I believe strongly that one of the greatest gifts that any family can give their children, especially those with special needs, is the gift of a healthy mom and dad with good coping skills. And that comes from pursuing fitness on a regular basis.

I know how tough it can be to fit such activities into your busy, overscheduled and challenging lives. I also know the benefits outweigh any excuses you can conjure up not to do it. Parenting a child with a disabilty can feel like running a marathon without the proper training- the stressses are far too real, sometimes intense, and they take a toll on your body, mind and soul. That makes you at increased risk for burn out, something regular fitness can help prevent. I know.

Throughout my son’s short life, we worked hard to stay physically fit, and we included Eric in that fitness plan to ensure that our lack of childcare or the ability to get to a gym (or afford one) did not interfer with our good intentions. It was worth every ounce of effort.

Physical fitness can save your life in more ways than one.

To further inspire you, I am sharing a piece I wrote about the value of physical fitness and parenting a child with special needs a few years ago before Eric’s death in 2003 at age 12. To learn more about Eric, visit JudyWinter.com or get my book Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations.

Now read on, then get your own bodies moving!


It was the kind of cold and snowy Midwestern morning when personal motivation is tough to come by. As I burrowed deeply into a cozy cocoon of toasty blankets, my fat Siamese cat purred contentedly at my feet. I echoed her gentle sigh of complete contentment. In this perfect life moment, I harbored no desire to get out of bed, lace up my shoes and go walking. Nada. Zip. None.

Still, I released a loud groan of acceptance and propelled my body over the edge of the bed anyway, then sat wiping heavy winter sleep from my eyes. My furry friend blinked at me sleepily as only cats can do, enticing me back to bed. The only thing that prevented me from diving back under those still warm covers was knowing that I couldn’t disappoint my walking buddy. We’d covered too much important ground together.

My walking partner is my ten-year-old son, Eric, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. His spotless Nike shoes have never met pavement. But his disability doesn’t prevent us from meeting our family’s fitness goals together. Eric loves taking daily walks and running with his father. Our son has accepted the important role of fitness coach,coaxing us up steep hills and encouraging us to challenge our pace. In an interesting role reversal, Eric has become the taskmaster!

On this particular November morning, Eric and I cautiously tested the slippery pavement at the beginning of our familiar four-mile course. The frosty air quickly painted his cheeks and gentle snowflakes tickled his nose, causing him to giggle. As Eric breathed in the clear, crisp air that helps improve his health, my body and soul began healing, too.

In 1990, Eric’s traumatic birth dramatically altered the predictable course of our lives. My husband had run several marathons, including Pike’s Peak in Colorado. I’d embraced walking, a fitness activity with its roots deep in my childhood.

As a young girl,I’d felt elation whenever my shoes hit the deserted country roads filled with stones and gravel. The healing sounds of birds and the laughter of children playing hide and seek in tall cornfields nearby, captivated me. I can still hear the loud, crunching sound of pebbles as they lodged in the well-worn tread of my tennis shoes. I savored sweet berries from roadside bushes, and carefully put my hand through a barbed wire fence to pet the wild horse and donkey that I strongly believed had been denied any real freedom.

Even as a child, I loved to champion the cause of others, especially the apparent underdog, including animals.

During those long, leisurely walks, I treasured both solitude and personal freedom. I was hooked on walking. It was a simpler time in my life. As the years went by, walking helped me sort through teenage angst and survive the traumatic breakup of my first true love. As I increased my mileage, I dreamed of exotic lands that I would one day visit. The more ground I covered, the bigger my dreams became.

I had no idea how such simple acts would prepare me for my future challenges.

In the months following Eric’s birth, the reality of his disability sank in slowly. His life-threatening illnesses and repeat hospitalizations proved exhausting. I was at risk of losing perspective. So as in childhood, I hit the pavement to escape my tremendous responsibilities and reclaim my sanity, if only briefly. Walking allowed me to return home and boldly face the next parenting challenge. Without its enormous benefits, I could not meet the daily physical, emotional, and spiritual demands required to parent both my children well. Such a simple act resulted in lasting benefits.

Walking has become my friend, my confidant and my counselor. It’s allowed me to raise my son more normally, in light of his disability, improving the lives of everyone in our family. The first time my husband and I took a walk with Eric, his heightened sensitivity to light, sound and cold forced us to return home. But those first important steps represented a new beginning. We continued to walk, losing pounds and relieving stress, while regaining valuable perspective and enjoying priceless family moments.

Walking has given our son an increased sense of belonging.

Today, Eric is a local celebrity and serves as an example that fitness is important for everyone, including the disabled. After seeing my son in his special-need’s jogger that allows him to move more easily through snow and sand and rough terrain, people feel freer to approach us and ask about Eric’s needs. As a family, we’ve participated in several races, including the annual eight-mile walk around Mackinac Island, a heavenly family oasis free of motor vehicles located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was there that Eric proudly received his first medal, the only person in more than one thousand entrants to enjoy the beauty of the Island race from a wheelchair. As we placed the medal around his neck, Eric beamed, sharing the enchanting smile that has stolen many hearts during the past decade.

There were times when it would have been easier for us to stay indoors, hiding our son and our fate from the world. We could easily have sacrificed our health and become a family in crisis, overweight and overwhelmed, even self medicating by using any number of potentially addicting and dangerous drugs of choice, including food, alcohol or worse. We have always refused to take that road, yet I now hold a greater understanding and sensitivity of how someone can make such choices to cope…

By choosing to include Eric in our fitness plans, we’ve claimed a richer, healthier existence, one that has helped heal our once grieving hearts. During those walks, everything about our life seems more normal. Such priceless gifts allow me to drag my still sleepy self out of bed on a cold, snowy Midwestern morning, while my lazy cat purrs loudly, enticing me back to bed.