Focus on Fitness: Intuitive Exercise
By Kayli Anderson, MS, RDN, DipACLM, ACSM-EP
Vol. 25 No. 1 P. 48
Today’s Dietitian explores this fresh approach to meeting fitness goals.
It’s that time again when clients are in search of a fresh start for the new year. After a season filled with holiday cheer, gym memberships and weight loss regimens are now top of mind for many individuals. By now, most RDs have heard of intuitive eating, the nutrition philosophy that teaches you to reject the messages of diet culture and trust your own body’s hunger and fullness cues to make food decisions that are satisfying and nourishing.
But what about intuitive exercise? Relying on the same foundational elements as intuitive eating, intuitive exercise is a new way to approach fitness. Just as intuitive eating emphasizes following your hunger and satisfaction cues vs rigid diet rules, intuitive exercise puts self-care and enjoyment at the center of fitness goals in lieu of self-control and obligation. It also puts an end to the common “no pain, no gain” mindset, and it may be the antidote to the short-lived fitness frenzy that descends upon clients this time of year.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. Yet, only half of adults are meeting this recommendation.1 Counseling clients to adopt an intuitive mindset around their fitness goals can help them not only derive more enjoyment from exercise but also discover a routine they can stick with long term.
What Is Intuitive Exercise?
Also known as active embodiment or mindful exercise, researchers define the practice as “awareness of the senses while moving and attending to one’s bodily cues for when to start and stop exercise, rather than feeling compelled to adhere to a rigid program.”2 In other words, intuitive exercise shifts the focus away from common external factors like the number of calories burned, body shape, and what’s trending on social media. The backbone of intuitive exercise is based on internal factors, namely how exercise makes you feel—energized, destressed, or happy. That’s right; intuitive exercise wants you to enjoy moving your body. Enjoyment looks different for everyone, which is the beauty of following one’s intuition instead of blindly jumping on the latest fitness bandwagon. Some clients may enjoy traditional forms of movement, such as running or lifting weights, while others may need to step off the beaten path to find out what’s enjoyable for them. Intuitive exercise can include activities such as rollerblading, dancing, and playing Frisbee with one’s dog.
The internal factors that focus on how exercise makes one feel are called intrinsic motivators. Someone who’s intrinsically motivated to exercise does so for the internal experiences of joy, pleasure, satisfaction, and other inherent benefits, such as improved sleep or relaxation.3 Intrinsic motivation is a key ingredient in building a lifelong habit of exercise. In fact, it may be the strongest predictor of sustaining physical activity.4 The opposite is extrinsic motivation, or deriving motivation to exercise from external factors, such as the number on the scale or seeking praise and avoiding judgment from others.3 Fitspiration images are another example of extrinsic motivators. These images are prevalent on social media and feature bodies that the culture defines as fit or “ideal.” In most cases, they’re presented as inspiration to exercise more, but one study showed that viewing fitspiration images didn’t increase exercise behavior and instead led to greater body dissatisfaction and negative mood in young women.5 Conversely, exercising for intrinsic reasons is associated with better body image and healthful eating and food behaviors.3 The benefits of intuitive exercise reach far beyond simply getting clients to exercise more—it may help them foster a more healthful relationship with themselves.
Intuitive Exercise vs Traditional Exercise
Taking an intuitive approach to exercise will require clients to think about exercise differently. Intuitive exercise views movement as a form of self-care vs a form of self-control, which is a subtle but powerful shift. Putting this into practice looks like taking a brisk, refreshing walk the morning after a night out with friends instead of running on a treadmill to burn off last night’s calories. Another difference: Intuitive exercise allows “how the body feels” to guide exercise choices instead of following a rigid regimen despite how the body feels. If a client is recovering from a cold, they may choose gentle yoga instead of a high-intensity workout. Intuitive exercise invites them to ask, “How can I use movement to care for my body?” instead of “How can I use movement to control my body?” This attention to what the body needs is an example of enhancing the mind-body connection or the link between thoughts, behaviors, and physical health. A mindful approach to exercise means becoming more attuned to the body by paying close attention to how the body feels before, during, and after exercise and responding accordingly.6
Intuitive exercise associates movement with pleasure and satisfaction instead of pain or punishment. Many believe exercise needs to be painful or arduous to be effective, but this can be counterproductive. If someone dislikes going to the gym, they may cringe every time the view their scheduled gym time on their calendar. But if this person loves to be outside in nature, swapping the gym for the great outdoors will invite pleasure into their exercise routine. Instead of dreading exercise, they’ll look forward to it. The same goes for exercise intensity. Clients don’t have to run a marathon to see benefits. Even 10-minute bouts of walking throughout the day can provide a short-term mood boost and long-term health benefits.
