In today's hardcore workout culture that saturates our social media feeds, sometimes we can feel pressure to hit the gym — even when we don't feel up to it — to look as fit as the fitness influencers pumping iron.
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When this happens, exercise becomes less about striving for good health and more about something we should do. An onerous obligation. A pleasureless prescription. We grin and bear it because our body-conscious society says we must do it to look and feel attractive. No pain, no gain, right?
But have you ever stopped and asked yourself: What type of exercise does my body need today? What kind of movement am I in the mood for?
This practice of getting in tune with your body is the basis of intuitive exercise. Like intuitive eating, intuitive exercise encourages you to connect and communicate with your body to understand what it needs on a specific day.
"Instead of choosing an exercise based on what you feel you 'should' do, you rely on internal physical and mental signals to determine what activity to engage in and for how long," performance psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Read on to learn more about intuitive exercise and its benefits. (Spoiler alert: This intuitive approach makes your workouts way more enjoyable and less stressful.)
What Is Intuitive Exercise?
Intuitive exercise entails connecting to your body to see how it feels and the kinds of physical activity it needs on a given day, Perlus says.
"At Positive Force Movement, we tend to avoid using the term 'exercise' altogether," says Lore McSpadden-Walker, CPT, co-founder of Positive Force Movement, which provides educational and empowerment-related services to people who have historically faced systemic marginalization. "Instead, we talk about movement," McSpadden-Walker says.
An intuitive movement practice, they explain:
- sees all intentional movement as an invitation to be curious about our senses
- encourages us to explore the physical world
- involves being radically present in our bodies and open to what they need
To understand intuitive movement, McSpadden-Walker says it's valuable to "think about the ways that humans learn how to move in the first place."
"When we were infants, toddlers and young children, we didn't consult fitness magazines, coaches or physical therapists to teach us how to move. Instead, we were driven by our urges to meet our needs, to explore the world around us and to experience different sensory stimuli," they say. "In this way, babies and children of different sizes, as well as those with different disabilities, sensory needs and leverage points all learn how to move in the ways that are right for their unique and precious bodies."
But this innate ability to trust what our bodies need often becomes secondary to the societal messages we receive about the "right and wrong ways" to have a body as we grow up.
"These messages are interwoven with systems of privilege and body inequity, and, in present-day America, include the assumptions that everyone should aim for a body that moves and looks as closely as possible to someone who is young, thin, white, cisgender, non-disabled and not impacted by any illnesses or chronic pain conditions," McSpadden-Walker says.
Intuitive movement counters this limited messaging and aims to reclaim and experience the same level of playfulness, wisdom and trust that we found in movement as children in our adult selves.
But to be clear, this doesn't mean that movement is always 100 percent joyful and comfortable, according to McSpadden-Walker.
"For example, when I was still engaged in competitive powerlifting, I was regularly exploring the edges of my strength capabilities, which was not always comfortable, or when I've explored movements that invited sensations that made me more aware of gender dysphoria, it was never joyful," they say. "However, when these movement experiences are approached with curiosity — rather than prescriptivism — they are all able to teach me about my body, its needs and its direct experience of different stimuli."
Ready to Give It a Try?
To get started with intuitive exercise, ask yourself these questions before a workout:
- What type of exercise does my body need today?
- What kind of movement am I in the mood for?
6 Reasons You Should Try Intuitive Exercise
Tuning into your body's needs comes with a host of benefits. Here are a few.
1. It Allows for More Flexibility in Your Workout Schedule
While following a regular exercise routine can help you stay on track toward your health and fitness goals, planned workouts don't always fit perfectly into our lives.
A prescriptive approach to movement will often demand that a given day's movement session demands more from us in terms of time, energy or mental and emotional presence than we have to offer, according to McSpadden-Walker.
"In contrast, an intuitive approach to movement creates room for us to adapt our movement sessions each day to meet our needs, limitations and abilities," they say. "On some days, this might invite us to scale back on what we had hoped we'd do in order to stay safe or save some energy for other important activities."
That means if you can't make it to your Orange Theory workout, or your scheduled kickboxing class is too demanding for your current energy level, you have the flexibility to adapt and pull out a yoga mat at home to do some gentle stretching instead, Perlus says.
Still, on other days, your body might invite you to push yourself further to revel in a joyful sense of accomplishment, McSpadden-Walker says.
All this to say: It all depends on the day and what your body communicates to you, and whatever you end up doing — going for a leisurely stroll or attending a heart-pumping HIIT class — is totally OK.
"With intuitive exercise, you become more accepting of what your body is capable of on a given day and realize that it can shift from one day to the next," Perlus says.
2. It Shifts the Focus to Self-Care (Versus Calorie Burning)
Too often the singular focus of exercise is burning calories (read: losing weight). It's why so many of us obsessively wear our fitness bands, meticulously tracking every calorie.
