In today’s fast-paced world, exercise often becomes just another item on the to-do list. We get excited about a plan (nothing wrong with that) and we map out our entire fitness journey in one day. But as we continue to follow the plan instead of listening to our bodies, we get burnt out, fall off the wagon, and neglect exercise altogether. Fortunately, this all-or-nothing yo-yo pattern around exercise is something that intuitive movement can help with.
Intuitive movement is an approach to exercise that prioritizes listening to your body above “never missing a workout.” It’s about breaking free from the confines of strict plans and listening to your body to guide your movement and exercise instead.
While gym culture teaches us that missing a workout means you completely lack willpower (not all gyms are toxic, but many are), I argue that intuitive exercise is far healthier. Many of us push ourselves too far in order to stick to a rigid exercise regimen, which only adds stress to our day; and sometimes stress causes more negative health consequences than the added health benefits of exercising in the first place.
Let’s dig deeper into what intuitive movement might look like for you and how you can incorporate it into your life. A less-stressed and better-feeling day is ahead!
Intuitive Movement Is the Sustainable Solution to Exercise Burnout
At its core, intuitive movement is about developing a deeper connection with your body and allowing it to guide your movement choices. Instead of pushing yourself to meet predetermined goals “no matter what,” intuitive exercise encourages you to listen to your body as you go.
Intuitive movement is about shifting the focus from external goals, such as burning a certain number of calories or achieving a particular body shape, to internal cues, such as how your body feels, what it craves, and what brings you joy.
Exercising intuitively helps you avoid guilt or shame if you miss a workout or deviate from your usual exercise routine. In traditional exercise approaches, there is often a sense of obligation and guilt associated with missing a workout or not meeting certain exercise goals. This often piles on top of the stress that we are already under, which can cause physical and mental health consequences that may outweigh the benefits of exercise itself.
What intuitive movement is NOT
However, with intuitive movement, the focus shifts from external expectations and rigid exercise plans to listening to your body and honoring its needs on a day by day basis. This means that if your body is feeling fatigued or you’re dealing with excessive stress, you can choose rest or a very gentle form of exercise – like level 1 yoga (my personal fave!) – without feeling guilty or ashamed.
Intuitive movement empowers you to make choices that are best for your body without the pressure or guilt associated with missing a workout. This builds momentum towards a healthier relationship with exercise – looking forward to it instead of dreading it – and promotes a more sustainable approach to movement.
Examples of Intuitive Exercise
Intuitive movement recognizes that our bodies are constantly changing and evolving. Flexibility with exercise honors the fact that our bodies have different needs on different days, and that these needs may vary depending on factors such as stress levels, sleep quality, and hormonal fluctuations.
Intuitive movement encourages you to listen to your body’s cues and make movement choices that feel good in the present moment. Intuitive exercise does not look like picking one workout type and sticking with it no matter what. In fact, intuitive exercise will likely change from week to week or even day to day.
If you need some ideas to help you get started, here are some exercises that you can mix and match to suit your needs on any given day for some intuitive movement:
- Yoga: Yoga is more than just a series of postures, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques. It’s a physical, mental, and spiritual practice that also helps improve flexibility, strength, and balance. Some yoga classes are heated for added challenge, and as with all intuitive movement, it’s important to listen to your body when adding additional layers of challenge.
- Swimming: Swimming is low-impact and works out the entire body. It’s easy on the joints and provides a great cardiovascular workout. Some of us feel self-conscious in swimsuits so, again, it’s important to do what brings you joy instead of forcing yourself to do something that makes you so uncomfortable that you don’t enjoy it. Intuitive movement is about sustainability.
- Walking: Walking is a simple and accessible form of exercise that can be done anywhere. It’s a great way to improve cardiovascular health, strengthen leg muscles, and burn calories. Walking can also be a social activity or a time for quiet reflection.
- Pilates: Pilates focuses on strengthening the core muscles, improving flexibility, and developing body awareness. I started doing pilates about 3 years ago and I never looked back. Although I don’t necessarily like the culture of pilates (it places extreme emphasis on looks and perfection) my mobility has improved more than anything else I’ve tried. To me, the joy and benefits of pilates outweigh the culture and it’s a staple in my movement regimen.
- Spin class: Spin class is a group exercise class that involves cycling on stationary bikes, often in dim lighting with incredibly loud, upbeat music. It provides a high-intensity cardiovascular workout that can help improve endurance, burn calories, and strengthen the lower body muscles. For most people, this will not be a common form of intuitive exercise due to its high intensity. It might be too hard on your body to do frequently. However, if you’re athletic or genuinely enjoy high-intensity workouts, this could be a great way to get a good workout and endorphin high. Intuitive movement is different for everyone.
- High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise such as running or bodyweight exercises followed by brief periods of rest. As with spin classes, HIIT won’t be a form of intuitive exercise for the majority of people; but if you enjoy very challenging workouts, HIIT could bring some joy to your fitness regimen.
