of the family (an interesting piece of trivia she didn’t tell me until after we found out – fun surprise). No, we don’t sleep much. And, yes, we have heard of birth control and we do have other hobbies, but, if you saw my wife, you’d understand (I married way out of my league – nobody tell her).

I’ve spent the last four years working with hundreds of parents, talking to thousands, and living millions of moments with my own kids. I’ve come to this conclusion: when you’re a parent, taking care of yourself is both necessary and a moral obligation.

Exercise is necessary

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

And parenting is a constant pouring out.

About a year ago, I ran an experiment to count how many times my then-three-year-old said my name over the course of one morning. From 6 AM until noon, I tracked every time he said “Daddy.” Here were the results:

For those of you doing the math, that’s more than once per minute, every minute, for six straight hours. But this is normal for parents; it’s just what we do every day. That doesn’t make it any less overstimulating or exhausting – we just don’t have a choice.

When we’re constantly pouring out, we eventually don’t have anything left to give. Because after hearing my name 426 times in six hours, I’m mentally, emotionally, and even physically spent. At that point, I have nothing left in the tank, I’m running on fumes, and they’re not getting the best of me. 

It’s bad for your car to run on empty. While it may be a bit exciting to play the “how-far-can-I-go-on-0-miles-left” game, if you’re constantly living like that, it’s stressful and you will, eventually, wreck your engine. Have you ever noticed that the first quarter of a tank lasts you for like a week and the last quarter lasts about 46 seconds? That’s because our cars run better with a full tank of gas. And so do we. 

There’s a huge difference between consistently topping off our tank vs. draining it all the way down and having to fill it back up. Because the full fill up is way harder. 

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about “self-care” and it often looks like spa days, golf outings, or drinks with friends. And, while there’s nothing wrong with those things, they are usually infrequent (especially for parents) and not enough to totally fill our tank.

Consistently doing things to take care of ourselves is the best strategy to keep us from getting drained. In that way, exercise is one of the best forms of self-care. 

A Miracle Drug

Exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug we have. It’s free, you can do it anywhere, you can do it every day if you want to, it works right away, and it never stops working. It improves both your physical & mental health. If I could bottle the effects of exercise and sell it, I’d never have to fold my own laundry again (not that it ever actually gets folded now).

It doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t need a trendy outfit or to already be in good shape. Come as you are and just move your body. Then watch your life improve. 

As Elle Woods once said in Legally Blonde: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t just shoot their husbands – they just don’t.” 

In all seriousness, it’s not selfish to take care of yourself as a parent. It’s selfish not to. Because our kids deserve the best of us. And if we’re constantly running on fumes, they’re not getting the best of us.

Exercise makes us more fun

The other night I walked in from work and was immediately greeted at the door by three toddlers who all tackled me to the floor. I proceeded to spend the next hour and a half on the floor, rolling around while my children climbed all over me (we call this “climbing Mt. Daddy”) which was only to be interrupted by games of “chase” (where I carry two of them and chase the third around the house).

Last summer, my oldest son spent 23 minutes straight (yes I timed it) jumping into the pool to my arms where I would throw him up in the air, catch him, place him on the side of the pool again, lather, rinse, repeat.

Jeff Dalzell Fitness


It can feel counterintuitive to take time AWAY from our kids to exercise. How is that helping me be more present with them? But more isn’t always better. Better is better. I can spend an hour and a half playing with them, or I can spend three hours just existing in the room as a shell of myself.

For parents, it can feel overwhelming to have another thing to do on the to-do list. The kids need to eat, the house is a disaster, I keep pulling clean clothes out of the dryer because I don’t have time to fold them, I have to respond to that text from my friend from four days ago, work is chaotic, and I need to buy a birthday present for that kid’s party on Saturday whose parents I don’t even like but have to pretend to like because my kid likes their kid. How could I possibly take time to go workout when I barely have the energy to peel myself up out of bed in the morning?

