Have you heard of intuitive eating? It’s essentially a mindful approach to eating and has been shown to help many people have a better relationship with food. When it comes to exercise, I’m proposing using this same approach to how we incorporate fitness into our lives as a whole. My discovery of an intuitive approach to fitness was the result of many years of ups and downs with exercise. I found it was the missing piece to me having any success with exercising and staying fit.
I’ve gone through so many phases of fitness throughout my life, maybe you can relate to this too. For the longest time, I would try all types of exercise but could never make it a consistent & long-term habit. I would go for weeks abandoning the plan I set up for myself. I even got my degree in exercise! If I knew what to do and that it was good for me – why was this so hard? Why did I keep failing to follow through?
Leaving a sport
I swam competitively from age 7 until my senior year of high school. Then, the swim practices suddenly came to a stop when I chose not to continue in college. There were no more 5 am practices. No more coach telling me what to do or team to keep me motivated. No event to train for. Suddenly I had to learn how the crowded and complicated gym on campus. Why use the gym if I have nothing to train for?
The athlete days were over. That’s when running found me. Signing up for 5Ks and eventually 15Ks gave me something to train for. It made me feel like an athlete again. However, each time I completed a race, I lost my motivation to run for awhile after. I would go months without running or doing much exercise.
Study stress, weight gain, and perfectionism
As a college student trying to do it all, I struggled to find time to sleep, work, study, and volunteer. By junior year I was stressed the heck out, tip-toed into depression, and gained 25 pounds before I knew it.
I looked to fitness again with the sole focus on burning those dang calories and to look good in a bikini. I brought the “diet culture” mentality to my relationship with exercise, worshiping appearance and restriction. As an exercise physiology major, my coursework also had my mind spinning with fitness concepts. The perfectionist approach I ended up taking was unhealthy. According to my ridiculous expectations of myself I needed to punish myself on the treadmill, strength train daily, AND do yoga all the time to stay flexible. Who has time for all of that?
The plan I made was unsustainable. Rather than listening to my body and embracing intuitive exercise, it became anxiety-inducing exercise. I eventually was successful at losing the weight, but as soon as I did – you guessed it – I lost motivation.
A long-term perspective
Toward the end of my college career, I landed a job at a retirement community fitness center. There, I would instruct residents through personalized fitness programs, teach group fitness, but most memorably I would get to witness some of the fittest elderly folks around. There were 100 year-old men pumping iron, 70 year-old women cranking up the speed on the treadmill, and couples in their 80s telling us about their recent mountain-hiking trips.
It especially struck me that neither age nor size mattered, but function and health did. Simply being skinny is no longer relevant if you can’t get up out of a chair, keep up with grandchildren, or enjoy traveling. It was not a conscious thought at the time, but working in this environment influenced me to think of fitness in a broader and more long-term sense. I would think about how I would like to function in my golden years. My motivation to stay active became less about vanity and more about taking care of the one body God gave me.
Restrictions & recovery
I was driving the summer of 2018 – shortly before my physical therapy program began – and a car turned into mine leaving me with injuries and a totaled car. Recovery meant wearing a lovely neck brace and limiting many activities while I healed and did more therapeutic exercise. I lost 20 pounds during this time unintentionally and hated feeling so weak. This lasted for months and all I longed for was to run, lift heavier things in the gym, and to be able to hold my head up like a normal person.
The day my PT said it would be okay to start running again, I felt like I won the lottery. I had so much energy built up and I could finally do something with it. As I slowly increased some of my favorite activities into my life, I felt a deep gratitude for what my body could do. Before my accident, how did I choose to avoid workouts when my body was perfectly capable? I never had so much excitement to exercise in my life, and this time it wasn’t about competition or appearance or calories. It was a celebration of my incredible body.
What does intuitive exercise look like for me?
Now that I have adopted a more intuitive mindset for exercise, I aim to exercise daily through movements I enjoy, while allowing myself to be okay with skipping a few days if circumstances call for it. Some days I go for a super sweaty HITT workout. Other days I get in a 20-minute walk with my dog.
I simply listen to what my body needs each day. Some days I’m full of energy, while other days my body calls for me to move more gently. It brings me great joy and freedom to be able to see fitness in a healthy way – to celebrate my incredible body through movement.
Tips for practicing intuitive exercise
- Before beginning exercise, take a few moments to understand what your body might need. Are you tired, sore, energetic, stressed, angry, happy, in pain?
- Instead of always adhering a strict fitness regiment, deviate occasionally from structured workouts. Do something more light-hearted or social, like planning a volleyball game with friends.
- Think about some functional goals you may have. It could be to not get winded walking 3 flights of stairs, or to be able to go on a 3-day hiking trip in the mountains.
- Let fitness work around your schedule and lifestyle. Be realistic and feel good about doing even 10 minutes if that’s all you have.
- Don’t plan the exact exercise you want to accomplish too far in advance, you don’t know what your body may need that day! I like to write down what kind of movement I want to do in the beginning of the day, or I record what I already did at the end of the day.
- Envision what you want to be able to do in a month from now, years from now, and in old age. Let it sink in and motivate you.
- Tap into your intuition in all other areas of life. Get adequate sleep, manage stress levels, eat mindfully and nutritiously, journal, and take care of your spirit. These will all enhance your fitness journey.
- Do forms of exercise that you enjoy and make you smile. If you hate it, I promise you it won’t last. I can also promise you that you can find something you enjoy.
- Think of you body’s current incredible abilities and appreciate them!
Check out my free mini workbook “The Mindset to Movement” where I take you through 12 steps to set you up for fitness success. I’ll walk you through intuitive exercise techniques to make fitness fun, practical, and sustainable.