Intuitive eating—the idea that you eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and make food decisions based on what your body needs at the time—is old hat by now. But despite making total sense when it comes to our plates, the philosophy behind it is equally appealing when applied to our workout plans. Meaning that: It's time to get on board with intuitive exercise.
After all, why do we force ourselves to go to HIIT class on days when we'd much rather be doing yoga. And, at the opposite end of the spectrum, why do we often lay in bed for those 15 extra minutes despite knowing that we'll miss our sweat sesh, which feels so good once it's in the bag. Kick those fraught exercise decisions to the curb and open your mind to the idea of intuitive exercising.
“Intuitive exercise is what I like to call joyful movement,” explains personal trainer Jen Elliott. “It means moving in a way that supports the body, and actually enjoying what you’re doing for your body.” Here, we reached out to the experts to figure out exactly what intuitive exercising is, how to incorporate it into your life, and the amazing benefits that await you when you finally master it.
What is intuitive exercise?
Intuitive exercising means listening to your body and understanding what it needs that day. “I think we get caught up in these ‘rules’ of this much cardio, this much strength per week,” explains holistic health counselor Natasha Uspensky. “But what works well for your best friend, might not work best for you.”
Say your BFF is HIIT queen and gets energized with every burpee, but the same class (and same moves) leave you feeling wiped. Well, that's a sign your body isn't happy with the amount of HIIT you're incorporating and it might be smart to listen to how you're feeling either by taking a couple of days off or simply by switching it up with yoga, Pilates, or a brisk walk.
“You really need to listen to your body and respect what it needs,” elaborates Uspensky. “You may only want to do Pilates three times a week, and that’s fine. I’ve found with my clients, the ones who exercise intuitively are the ones who have the most success with everything in their lives—from better energy and sleep to picking healthier foods.”
But what if your intuition is telling you to park it on the couch without moving an inch? Those are instincts that you have to learn to separate out for the greater good of your fitness routine. The truth is, rest days are vital, but knowing that movement (of any kind really) between 3 to 5 days a week is necessary, you can set benchmarks that make your workout easier to carry through. “I used to struggle with taking rest days myself,” says Elliott. “It took undergoing a lot of stress for me to realize it was time for a change. But ultimately, our bodies are meant to move, and we need to find a balance.”
And honestly, listening to your body when it comes to exercising can help with so many other factors. “Trusting your body can feel scary, but when you do, the results are really empowering,” says Uspensky. “You realize that you don’t need to look to other people for the answers, because you have them all yourself.”
How can you develop intuition with exercise?
Whether you struggle with taking days off or getting yourself to the gym, Uspensky promises that there are several ways you can incorporate mindful exercise into your life. “For my clients who hate exercise, I ask them to imagine what they loved to do as kids,” she says. “Chances are, when you were a kid, you didn’t care for rules, and you just did what you enjoyed doing.” Tap into that—maybe you liked riding a bike as a child, so try a spin class. Maybe you loved dancing, so try some dance cardio instead. It’ll involve a ton of trial and error, but ultimately, Uspensky says that you’ll realize which exercises make you happy, and which ones you dread doing. Then, you can stay away from the latter.
If you struggle with going to the gym too much, Elliott says to watch out for signs that your workout routine isn’t working for you. “For instance, are you always tired or rundown? If you’re always sore or exhausted, your exercise routine might be to blame,” she says. But you’ll only truly understand what your body’s trying to tell you if you pay attention.
Luckily, you can incorporate a few mindfulness practices into your daily life that will hone your intuition in a way that’ll make it easier for you to really be in touch with your body. “Getting into nature and meditation are two things I recommend to all my clients, no matter what,” says Uspensky. “Even just a couple of minutes per day of deep breathing can bring you so in touch with your body.” She also recommends setting an intention before each practice, which will make you focus on the answers to the questions you seek.
“Honestly, once you incorporate this mindfulness practice into your everyday life, you’ll get so many benefits,” stresses Uspensky. “It’s so nice to find joy in your wellness routine, without anybody else’s expectations.”
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