What is Intuitive Movement?

Most of us are familiar with the health benefits of exercise (both for our physical and mental health) including stress management, increased alertness, better sleep, improved mood, improved learning and memory, and reduced risk for chronic diseases.  However many people who struggle with disordered eating also struggle to have a healthy relationship to exercise. The word exercise is often associated with the goal of weight loss or the intention to change the size or shape of your body.  Some people may associate exercise with dieting and their experience of exercise serves as a punishment for eating or a way to burn off calories.  Others may find it difficult to find a middle ground with exercise, continually pushing the body beyond it’s limit to the point of exhaustion in order to feel that exercise is worthwhile.  

A big part of healing our relationship with food is also healing our relationship with exercise.  When exercise is done in a strict or rigid way with the goal of changing our bodies, it becomes difficult to have a healthy relationship with exercise even in situations where you are also experiencing other benefits from exercise. Intuitive movement is the process of learning to listen to our bodies and move them in a way that feels good rather than using exercise to change the size, shape, and weight of our bodies. This is definitely easier said than done because through diet culture we’ve learned that the main goal of exercise should be to centered around how it affects the appearance of our bodies ie: to maintain a certain weight, lose weight, become slimmer, more toned, more muscular, etc. Intuitive movement allows us to meet the health benefits of exercise while also honoring our body’s need for rest. Value is placed on how our bodies feel rather than how they look. Movement is used as a way of respecting and connecting to our bodies and finding more energy and joy in our lives.

When we associate exercise primarily with weight loss, we minimize the significant health benefits that movement and physical activity offer us. We become fixated on following an external plan rather than listening to our internal intuitive body signals and we may end up overexercising or becoming obsessed with exercise.  Also, the focus on weight loss keeps us stuck in the cycle of disordered eating rather than moving towards an intuitive relationship with food and our bodies.

In order to develop a healthy relationship with exercise and to sustain consistent exercise, try to find activities that feel good.  People will naturally repeat activities that feel good in their bodies and do not need to use shame or criticism to motivate themselves to exercise.  This also includes trying activities that may not be intense or rigorous such as slow yoga class or going for a walk.  Exercise doesn’t need to be intense in order to for you to experience  health benefits. Overtime all movement counts so even if you only have half an hour on your lunch break, going for a walk is still beneficial.

Begin to pay attention to how your body feels during and after movement.  This will give you valuable information about what activities you find enjoyable.  Another way to increase intuitive movement is to use mindfulness during physical activity to actually feel the physical sensations of the body such as intensity and rate of breathing, speed and strength of your heartbeat, and noticing muscle tension or relaxation.  Try to notice the sensation of feeling invigorated versus feeling exhausted. This helps you to build interoceptive awareness: the perception of your physical sensations from within your body. By training yourself to listen to your body, you become more aware of it and better able to listen to it’s needs and intuitive wisdom.  After the activity, notice if there is any changes in overall mood, alertness, energy levels, or stress levels.

Be aware of the diet mentality and feelings of shame which may feed a self-critical voice that tells you that you need to push yourself harder. As you develop an intuitive relationship with your body you will begin to learn when you can push yourself a bit more and when you need to rest and this will happen naturally without the need to bully or criticize yourself.

It may take a while to shift your mentality around exercise but a great starting point is to try to let go of numbers (pounds lost, calories burnt, etc.) and keep the focus on how you feel in your body when you engage in different types of movement. For many people, the idea of intuitive movement can feel radically different than the way that they have conceptualized exercise their whole lives. If you would like to work on developing a healthier relationship with exercise, you may benefit from intuitive eating coaching or counselling.


Lorilee Keller