So many people struggle to have a healthy relationship with exercise. For some, it’s difficult to move in a way that feels easy, joyful, and sustainable. For others, the concern is that physical activity because repetitive and compulsive. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Exercise can be an affirming, joyful part of your life that is affirming and long-lasting. If we approach exercise intuitively, we’re more likely to reach this goal. Intuitive exercise means trusting that your body knows when to exercise, what to do, and what intensity and duration are right in each moment.
Here are some tips to get you to started toward developing a healthier relationship with movement. Of course, if you’re in eating disorder recovery, you’ll want to have your team sign off on any physical activity.
1) Identify movement goals that aren’t related to weight. So many people exercise to lose or maintain their weight. This focus can interfere with creating a healthy and intuitive relationship with movement. So it’s important to identify goals/motivation outside of weight. Do you want to get stronger? Develop more stamina? Run a race? Be able to carry a backpack or groceries without getting winded? Have fun? Intuitive exercise isn’t focused on weight.
2) Aim for fun. Yes, exercise can be fun. You can say goodbye to logging miles on the treadmill or panting while doing burpees if those aren’t your thing. There are so many ways to move our bodies, and while the experience of fun is subjective, there’s likely a way that you can move your body that brings you joy. How about swimming? Going for a bike ride with your kids? Going out dancing? Swaying or stretching to your favorite beats at home?
3) Mix it up. Variety is key for balanced and healthy training and for keeping you engaged and interested. People who do the same activity every day or week to week likely aren’t engaging in intuitive exercise. Try different activities. Do different kinds of movement on different days. Keep it fresh by researching and introducing new activities.
4) Take rest days. Take them planned and unplanned. This one is particularly challenging for those who have a compulsive relationship with exercise, but for that reason alone, it’s an important goal to work toward. The body (and the mind) need time to recover. Taking a couple of days off per week allows you to come back clearer, stronger, and more determined. Schedule weeks off here or there throughout the year to recover more fully and further increase your drive. Prove that you have a healthy relationship with exercise by taking time off for work and family obligations, travel, illness, and surgeries without suffering guilt, anxiety, or irritability.
5) Do what feels right for your body in the moment, not what you planned and not what you think you should do. Trust that your body knows what it needs. In practice, this looks like not having a set activity planned before you check in with yourself. What do you feel capable of in the moment? How much energy do you have? Does your body need something energetic or more relaxed? Do you feel like exercising outdoors or indoors, alone or with others? Your answers will likely vary from day to day.
6) Check in with yourself throughout your workout. How are you feeling? Does this type of movement and intensity feel right? Does it feel right to continue? Stop if you feel pain, fatigue, or if you just aren’t feeling it.
7) Take as many breaks as you need. Listen to your body’s communications. Trust your body’s communications. Even if you end up stopping or taking unplanned breaks, whatever you do/did still “counts.”
8) Be willing to increase or decrease your intensity as you go, again deviating from what you had planned. So often, folks get compulsive about variables like time, distance, effort, output, etc. But that isn’t intuitive. That isn’t trusting your body; it’s trusting an ideal. Creating a healthy relationship with movement means putting all the metrics aside and focusing on what your body wants and needs in each moment.
9) Uncouple exercise from food intake. This is so important! We’re bombarded with messaging from the diet and fitness industries that pair food intake with exercise, positioning physical activity as compensation or penance for what we eat. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Conceptualize what you eat and how you move as independent variables. You cannot develop an intuitive relationship with movement if your choices are compensatory.
10) Do all of the above without judging or criticizing yourself. Focus on what you can do versus what you can’t. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion.
And finally, if you’re unable to incorporate these suggestions, consider taking a break from movement. You might be too steeped in an eating disorder or too compulsive in how you approach physical activity to pursue intuitive exercise. Consider seeing someone who specializes in these areas. Perhaps you can come back to physical activity at a later day, perhaps not. Either way, the healthiest choice right now is to put your fitness goals aside.