Let Go of Mom Guilt Over Exercise

Here's how to stay on track

mom guilt over exercise
Jeremy Maude / Getty Images

If you're a mom, guilt is a familiar emotion. And when it comes to exercise, it's easy to get caught in a cruel cycle: You don't work out because you feel guilty about stealing time away from your kids. But then you feel guilty because you didn't work out. No wonder you see fitness as frustrating.

It's not easy to kick mom guilt to the curb. But since exercise is essential for mental and physical health, it's important to find a way to overcome the guilty feelings and feel the burn of a good workout.

Busting Mom Guilt: What Exercise Does for You

A good look at the value of physical activity might be enough to move it up your (long, I know!) list of priorities. When you exercise, you get all this good stuff.

Health benefits: You know this, of course, but sometimes it helps to see it spelled out. Paige Waehner compiled an inspiring list of 20 solid, research-backed reasons to exercise for better health.

Added energy: What parent couldn't use a power-up that doesn't come from sugar or caffeine? If you're dragging every afternoon or struggling to get out of bed in the morning, regular exercise can really help.

Added patience: Another quality that's often in short supply for busy moms! The endorphins you get from exercise can help you stay calm when your toddler tips over a jumbo size bottle of laundry detergent or your tween's sarcasm reaches a new low.

Role modeling: When you're active, your kids are more likely to be active.

So then they're getting amazing health benefits too—including better sleep and better behavior and focus at school.

Improved mood: Taking time to exercise can mean taking time for yourself, which can help avoid feelings of resentment toward your spouse and kids.

Remember that as you reap all these rewards, your family members benefit too as they enjoy your better health and mood.

How to Subtract Mom Guilt and Add Exercise

First, know you're not alone. Many parents—male and female, single and married, working for pay or not—feel guilty about exercising. "The guilt parents feel is because they think of exercise as a selfish behavior," said Emily Mailey, assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University. She studied this issue with a group of busy parents. "Fathers reported guilt related to family and taking time for themselves, whereas mothers reported guilt related to family, taking time for themselves and work."

So one solution Mailey found was to turn that thinking around. "Active parents were able to see exercise as something that contributed to the good of the family and that was not at odds with being good parents. As a result, they felt less guilty about taking time to exercise and were more apt to prioritize physical activity because they valued the benefits," she said.

To accomplish this:

  • Exercise with your children: Play active games together outside; have them bike with you while you run; take a dance or karate class together; do an exercise video (this is great if you have preschoolers).
  • Exercise during kids' activities: You don't have to watch all of soccer practice. Instead, run or walk laps around the field. You'll still catch some of your kid's moves, and be readily available in an emergency.
  • Find a gym with child care that you like and trust, and that your kids enjoy too.
  • Make a plan: Look at your calendar and identify times when you can fit in a workout. Do what you can when you can. But remember to also notice all the time you are devoting to your kids and family: sharing meals and bedtime stories, family game night, and so on.
  • Make a habit: Predictability is helpful for your kids and for you.
  • Talk it out: If you're struggling, share your thoughts with someone you trust: your spouse, sister, mom, or a friend.


Mailey EL, Huberty J, Dinkel D, and McCauley E. Physical activity barriers and facilitators among working mothers and fathers. BMC Public Health vol. 14, June 2014.

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