Exercise, more generally thought of as movement, is often encouraged and praised in our society due to the health benefits that can be associated with it. Movement can be associated with benefits such as increased strength and bone density, improved sleep quality, improved concentration, and mood regulation. Our society's encouragement of exercise can result in a “halo effect" around it, which can make it hard to notice or understand ways in which exercise might be harmful. These harmful outcomes may come about when exercising at excessive frequencies or intensities or using exercise to control the body through attempts to burn calories or change how one’s body looks.
So, on an individual level, how do we know if and how movement is impacting our physical, mental, and emotional well-being? One place to start can be shifting away from external messaging about what exercise “should” look like and shifting toward your own preferences and internal cues. Enter, a radical way of understanding and healing our relationship with exercise – intuitive movement. Let’s dive into what intuitive movement is and unpack some related questions.
Q: What is intuitive movement?
Intuitive movement can be thought of in relation to intuitive eating. In fact, movement is included as one of the ten principles within the intuitive eating framework. Together, these intuitive frameworks emphasize listening to, honoring, and respecting the body. These frameworks also reject external standards set forth by diet and fitness culture, which are rooted in anti-fat bias and profit off the idea that our bodies cannot be trusted or are in need of fixing.
We conceptualize intuitive movement as movement that centers flexibility, enjoyment, and connection to the body and its needs. Flexibility may look like adjusting your engagement in movement depending on how you are feeling, your schedule, the weather, or other factors. Joyful movement can leave you feeling energized, fulfilled, and empowered. Connection involves being attuned to your thoughts, mood, and body cues before, during, and after movement.
Q: How can I reflect on my relationship with movement?
It can be helpful to reflect on how you have engaged in movement throughout your life when trying to understand more about the present. How different is your current engagement with movement compared to when you were younger? When we're young, we may run around tirelessly during recess, play team sports, jump on the bed, and just generally engage in movement in a very unstructured way with fairly little thought or planning. Over time, this tends to shift because the ways we are socialized can influence how we feel about or engage in exercise. As a thought experiment, consider reflecting on the following questions:
What are my intentions when I engage in movement?
Do I find it challenging to practice flexibility with movement if I am sick, dealing with an injury, or if my schedule doesn’t allow time for it?
Do I make choices about exercise based on how I believe it may change my body, weight, or appearance?
Do I have standards around how exercise “counts” depending on the type, duration, or intensity of movement?
Do I make associations between exercise and food, such as feeling the need to move to “justify” or “earn” food?
Do I find that my patterns with exercise impact my relationships with friends or family?
Do I engage in varied or new types of movement?
What do I enjoy about the types of exercise that I incorporate into my life?
Q: How can I check in with my body before, during, and after movement?
Consider what your intentions are before starting any movement. What type of movement is your body wanting, if any? Would you like to spend time outside, have social connections involving movement, or relieve tension in your body? Are your intentions coming from a place that takes care of your body or seeks to control it in some way?
One way to connect with your body’s physical cues prior to movement can include a body scan, which involves tuning into your body and noticing how it feels from head to toe in that moment. A body scan can help identify where you may feel energy or tension, which can help inform what type of movement your body is wanting at a certain time.
During movement, how is your body communicating with you? Some examples of how your body might be communicating with you include: changes in energy levels, pain or cramping, your breathing rate, changes in tension, or hunger and thirst. Can you practice flexibility and adjust your intensity, speed, or effort in the moment to match your body’s needs? Do you have a sense of how your body lets you know it does not want to move anymore?
After movement, consider how you can support your body in recovering. How do you feel physically, mentally, or emotionally after completing certain forms of movement? The more you tune into your cues after movement, the more patterns you may be able to draw to inform how you engage in movement in the future.
Q: How can I engage in movement from an intuitive place while having movement-related goals?
Holding the concept of intuitive movement can feel challenging if you have movement or performance-related goals. You may ask yourself, can I still push myself and strive to meet my goals while honoring my body? It can be hard to find a space where these things can coexist. For example, those engaging in individual or team sports may have external factors that impact how they move their body, such as practice schedules, games, and tournaments.
While it may feel challenging to engage in intuitive movement while working on performance-related goals, it is possible! A strong foundation of being able to tune in and connect to one’s body during movement is supportive for performance-related goals. For example, being able to notice and respond to your body’s cues may support you with injury prevention because you will be more in touch with your body’s limits. Or, if you’re following some type of training plan for an upcoming race or event, you’ll have the ability to be flexible and adapt your training based on how you’re feeling at any given time. Perhaps you want to move a training session you had planned to a different day of the week when you have more energy, or maybe you want to take things at a slower pace than originally planned. Being responsive to your body’s needs by prioritizing internal cues when able can help foster a supportive and sustainable relationship with movement and sport.
Q: What if movement does not feel accessible to me?
Access, safety, and inclusivity are important considerations when conceptualizing intuitive movement. Access to movement varies among people and across the lifespan. Disabilities, chronic pain, illness, or injury, can impact one’s ability to access certain forms of movement or connect to body cues. As we age, our sense of safety and enjoyment in certain activities may shift. Regarding inclusivity, biases are pervasive in fitness and community spaces and this can impact safety for people of marginalized identities, including but not limited to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, people with disabilities, people in larger bodies, and people who are queer. One’s ability to move intuitively can be much more challenging in a space that does not feel welcoming. Individualized support can be helpful for identifying and working through barriers to movement in ways that honor and center one's values, goals, and needs.
Q: If I am feeling stuck in my relationship with movement, where do I go from here?
Unpacking and shifting relationships with movement looks different for everyone since we all have different preferences, abilities, goals, and values. Essential to this process is the centering of curiosity and compassion. We have provided prompts throughout this post to serve as starting points for reflecting and generating curiosity. Compassion includes offering yourself kindness and humility, and in relation to movement, knowing that it’s ok to rest and modify as needed. Our relationships with movement have been conditioned and shaped through a variety of factors over the course of our entire lives. Know that healing your relationship with movement is an ongoing process, and one that will change over time.
If you find that you would benefit from individualized support as you engage in healing around movement, reach out to us at Woven Nutrition to schedule an appointment. We’re here to support you!
Additional resources on the topic on intuitive movement can be found on our website.