By: Iris Goldsztajn
When Elodie Jean-Philippe realized that, by working from home during COVID, she was missing out on a lot of movement in her life, she tried to force herself to exercise. "I'd work out intensely for two weeks and then stop working out for six to eight weeks," she says. "So then I decided to go slow, starting with just walking around the house extra, but if there was a day I really didn't want to work out, I decided to listen and not force it." By tuning into what her body needed, Jean-Philippe started to feel more excited about exercise — and noticed she was better able to stick with it. She had found intuitive movement.
I first started practicing intuitive movement unknowingly, as I worked to untie my sense of self-worth from the way my body looks. That meant giving up on weight-loss diets, and it also meant that working out — which became a huge part of my life when I first started trying to lose weight — now had to morph into something completely different. I had to learn to trust that my body knew what was right for me, that rest days are not only OK but necessary, and that I'm under no obligation to do exercise I hate (*cough* HIIT *cough*).
Intuitive exercise is part of a much larger redefinition of health, away from the tyranny of always trying to be smaller, or looking a certain way. Practicing it is much easier said than done, because the same messages that used to coax us into pursuing a so-called "bikini body" are still out there, they just look a bit different these days. They look like an exercise instructor telling you to work for that six-pack, or a friend guiltily ordering dessert but assuring you she "earned" it in her Spin class earlier.
That said, getting on board this workout "trend," which essentially says to forget the trends and do what feels good to you, can be a powerful exercise in self-compassion and learning to reconnect with your body. And in hard times like we're living through now, it can be truly life-changing.
There has been a clear move toward a more holistic kind of exercise since the beginning of the pandemic. "I've definitely seen more of a shift towards this way of thinking about movement," says Hannah Lewin, a personal trainer with an anti-diet focus. "I believe that people are tired of being told that the only way to work out is aggressively and solely for weight loss reasons, and are wanting instead to move in a way that benefits them mentally as well as physically."
Why this shift, then? Well, logistics certainly played a big role. "People were forced into coming up with alternative ways to engage in physical activity, due to not being able to go to gym workouts or fitness clubs," says Audra Coons, a women's counselor and eating disorder specialist. "People started getting outdoors, walking, gardening, and trying at-home workouts, which usually involve using different muscles than they were used to, and using their bodies in a more confined space or creative way."
That said, we can't ignore the pandemic's massive impact on our collective mental health. In that context, it's easy to see why people would turn to a more nurturing exercise model as a way to get through this stressful period. "There's a lot of evidence linking physical activity to enhanced mental health and wellbeing," says Josie Buck, a food and eating psychology coach and founder of The Mindful Cook. "In fact, it is far more effective in supporting us in that way, than in helping us to achieve physical goals."
Exercise — as long as it's a mindful practice rather than a punitive one — is a really effective coping mechanism, especially in overwhelming times. "Moving our body has the power to draw our attention out of our busy minds and into the body, providing relief from overthinking and worrying," Buck says. "I often use walking as a way to release frustration or yoga to relieve anxiety and I advise my clients to dance, jump around, stretch, hula hoop — whatever it is that supports them in working through the tough stuff towards feeling better."
Sara Hailan had always struggled to exercise consistently, and when the pandemic came around, strict workouts felt like just another stressful thing to add to her to-do list. In an attempt to slow down and reset, which she finally had the opportunity to do, she began building up an intuitive movement practice that includes weight training, yoga, Pilates, and long walks. "I aim for three exercise classes a week but if I don't meet this, it's fine!" Hailan says. "I don't feel guilty anymore or force myself to work out. I accept and embrace how I feel." Thanks to intuitive movement, Hailan has found herself exercising more often, and enjoying it more than ever before. If you're reading this, hopefully it can help you too.
What is intuitive movement, exactly?
By now, you've probably heard about intuitive eating — even if only in passing. This anti-diet program was designed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch to help people find a sense of food freedom, or freedom from the constraints of yo-yo dieting, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. In short, it's about accepting your cravings — if you want a burger, have it — and indulging them, without attaching morality to food or feeling the need to find a 'healthier' alternative. One of the 10 principles of intuitive eating — and part of its natural evolution — is the idea of intuitive movement.
"Intuitive movement is when you are tuning into the feedback your body is giving you when it comes to choosing movement," says Kirsten Ackerman, an anti-diet dietitian and host of the Intuitive Bites podcast. That might be "checking in with your energy level on any particular day and checking in with what type of movement sounds good to you," she adds.
The key word here is "intuition" — intuitive movement is really a mindful practice. "We are designed to move and our bodies know how to move naturally," says Donna Noble, a body-positive yoga teacher and founder of CurveSome Yoga. "[Intuitive movement] is so freeing and liberating and creates an acceptance of our bodies."
