The Exercise Regimen of the Special Needs Parent

You know the crazy workouts you see on Instagram and Facebook—The ones where tiny muscled humans are lifting dumbbells the size of themselves or bending in places you know should not be able to bend or sweating it out in “Hot Yoga”? If you’re a parent to young kids or a child with special needs, chances are you’re not jumping on the bandwagon. There are some trends in life you just have to wave to as they pass by and continue on your merry way. But almost every doctor recommends 30 minutes of some sort of heart rate raising movement five times a week. And to eat some stuff on the food pyramid. If you’re a parent like me, here’s my reassurance that your bases are covered. Thinking out loud today at all the exercise we really do…

Weight Lifting

I’ve never had biceps or triceps or much of any “ceps” for that matter. If left to themselves, my arms look like Olive Oyl’s, spindly things that wobble at the back. But my arms are never left to themselves. They are constantly in use, usually hauling a wheelchair (insert any equipment you use on a daily basis: stander, gait trainer, walker) in and out of the minivan and up and down flights of stairs that have not yet been fitting with a ramp. If I’m not lifting the equipment, I’m lifting my son out of the car and up those same stairs, in and out of the bath and his bed. He has just reached forty pounds. We are muscling through …literally. Sometimes your own physical strength is all you have to get you and your child from point A to point B.


Yes, you too can do yoga at home. Downward facing dog comes in handy when you’re fishing for the toys/book/cup that your child has flung under the couch/table/car seat. I’ve also been known to hold a plank for an extraordinary length of time when my son begs to sit on me to work on his balance. Apparently, I’m more fun than the foam rollers. And if you’ve had a child in any kind of physical therapy, chances are you own a yoga ball—or two. I use mine as a rolling desk chair. That has to be working some muscle group somewhere. My personal favorite yoga pose is the “happy baby”…the one where you curl up in the fetal position on your back and rock gently. It’s like hugging yourself for a job well done. Shavasana is another good one where you lay flat out with arms splayed. The layman’s term is “corpse pose.” Me at the end of most days.


Otherwise known as “high intensity interval training.” This acronym first had me asking, what exercise isn’t high intensity? If you want to get your heart racing quickly, carry a hyper five-year-old up or down two flights of stairs. It’s like bench-pressing a Labrador. Those stairs are also why I have calves and quads. If you’re a parent of a child who is not physically independent, chances are you’ve muscled your way through your fair share if HIIT moments, whether it be carrying kids up stairs or hitching them on your back for quick transitions or “off-roading” it with the wheelchair. Do awkward social situations also count as high intensity? Anytime I feel as if I need to “explain” my child to someone else my heart gets pumping. Although maybe anxiety shouldn’t count as a workout.


If you have a child with special needs, you’ve developed some serious meditation skills. You’ve got a mantra somewhere in you that you can summon to the surface when times get hard. Mine? “Just keep swimming.” It’s amazing how far that can get you when the specialist is running late or the meltdown happens at dinner ten minutes before the check comes or the progress seems to slow, halt, or reverse. Deep breaths and kind words for yourself and your child are the best forms of meditation I know.


I am a pro-snacker and could hold a world-record for speed-eating. No one needs to see me hangry. Savoring each meal is not always an option. We eat to keep going. We can’t afford a lag in blood sugar…which means sugar and all carbohydrates are very necessary, at least in our house. If I’m in a pinch and Oreos have to do the trick, then so be it. But if you’re a parent with a child with feeding and sensitivity issues, you’re probably also a pretty creative cook. You’ve had to become savvy at what works for your family, learning how to sneak in nutrients in all manner of ways. I’ve also finally managed to make wholesome meals that will feed adults, toddlers, and a child with food sensitivities. Or course, I think we’ve all had nights that ended with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon. That’s soul-food.


So take heart, my fellow parents. We might not always be wearing the gym clothes, but we are always on the move. If 150 minutes a week is what it takes to live a healthy lifestyle, we are well above average. In fact, as a special needs parent, we’re well above average across the board.

Namaste, my friends.