- Strength training: Strength training involves using weights or resistance bands to challenge and strengthen muscles. It can help increase muscle mass and also improve bone density – the latter being a lesser known but awesome benefit!
- Dance: Dancing is a fun and enjoyable form of exercise that can improve cardiovascular health, flexibility, and coordination. It can be done in various styles, such as salsa, hip hop, ballet, or Zumba, and can be a social activity as well.
- Hiking: Hiking is a great way to enjoy the outdoors while getting exercise. It challenges the muscles, improves cardiovascular fitness, and provides mental relaxation. Hiking is pretty high on my list of intuitive exercise favorites.
- Group fitness classes: Group fitness classes, such as aerobics, kickboxing, or boot camp, offer a structured workout led by an instructor in a motivating group environment. It’s important to find a gym with good culture, as bootcamp style classes tend to gain revenue by pushing the whole “never miss a workout” agenda no matter how you feel.
- Rest: Last but certainly not least, rest definitely deserves a spot on our list because, although it’s not exercise, it’s equally important to our health! We need rest to allow our bodies to rejuvenate, especially if we lead high-stress lives and/or we work out intensely and our muscles need a chance to recover.
My personal mix of intuitive movement involves pilates, level 1 yoga, and rest. I love the slowness of level 1 yoga classes because I feel more of the mind-body connection than in the faster-pace heated yoga classes. Pilates is very challenging, and I enjoy the strengthening benefits, and I definitely listen to my body and cancel classes if my body is asking for rest! Even if it costs me a cancellation fee, listening to my body is always worth it.
Intuitive movement is about doing what feels good for you, what aligns with your personal values, and what helps you reach optimal levels of health for YOU.
How to Incorporate Intuitive Movement into Your Life
Intuitive exercise is about tuning in to your body’s needs and preferences, and adapting your workout routine accordingly. It recognizes that what feels good and beneficial for one person may not be the same for another, and that our bodies can have different needs on different days and at different times.
Ready to embark on your intuitive movement journey? Here are some practical tips to help you get started:
Embrace Little “Movement Snacks”
When I read the book Built from Broken (which I highly recommend to anyone that is passionate about mobility), I thought the author was so clever to talk about “movement snacks,” which essentially means getting little movement breaks throughout your day – especially your work day.
When I’m sitting at my desk for more than a couple hours, I’m usually itching for movement. Not only do I have a standing desk to accommodate for this, but I do all sorts of weird things like a few lunges to stretch my hip flexors. These little “movement snacks” are a great start for anyone looking to embrace intuitive movement. It encourage you to check in with yourself multiple times a day to give your body what it wants.
Tune Into Your Body
Start by paying attention to your body’s signals and cues. Notice how your body feels before, during, and after exercise. Do you feel depleted after a bootcamp style class or do you thoroughly enjoy the endorphin rush of an intense workout? Does hot yoga help you feel loose and limber or do you get too many muscle cramps from too many sweat sessions? Listen to your body’s feedback and make movement choices accordingly.
Avoid Highly Competitive Atmospheres (Unless It Brings You Joy)
While I do think there are good bootcamp and crossfit gyms out there, these gyms are hard to find; and most other gyms remain intensely competitive. This makes it harder to stand strong in your values to listen to your body instead of never missing a workout.
I used to really love the high-intensity and strength-training classes at the UFC gym. But as I got deeper into my journey with stopping binge eating the psycho-spiritual way, I found it hard to stick to my values when everyone around me was obsessively counting calories and hating on their bodies. Ultimately, I left that gym in exchange for gentler forms of exercise and I’m much happier.
Embrace Variety and Spontaneity
Intuitive movement encourages you to embrace a wide range of activities and explore different forms of movement. Experiment with different types of exercise, such as dancing, hiking, swimming, or practicing yoga, and see what resonates with your body. Embrace variety and find joy in trying new things.
Practice self-compassion and let go of self-judgment or criticism. Be gentle with yourself when it comes to your movement choices and allow yourself to make adjustments based on how your body feels in the moment. Intuitive movement is about honoring your body’s needs and being kind to yourself.
Intuitive movement is not about pushing yourself to extremes or neglecting rest and recovery. It’s about finding balance and honoring the ebb and flow of your body’s needs. You may very well enjoy some high-intensity workouts on some days and level 1 yoga on others.
You may also realize that you need to rest 3-5 days out of the week, depending on your work or family demands. Listen to your body’s cues for rest, recovery, and relaxation, and make sure to prioritize self-care as an integral part of your movement practice.
Get Started with Movement That Feels Good
Intuitive movement is a holistic and mindful approach to exercise that prioritizes listening to your body and finding joy in movement. It’s about letting go of external expectations and embracing a flexible and adaptable approach that honors your body’s unique needs.
By tuning in to your body’s cues, cultivating self-compassion, and trusting your body’s wisdom, you can discover the joy and benefits of intuitive movement in your life. Always listen to your body and let it guide you towards a movement practice that feels good, joyful, and sustainable.