This method isn't only applied to lower intensity exercise, like yoga and walking; it's a way to find joy and energy in movement while tuning into your unique needs on any given day. Sometimes you want to sweat your face off, and intuitive movement says, go for it. "Think about a time you felt keyed up or stressed," Coons says. On a day like that, "a high interval group class was just what you needed to release tension, negative energy, and leave there feeling so much lighter and rejuvenated. Or, another time when a yoga stretch was exactly what you needed to stretch the stress out of your body, and realign with your inner wisdom."
Intuitive movement could revolutionize your relationship with exercise and your body.
If you've ever complained about having to work out even though you really didn't feel like it, intuitive movement could be exactly what you need. "Making a place for fitness and divorcing it from diet culture is such a wonderful form of self-care," Lewin says. "It's a way of future-proofing our body through movements that support our musculoskeletal system, offering us a mental pause by carving out time for ourselves. By not tying movement to appearance, we can place more emphasis on our incredible achievements!"
When you don't view exercise as something unpleasant to tick off your to-do list, you're far more likely to actually stick with it in a sustainable way. "I've often found that when clients shift focus toward intuitive or non-aesthetic focused workouts, activity levels stay elevated and become a natural part of everyday life," Lewin says. "If you never jump on a dieting bandwagon, you can never fall off it!"
Not only are you less likely to give up on exercising, but you may also see far more benefits than you might if you're wasting energy pushing yourself to do something you hate. "I have seen first-hand how this way of movement truly helps people make faster and more sustainable progress with their fitness journeys," Lewin says. Her many clients have successfully moved away from exercise that just stressed them out, and toward a more easygoing approach.
Crucially, an intuitive approach to exercise includes everyone who may not feel comfortable in certain workout environments — for example, an expensive exercise class crowded with affluent thin white women, or a weightlifting gym where being visibly muscular seems like the golden ticket to entry. Hate the way you feel in gyms like that? Don't go there; try hiking or grabbing a workout on YouTube that's more your speed. Such an approach "is necessary so that no one is left behind and every body can experience movement in a safe, judgment-free way," Noble says.
How can you practice intuitive movement?
If this sounds good to you, here are some strategies to ease yourself into intuitive movement.
Rethink what motivates you.
If you still see exercise as a way to avoid gaining weight or to change your appearance, start by taking a close look at your motivation for working out — and shift toward a more sustainable mindset. You've probably seen this quote all over Instagram, but it's worth repeating: "[Move] your body because you love it and not because you hate it," Noble says. "Your body has an innate wisdom and knows what is best for you."
Fear of how your body might change if you start exercising differently can be difficult to let go of, but you absolutely can get there. "It's vital to remember that workouts don't need to be daily or feel like a punishment to be effective," Lewin says. "Intuitive movement is about respecting your body and celebrating your physicality — which often means unlearning false rules that stem from diet culture."
Instead, Lewin suggests making a goal that has nothing to do with your appearance, such as running a longer distance or lifting a heavier weight — and listening to your body if it doesn't feel like training on any given day. If physical fitness goals aren't your thing, reframing exercise as self-care, something joyful and mindful, can go a long way. And make sure to pick a type of exercise you love doing, or you're at least curious to try — not something you feel you should be doing.
Try asking yourself: "What kind of movement do you enjoy and/or what kind of movement serves you?" Ackerman says. "For example, maybe you don't enjoy much movement at all, but it is important to you to be able to run around with your kids without getting winded."
Remove numbers from the equation.
Counting — calories, reps, minutes, miles, macros — is quite literally what makes the diet world go round. If you're trying to be more intuitive, try to remove the numbers associated with exercise, at least at first, Ackerman suggests. "I'm talking about the step trackers, the numbers on the exercise machine, and even the length of a workout video," she says. "By removing numbers from your movement routine, you force yourself to check in with what your body is telling you about what it needs." If you've gotten in on the Peloton craze, try turning off the leaderboard and tuning in to the trainers when they say you are in control of your speed and resistance.
Maybe you exercise at the same time every day, or you like to book your workout classes in advance, but this shouldn't be a barrier to intuitive movement. "While it can be motivating to have a schedule of specific exercises or workouts scheduled on certain days, it's important to allow for flexibility, and check in with yourself if that still fits your needs in that moment," Coons says. "If you decide to do something else that day, it doesn't mean you are not accountable, it means you were attuned to your needs, and can reap more holistic benefits than if you pushed yourself to do a workout that didn't align with your needs at that time."
Find safe spaces.
Much of the fitness world is still steeped in diet culture and the assumption that everyone who works out is trying to change their body. If you're looking to practice intuitive movement, this can be a major roadblock — and that's what inspired both Lewin and Noble to create their exercise programs.
"I created Curvesome Yoga to show that every body is a yoga body," Noble says. "I create safe judgment[-free] spaces so that anyone can come and enjoy yoga in a way that is inclusive and accessible. I promote body-positivity so that there is greater equality for all."
While Noble and Lewin's exercise programs are UK-based, there are more and more body-inclusive instructors, gyms, and training programs these days — try Curves With Moves on Zoom or in person in NYC, or Joyn, a body neutral on-demand exercise platform.