Intuitive Exercise & Joyful movement: How to find your middle way.

In our body and weight obsessed culture, we tend to think of exercise in extremes. More is better, right? There are people who are literally addicted to exercise, and yet they are not seen as disordered, in fact they are praised as being “healthy” and “disciplined.” On the other end of this spectrum, are those who have exercise resistance. These folks have lost their inherent motivation to move their bodies. They usually begin exercising with great fervor only to burn out quickly and stop altogether. Or, they give up entirely before they even start. Both exercise addiction and exercise resistance is a set up to burn out and doesn’t help create consistent exercise habits.

Is there a middle way with exercise?  

Intuitive exercise as a concept and practice radically challenges our cultural ethos of exercise. We apply the same principals of intuitive eating to exercise. Intuitive eating is grounded in body awareness and acceptance. We listen, honor and respect our body’s needs and internal signals. This requires that we drop down from our heads and living by external measures, and instead, listen to what the body wants and honor our internal source of wisdom.

  1. We ask questions such as: What does my body need today? Some days you might have lower energy, so perhaps you do nothing or just go for a light walk. Or, maybe you sat long hours driving and your legs need a good stretch and walk around the block or more.
  2. What type of movement does my body feel like doing today? Do I want to do something higher energy (a spin class) or something more mellow (a yin yoga class)? It’s good to have some options that you enjoy that will match the energy your body has.

Intuitive exercise adopts a curious mindset. It doesn’t assume that because it’s Wednesday, you must go to spin class.  

Intuitive exercise is flexible and not rigid. It does not follow a schedule; it goes with the flow and rhythms of your body’s needs and desires.

Intuitive exercise also is sustained and motivated by the well-known benefits of exercise, such as improved mood, increased energy, etc. – instead of the goal of burning calories or trying to lose weight. When we unhook from the ‘need’ to burn calories or to compensate from the burger we ate last night, then exercise will begin to feel A LOT more fun and enjoyable. When we exercise with the intention to punish ourselves and or to try and change the shape of our bodies, then we will end up feeling more stressed and likely burn out eventually.

Remember that our bodies inherently want to move; it’s as natural as wanting to sleep when tired and wanting to eat when physically hungry. It’s your birth right to move your body however it wants to and to move it in ways that feel good and nourishing much like eating foods to satisfy certain cravings.

 In order to move towards intuitive exercise, we need to shift our mindset from on of self-control and punishment to one of pleasure and self-care.

Connect to how exercise makes you FEEL internally, and then become aware of the many health benefits that have nothing to do with calories, numbers, etc.

Make a list of your reasons to exercise.

Here are some of my personal favorites:

  • Improves mood
  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Increases energy
  • Improves quality of sleep
  • Increases strength, balance, flexibility (Thanks Yoga!)
  • Improves self-esteem, body confidence and body image.
  • More stamina and healthy libido = better sex life!

Research supports that when we derive pleasure from exercise it leads to consistent exercise habits that are sustainable long term. It’s pretty simple how humans are wired. If it feels good, we are more likely to keep doing it. It’s quite radical to abandon the current cultural ethos of, “no-pain-no-gain.” It’s radical to adopt a new belief system of pleasure instead of pain, and one of honoring our intuition. Even the word ‘pleasure’ is a bit risky to use and especially when it’s associated with the body. To reap the benefits of exercise, we need consistency over time. If we are too rigid with exercise and too hard on ourselves, this will likely lead to injury, burn out or exercise resistance. Not the best recipe for health and well being.

Intuitive exercise is more about ‘joyful movement’ -it’s all about exploring different forms of exercise until you find one (or several) that you enjoy. You might consider joining a team sports and re-ignite your love of tennis or Frisbee golf. Or, maybe a hiking club or learn to belly dance? Perhaps you prefer something alone, such as yoga classes or hikes in nature. Whatever it is, pay attention to how it feels. Notice if the activity gives you energy, or do you feel depleted afterwards? Start becoming more curious about how and why you move your body and what affect it has on you- mentally, emotionally and physically.

Intuitive exercise is forgiving and moves away from black and white thinking patterns. Like dieting, which also encourages and black and white reasoning; this type of thinking, is a set up for feeling guilty because there is no middle way, no grey area for forgiveness from real life getting in the way. Intuitive eating and exercise helps you to cultivate a more balanced and kinder way of approaching your relationship to exercise. If you miss a day, it’s no big deal. No, you will not suddenly gain 10 lbs. if you skip a work out! There will be times when you are too busy to exercise, or you’re traveling, or you get sick. Instead of beating yourself up for this and feeling guilty, you are able to forgive yourself and move on. You are able to show yourself some compassion and understanding. Living in the grey means that you can appreciate that life doesn’t always go as planned. There will be times you don’t work out for several days or longer, and that’s okay. You can come to trust that nothing catastrophic will result if you take a break from moving your body.

Research shows that self-compassion is linked to improved health behaviors and increased motivation. Being self-compassionate will help you to maintain a consistent exercise routine mostly because it feels good to be nice to ourselves and this becomes self-reinforcing.

Over time, as you continue on the intuitive eating path, you will come to realize that even rest days are as important as active days. The body needs rest days to repair and restore. You will enjoy rest days and come to trust that nothing ‘bad’ happens to your health, weight, moods, etc. and this will help you to soften that internal pressure.

Intuitive eating and exercise is a process of self-discovery. They way to achieve this middle way with exercise (and with eating) is to continue to adopt a curious mindset each day. Become your own expert on yourself and begin to trust your own inherent source of wisdom from within.

Get your guide here!

Karen Louise Scheuner, MA, RDN

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