And, honestly, I get that.

But energy begets energy. It’s backwards: exercise, when done right, is energy-giving, not energy-taking. 

To be clear, I’m not talking about a HIIT class that leaves you in a puddle on the floor questioning your entire existence and leaving you so sore that you need to hold onto the counter to sit on the toilet. That’s energy-taking and it leaves you worse than when you started. That’s not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about intentional movement that makes you better, stronger, and healthier. That type of exercise has a positive return on investment every single time. That type of exercise is sharpening your ax. Because while it may take you 30-60 minutes to go workout, you will be that much better off for having done it that you will get that time (or more) back because of how much more intentional you will be with the rest of your day.

It’s Newton’s First Law of Motion: an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. Once you get moving, it’s easier to keep moving than it is to get started. 

Keeping Things in Perspective

But here’s the reality: parents don’t need people to tell us that we hold our kids’ childhood in our hands; we’re reminded of that everyday and the burden of that truth is heavy. Honestly, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel the tension between wanting to show up for them and feeling like I need space.

Some days I spend half the day counting the minutes until bedtime. Then, after they’re asleep, I watch them on the monitor.

Some days I think about how much easier life was before kids & yearn for some free time. Then I get some and spend that time thinking about how I can rearrange my schedule to spend more time with them.

Some days I’m patient, and some days I lose it.

Some days I’m present, and some days I’m distracted.

Some days I’m proud of myself, and some days I’m disappointed.

But every day I’m reminded, at least once, of how lucky I am to be a dad. Because I know that soon it won’t take me an hour to pick up the toys at the end of the day.

Soon I’ll be able to read a book during the day without a kid ripping it from my hands before I’ve even finished a page.

Soon I’ll be able to fold the laundry without having to wait until everyone is asleep so the clean clothes don’t go everywhere.

Soon I’ll be able to eat a meal by myself without a child on my lap or screaming at me from the floor to get picked up.

Soon the house will be quiet and I’ll miss the noise.

Soon they’ll put themselves to bed and I’ll miss story time.

Soon they’ll sleep past 6 AM and I’ll miss the morning snuggles & Disney movies.

Soon they won’t want to play with me and I’ll miss hearing, “One more time, Daddy!”

Everyone tells you it goes fast. And, in some ways, it really does. But, man, it feels slow sometimes. So I’m trying to embrace the slow. Because, soon, it’s going to change. And I’m going to wish for it back.

So to all the moms and dads in it with me, this is hard, and we will stumble. But let’s take care of ourselves so we can show up as the parents we always wanted to be.

I’m grateful to be a dad. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And second place isn’t even close.

So take the time to sharpen your ax. It will make the job easier and you’ll be better at it.

I’ll see you in the gym.

Rachel here again!

Ugh, Jeff – the heartstrings! I relate so much to those last few paragraphs. Day-to-day, it’s so hard when my 3-year-old daughter gets cranky and wants to be held at all the wrong times – like the other day when I was making dinner and had to sanitize the raw chicken off of everything she touched, including having to run a load of laundry. It was rough. But I also know that there is a future not too far away when she will get home from school and disappear wordlessly into her bedroom. Staying in the present, being grateful, and paying attention to what I need to do to be at my best are key skills for living.

Reframing exercise as a form of self-care is a key feature of staying fit as a parent. It’s essential to find an enjoyable, sustainable way to do it that’s not self-punishing or perfectionistic. The key is to just keep moving forward, and to be as consistent as possible. If you do that (instead of “waiting until things calm down”), it’s incredible what progress you can make – and how much better you’ll feel – in the meantime.

If you, like me, absolutely loved this essay from Jeff, follow him on Instagram for more relatable workout and nutrition wisdom, and also visit his website to nab a free copy of his Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fat Loss.

And if you are looking for more resources for fitness as a busy parent, check out these other blog posts of mine:

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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