How to do Intuitive Exercise

by | Jun 15, 2021 | How To's

Intuitive Exercise, also referred to as Intuitive Movement goes hand-in-hand with Intuitive Eating. If you’d like to learn more about exercising intuitively, then you’re in the right place. This article will describe what intuitive exercise is before breaking down some steps you can take to get started.

Do you enjoy exercise?

My clients often come to me not enjoying exercise. There are a few common reasons for this:

  1. Exercising has been coupled with weight-loss diets
  2. They are exercising excessively and/or compulsively
  3. Negative experiences growing up – being teased in P.E. class, not being picked for teams or being forced to run laps
  4. Rebelling against parents or partners who push exercise
  5. It can be physically less accessible for those with larger bodies and also off-putting

The diet culture we live in also compounds these factors. We are surrounded by messaging that promotes exercise as a way to meet unrealistic body ideals. Toxic phrases like, “no pain, no gain” and, “sweat is fat crying”, are pushed upon us. Exercise is something we should do rather than something we want to do.

Many of my clients have been mentally and physically worn down by crash exercising, usually accompanied by dieting. Beginning an exercise program whilst dieting is often a recipe for disaster. This is because on a diet, energy (calorie) intake is usually restricted. When exercising, you need more calories to fuel increased activity. If you don’t get enough then exercise will be depleting, not invigorating.

Who wants to constantly subject their body to something that doesn’t ever feel good? No one in their right mind! Yet we often end up blaming ourselves for just not having enough willpower.

What exactly is Intuitive Exercise?

Intuitive Exercise is the practice of connecting to your body to figure out how it feels and what type of movement it needs that day. Instead of picking what type of exercise you think you “should” do, you use your body’s internal cues to figure out the best type and duration of the movement.

You choose to move your body for self-care and health benefits, instead of doing it to lose weight. Some days this may mean an intense gym class, while other days it may mean restorative yoga or a walk. It can also be non-intentional activities like dancing with your kids, gardening or taking your dog for a walk. It doesn’t have to be planned or something structured, but it also can be if that’s what floats your boat. Intuitive movement is flexible, not rigid. It gives you the space to explore what feels good in your body. This shift in mindset allows exercise to become more enjoyable and less stressful. It can become something to look forward to, rather than dread.

Here are my 6 best tips to get started with Intuitive Exercise

 1. Begin when you are ready

If you have leaned towards over-exercising you may not feel like getting moving again yet and that’s ok. Likewise, if you’ve had negative experiences with exercise that have led you to stop exercising, you may need to work through some barriers before picking it up again. If you are working to overcome compulsive exercise, a temporary break may be the best thing for you. You may want to take spend some time finding the right body inclusive equipment/clothing, surroundings and movement that feels inclusive and safe for you to participate in. Deferring movement a few weeks or months won’t make much of a difference in a life-long commitment. 

2. Focus on how it feels

This one is key. Focus on how the movement feels rather than tallying steps, miles or calories on a Fitbit. Paying attention to the felt sense from within your body is like cross-fit for your intuition. Instead of just gritting your teeth through a workout, explore how you feel during the activity and throughout the day afterwards.

  • Are you able to handle stress better?
  • What’s your alertness like?
  • How’s your mental outlook?
  • Are you motivated, energised?
  • How are your sleep and appetite affected?
  • Are you feeling more connected to your body? Moving your body and using it can help with a more positive body image

When we notice positive feelings from an activity, we are more likely to want to continue doing it.

If you feel depleted and exhausted, take that as feedback from your body that it needs more rest, fuel or restorative movement.

Intuitive Movement 

3. Decouple exercise from weight loss and focus on the health benefits

By making weight loss or burning calories the focus of your exercise, you’re less likely to be able to do it consistently. Or become obsessed with food. This is because when weight loss inevitably doesn’t happen, slows or rebounds, we lose motivation. Researchers have proposed that it’s time we decouple exercise from weight loss because this minimises its’ more important health benefits. If you lose weight as a result of exercising, that’s cool. But movement has massive benefits for health separate from weight loss. By placing the focus on these, we are more likely to stick with this health-promoting habit.

Physical Activity Benefits

 4. Make it enjoyable

A growing body of research shows that focusing on pleasure from exercise could be a pivotal factor in sustaining consistent activity. What if, instead of focusing on fitness targets such as intensity and duration, you focused on the level of enjoyment you get from exercise?

Enjoyable exercise is very individual so it’s important to figure out what works for you. Some people like team sports or the company of a friend on their walks. Others find that after a busy day meeting the demands of others, some time alone is what they need.

Tips for making intuitive exercise enjoyable:

  • Choose activities you like! It doesn’t matter what it is – a dance party in the kitchen with the kids, a team sport, restorative yoga, a spin class, a walk in nature, a bike ride – it all counts
  • Mix it up – by completing a variety of activities throughout the week you’re more likely to remain engaged and not get bored
  • Listen to music, a podcast or an audiobook whilst walking
  • Get rid of apps and trackers that keep your focus on numbers and away from the enjoyment

5. Develop an Intuitive Exercise plan

This can be helpful if your days are jam-packed and making time for movement is a struggle. There is no need for a rigid structure. However, many of us lead busy lives and sometimes it’s necessary to carve out time for things we want to do. Ask yourself, “when can I consistently make time to move my body?”. Figure out when and where, and schedule it in as a commitment to be honoured, like any other meeting or appointment.

6. Rest Rest Rest

A common fear is that of, “once I stop exercising, I won’t start again.” This is consistent with the all-or-nothing style of thinking commonly seen in dieting. You can prove to yourself that not exercising today doesn’t mean not exercising again. Simply test yourself by having a day or two off and resume when you are able. The more you come back to exercise after taking a break from it, the more you can challenge this fear.

Rest is as important for our health as exercise is. The saying, “the only workout you’ll regret is the one you didn’t do” is just plain wrong. Missing a workout is a better option than causing yourself an injury, missing sleep and feeling exhausted, or compromising recovery from illness. Sometimes taking care of yourself means not exercising. Resting gives muscles time to recover and also keeps exercise feeling enjoyable and invigorating.


Intuitive Exercise Rest

In Summary:

If you are tired of militant or all-or-nothing exercise regimes then Intuitive Exercise provides a mindset shift you can use to re-discover enjoyment from exercise. Intuitive Exercise shifts the focus onto how it feels to move your body and away from weight loss and numbers. Human bodies are designed to move and activity has a myriad of health benefits. By focusing on these and seeing exercise as a way to take care of ourselves, we are more likely to keep it up.

It is worth noting that working on a healthy relationship to movement often goes hand-in-hand with working on a healthy relationship to food. Intuitive Eating is a proven framework used to rediscover healthy relationships with food and exercise. My FREE 7-step download outlines steps to food peace and freedom with an audio guide and actionable workbook.  

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By Katherine Kimber, Registered Dietitian

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