What sets intuitive exercise apart from traditional exercise is its de-emphasis on weight-loss and appearance. While many clients may spend the next few months of 2023 in sweaty fitness classes, intuitive exercise will offer the opportunity to trade weight-focused goals for other exercise-related benefits. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans cites improved mood, better sleep, reduced stress levels, improved skeletal health, reduced risk of chronic diseases, and lower rates of depression as some of the many benefits of regular physical activity.7 People who engage in regular exercise also tend to have better body image, even with little or no change in their physical appearance.8
How RDs Can Help Clients Practice Intuitive Exercise
Incorporate Intrinsic Motivators
Most clients come with a long list of extrinsic motivators—to lose weight or fit into an old pair of jeans. Validate these desires, then help them unearth some intrinsic motivators. For example, ask how did they like to move their body as a child. Often, these activities were driven by intrinsic motivation and can be fun to reintroduce in adulthood. A hula hoop, softball league, or trampoline could be their ticket to sustainable exercise. If they aren’t sure what they enjoy, they might need to experiment with new activities to find the right fit. Another way to foster intrinsic motivation is to connect their health goals to physical activity. If clients want to lower their blood pressure or improve sleep, discuss some fun activities that can help support their goals.
Expand the Definition of Exercise
Exercise doesn’t always mean going to the gym or running a 5K. Use the term “movement” instead of “exercise” to inform clients that any type of body movement counts as physical activity. Tell clients that movement can involve gardening, a dance party, or even housework. For clients who struggle to fit movement into their schedules, suggest they incorporate more activity into their daily lives such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away from the grocery store entrance, or staking hourly breaks from sitting at their desk.
Put Satisfaction at the Center
Intuitive exercise should feel good, so ask clients what positive feelings do they want to derive from exercise. Some examples include more energy, relaxation, or to have fun. If clients want to have fun, they can buy a pair of rollerblades or join a sand volleyball league. If a client wants to feel relaxed, a yoga class or kayaking may be a great fit.
Cultivate the Mind-Body Connection
A core part of intuitive exercise is following the body’s cues or connecting the mind and body through mindful awareness. A mindful approach to exercise may feel foreign to clients who are used to powering through workouts regardless of how their body feels. They can start by asking themselves “How am I feeling right now?” before they begin to exercise. They can make a mental note or keep an exercise journal and make adjustments to their choices of physical activity over time. Suggest clients adapt their routine in response to their body’s cues and check in with their body during and after exercise. Did the chosen exercise evoke their desired feelings? If not, help them to make different choices. Swapping the treadmill for a park trail or trading a circuit workout for a walk with a friend might serve their body and mind better. After all, intuitive exercise is about cultivating habits that not only feel good but are flexible and enjoyable enough to last a lifetime.
— Kayli Anderson, MS, RDN, DipACLM, ACSM-EP, is a certified intuitive eating counselor in Salida, Colorado, and founder of plantbasedmavens.com, a hub for evidence-based women’s health information.
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3. Panão I, Carraça EV. Effects of exercise motivations on body image and eating habits/behaviours: a systematic review. Nutr Diet. 2020;77(1):41-59.
4. Cox AE, Ullrich-French S, Tylka TL, McMahon AK. The roles of self-compassion, body surveillance, and body appreciation in predicting intrinsic motivation for physical activity: cross-sectional associations, and prospective changes within a yoga context. Body Image. 2019;29:110-117.
5. Prichard I, Kavanagh E, Mulgrew KE, Lim MS, Tiggemann M. The effect of Instagram #fitspiration images on young women’s mood, body image, and exercise behaviour. Body Image. 2020;33:1-6.
6. Calogero R, Pedrotty K. Daily practices for mindful exercise. In: Low-Cost Approaches to Promote Physical and Mental Health. New York, NY: Springer; 2007:141-160.
7. US Department of Agriculture; US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov. Published December 2020.
8. Greenleaf C. Body image and physical activity. Association for Applied Sport Psychology website. https://appliedsportpsych.org/resources/health-fitness-resources/body-image-and-physical-activity/