Taking Care of Herself to Take Care of Others

Featured in Memphis Health + Fitness Magazine

Everyone who gets out for an early morning run or to the gym after an exhausting day of work has to have a compelling “why” that motivates them. For 48-year-old Leslie Mouser, that’s her five kids—one of whom needs her more than most.

“I’ve got somebody who is counting on me for the rest of his life and I don’t want to let him down,” Leslie said, referring to her 7-year-old son, who she and her husband, Kenneth, raised since he was just 6 months old.

With four kids already, the Mousers decided to open up their home to a foster child in 2013. 

“Our youngest daughter is adopted from China, so we already had a heart for adoption. We started doing foster care, not planning to adopt again,” Leslie explained. 

Enter Gio, the sweet little boy who would turn their entire world upside down. The Mousers got the call from their social worker just before Thanksgiving.

“We’ve got a baby at Le Bonheur,” the social worker explained. “We don’t expect him to live through the weekend, but if he does, he needs somewhere to go.”

Gio was a perfectly healthy baby boy before suffering abuse that led to brain surgery, caused blindness and a multitude of other disabilities. It was an immediate ‘yes’ from Leslie and Kenneth.

After two years of surgeries, countless therapy appointments and a distressing 2-week period during which Gio lived with a relative in North Carolina, the Mousers were moved to make it official.

 “We didn’t want to keep him from a blood relative if that was going to be best for him … It didn’t feel right the whole time,” Leslie recalled her feelings before receiving a phone call from Gio’s relative that prompted Kenneth to take emergency leave from work, drive 15 hours to North Carolina and 15 hours back with Gio to ensure his safety. 

“It really was an answer to a prayer, because we said, ‘We have to see. We have to see clearly that we’re doing the right thing by keeping him,” Leslie said. “And when we got that phone call, it doesn’t get any clearer. He’s ours.”

Gio, as well as Leslie’s four other kids, Ella, 16; Will, 21; Lydia, 22; and Grant, 23, became her “why.” 

“We have a son who will never live independently,” Leslie wrote in an essay for her gym, which has become her second home. “Yes, I still want to set that example for our other four children, but they will not need me the way Gio will. I work out so I can care for my son. So I can try and live as long as I can and protect him from a world that doesn’t understand him. I’m in a race against time and my body needs to carry me through forever. Because while I am getting older, my son is only getting bigger, faster and stronger.”

Leslie tries to block out two hours after dropping Ella and Gio off at school each day to get in a workout (or two). It’s at Jane’s Gym where she gets her exercise and enjoys some much-deserved social time with women who have become some of her best friends.

“They are always encouraging and uplifting, and it’s really a very unique environment there,” she said. “There’s no judgment on anyone who’s not doing the high-impact moves. You take the modifications and people cheer you on.” 

Leslie focuses on high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes and workouts that incorporate light weights and a high number of reps. She acknowledges that her outlook on fitness has changed as she moves through the different seasons of her life. 

“I enjoy my workouts. It’s not something that I think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to the gym.’ I kind of look at it as, ‘I get to go to the gym.’ I’m almost 50 years old and I have aches and pains, but I’ve got a body that’s healthy and can go do that, so I enjoy it,” she explained. “I’ve realized that it’s not just about being physically in shape, it’s about being spiritually in shape, and mentally in shape. All of those things tie in together.”

It also helps that Leslie’s husband, Kenneth, enjoys working out, too. In fact, some of their best times are spent doing an exercise class together or enjoying each other’s company in the great outdoors. 

“We’ll have a date day while the kids are at school, and we’ll go to Shelby Farms and walk the trails or mostly just be active together.”

Being a fit mom of five isn’t all about the exercise, though. Leslie fostered a nutritional mindset with her family because “it all goes hand in hand.”

“I definitely put as much emphasis on what we eat, myself and as a family, as I do the activities,” she said. 

Being the best she can be for her family isn’t Leslie’s only priority. She wants other special needs moms to know that she stands with them and they aren’t in this alone.

“I would like to speak to special needs moms and let them know that they are seen,” she said. “A special needs mom’s life is extremely rewarding, but can also be very lonely. I often feel invisible.”

Leslie credits the women at Jane’s Gym for helping her feel “seen,” and she encourages everyone to find a place that fosters a feeling of value, acceptance, encouragement and community. 

“It [a fitness journey] is bigger than themselves. I’m getting something out of it, but it’s bigger than me,” she said. “You’re going to benefit from that physically, emotionally, mentally and that is something you can take home to your family. Everybody has a story and they’re all coming from somewhere, and you might not have a clue what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t cost anything or hurt you to say, ‘You go girl.’”

Leslie, you go girl. 

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