While healthy weight loss is a valid goal for some, only working out to drop a pant size can be problematic. Getting too caught up in numbers and judging your success (or failure) by these metrics (i.e., when you burn enough calories or see the scale's digits dip, you're a winner, but if you fall short of your target, you're a loser) is harmful for your mental health, Perlus says.
This emphasis on torching calories and shedding pounds also speaks to a more insidious underling issue. "A prescriptive approach to movement upholds the beliefs and systems of body oppression, including intentional weight loss — which is always inherently fatphobic," McSpadden-Walker says.
Alternatively, intuitive exercise shifts the focus from how hard you worked out (and how many calories you burned) to doing movement that is positive for you, both physically and mentally, Perlus says. In this way, exercise becomes a valuable form of self-care (not simply a means to an end to lose weight).
3. It Encourages You to Do the Types of Exercise You Enjoy
When you do an exercise you detest, it feels like a chore, or worse, a punishment. So why do we force ourselves to do movements we dread?
"Many of us feel pressure to engage in a certain type of exercise simply because it is trendy," Perlus says. For instance, if you see your favorite fitness influencers cranking out burpees on Instagram, you might follow suit — even if you hate burpees — to achieve a desired body type.
But this type of movement is driven by unhealthy motivations.
"People force themselves to adhere to exercise programs and training protocols that they don't enjoy, that detract from a balanced life, that are poorly suited to their body's needs or that ultimately amount to exercise addiction and a disordered relationship to movement and/or food" out of shame and obligation (rather than out of curiosity and intuition), McSpadden-Walker says.
While a prescriptive approach to movement implies that you must do things you don't like (or that are harmful to your body's holistic needs), "an intuitive approach to movement allows for expansive exploration of the countless forms of movement and sensory experiences," they say.
In other words, intuitive exercise encourages you to try many exercise disciplines until you find one or more you really love, Perlus says.
Plus, when you enjoy your workouts, you're more likely to stick to them."If you get pleasure from a physical activity, that will lead to consistency," Perlus says. And more benefits for your mind, body and soul.
4. It Scraps the All-or-Nothing Thinking
"A prescriptive approach to movement is often interwoven with the self-defeating tenets of perfectionism," McSpadden-Walker says. Unfortunately, a perfectionist mindset can lead to an unrealistic all-or-nothing approach to exercise: People believe that they must be "all in, all the time."
The problem is, when the inevitable setbacks of life occur — illness, injury, parenting demands, changing work responsibilities, etc. — and you can't meet your own expectations, folks following an all-or-nothing attitude to movement often feel like throwing in the towel because they haven't done "enough," Perlus says.
In contrast, intuitive exercise takes a glass-half-full approach. It allows you to break away from this limited thinking by concentrating on what can be done within the confines of your lifestyle, budget, time and fitness level, Perlus says.
McSpadden-Walker puts it like this: "An intuitive approach to movement inherently makes space for the many changing aspects of life, allowing for greater adaptability and an increased likelihood for a movement practice that is sustainable over one's lifetime."
5. It Takes the Guilt Out of Rest Days
We frequently find pride in our ability to push through a tough workout, but knowing when to slow down and recover is equally important.
Still, for some people, taking a break can bring up a lot of negative feelings. For instance, you might chastise yourself for being too lazy or weak.
Intuitive exercise inherently encourages rest days (which are essential for building muscle and preventing injury) without having to feel any guilt. Think of it like this: If you trust your body's intuition, which is telling you I'm tired, you're giving your body what it needs to stay strong.
Being in touch with yourself also helps to foster self-compassion. Research links the act of self-kindness to increased healthy behaviors (like exercise) and motivation, Perlus says, including a September 2017 study in Health Psychology Open. So, when you show compassion to your tired body and give it the recovery it's craving, it actually enables you to maintain a more consistent fitness routine, she says.
6. It Acknowledges You as the Expert of Your Own Body
We often look to experts — like a personal trainer or a fitness program — to tell us how we should move our bodies. But this denies an important "truth that is all-too-rarely adhered to by supposed health and wellness professionals: You are the only living expert on what it is like to be you," McSpadden-Walker says.
"There isn't a coach, doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor, energy healer, herbalist or yoga teacher alive who is more intimate with your sensory experiences and cognitive insights than you are," they say.
Through intuitive movement, you can reclaim your power and wisdom, as well as your body autonomy and right to consent (or withhold consent) to different bodily stimuli in a radically healing way, they explain.
To be clear: This doesn't mean you shouldn't seek out information, guidance or help in your fitness or movement journey. But rather, you should recognize that the knowledge of qualified experts is only valuable insofar as it is actually helpful, McSpadden-Walker says. "If it causes pain, detracts from your overall wellbeing, is downright unenjoyable or, for any other reason, doesn't fit your needs, that's OK. You are the expert on being you, and you can trust yourself," they say.