It’s strange that we live in a culture where trusting the vessel we live in is more difficult than trusting the advice of a stranger on the internet.
Such is the effect of a few hundred years of patriarchy and capitalism where the unrelenting vigor of the messages telling women their bodies are unacceptable has all but severed the connection to our own instincts and intuition. This is especially true with regard to food and movement where media and marketing for the industry is a mine field of shame and disparagement designed to lead us further away from ourselves and our power.
All is not lost, however. Blessedly, the river of knowing and wisdom remains full and flowing within all of us and reclaiming that wisdom is as simple as being willing to crouch at the edge of the embankment, cup the water in our hands and take a drink.
I remember very clearly the time period when I first started playing with the idea of exercising intuitively. Although I didn’t exactly know that was what I was doing at the time, I had come to a significant turning point in my relationship with food, exercise and my body. After over 20 years of compulsive behaviors, I had finally hit a wall of exhaustion. The misery that had been my constant companion whether I was fit or unfit, lean or fat had suffocated the vitality of my life for too long and I was desperate to try something, anything different. Boldly, I realize now, I took a giant step away from food restriction of any kind (diets, cleanses, detoxes, lifestyle changes, etc) and let go of all manner of workout programs and scheduling. No more gym or fitness class memberships, no need to do some form of exercise every day and no calendar tracking of workouts or sign ups to fitness challenges. I threw every bit of structure and all my carefully curated workout and food rules out the window pretty much in one fell swoop. I was ready instead to attempt listening to my body.
It was terrifying. I was thrust right up against my 20 plus years of body-hatred conditioning what felt like hundreds of times a day and the urge to slide back into my comfort zone of restriction and exercise obsession pulled at me constantly. The desire to try just one more program (because maybe it would be different this time…) felt like a powerful ocean wave whispering promises to take me to a new shore. Yet I resisted. Somewhere deep inside, my soul seemed to understand that this was just another rip curl of lies looking to rough me up and pull me under once again. Each time I struggled, I would remind myself of the painful relationship I had been in with my body for so long. I would come back to the fact that what I had been doing since I was 17 to try and change my body had never ever “worked” in the long term. On the toughest days, I assured myself that this was just an experiment to get a glimpse of what it looked like on the other side and that I could always go back if things here ended up being worse.
Thankfully, this was not the case. As my experiment continued, I began to have the tiniest glimpses of a life and mind not dominated by thoughts about my body or when and where my next workout fix would be. The brief moments of peace eventually started to string together as though brick by brick there was a new path unfolding for me to walk along and after a year or so, I finally began experiencing more days of relief in the form of body neutrality than ones of anguish and body hatred. I was still moving my body during this time but far far less than I ever had in the past and strangely, people didn’t respond to me any differently. It was as if they didn’t really care whether I was fit or not.
I won't pretend that this wasn't a long and emotionally difficult journey. If the decision to heal childhood traumas and free oneself from oppressive and damaging culturally supported behaviors were as easy as signing up for a spin class challenge, we would all be doing it. And just because you make it to the other side, doesn’t mean the siren song calls to return simply stop. As insulated as you try and make yourself, the barrage of images telling you that you are not doing enough to make yourself "healthy", "well", "fit" or "lean" will continue, and chances are the majority of people around you at the office, in your family and in your circle of friends will go on participating in the distortion of diet and exercise culture. Unfortunately it will likely continue to be the norm for a while. Trusting your body is a radical act. Choosing to no longer use exercise as a tool of punishment or control is a radical act. Understanding that your body doesn't need changing is a radical act.
This path requires you to be a radical.
I can’t tell you exactly how exercising intuitively may look for you for our body stories are all unique. What I do want to offer here however are some concepts that continue to work for me in my own practice; ideas you can play around with if you feel pulled in this direction. I also want to simply let you know you that exercising this way is possible. That this is exactly where I’ve been for the last 6 years, moving regularly and pleasurably according to the intelligence of my body. And feeling a deep sense of peace with and appreciation for movement itself.
Intuitive exercise practices are born through body trust, something we are taught early on as consumers and especially as women, to dismiss. Because of this, one of the first steps in finding more ease with exercise is connecting to your body and re-aquainting yourself with that lost treasure.
Repeat after me:
My body knows what it needs.
My body’s desires can be trusted.
My body finds joy in movement as well as in rest.
My body finds nourishment in rest as well as in movement.
Use these mantras or find others that invite you into your own wisdom. Repeat them regularly, journal about them or put them in spaces where you’ll see them daily. Remind yourself that your body signals you when it needs things like water, food or sleep and begin to understand that movement is no different. Start believing that your body actually wants to move, that it doesn’t need to be pushed and prodded with weapons of self hatred to do so.
Below are some practices I’ve found to be helpful on my own path. This list is by no means exhaustive and not all of these will necessarily feel right for you. Play with the ideas that feel good and leave the rest.
1. Shelter yourself from fitness culture as much as you are able: Yes, it’s impossible to escape the toxic messaging altogether but being intentional about your engagement with it is integral, especially in the beginning stages of recovery. For me this meant taking time away from the gym and group fitness classes as I found it difficult to foster this new connection and trust in my body while remaining in the belly of the beast, so to speak. I was able to go back to these spaces later, once my foundation of body liberation was stronger but at first it felt like the right call for me to be moving my body exclusively either at home or outside. I realize this may feel like too large a step for some of you and it may not even be the most appropriate step for everyone, especially if these have been and continue to be spaces that feel comfortable and familiar. If this is the case, then another great starting point can be simply to notice conversations you have with others about exercise and bodies. How often does body shape and exercise come up in conversation with friends, family and colleagues? How much of that talk is typically negative, focused on “getting back on the exercise wagon” or someone sharing that they just started a new fitness and/or weight loss program? What happens when you choose not to feed into those conversations? Or try having them in a different way? How does it feel to start telling a new story about your body, to yourself and to others?
2. Find mentors, teachers and community that support this new way of interacting with movement and your body: Happily, there are so many wonderful resources available within the Body acceptance/liberation, Intuitive Eating and Intuitive Exercise communities. Connecting with these people and others who are also on this journey is something I continue to find immeasurably helpful especially when the pressures of diet and fitness culture are doing their best to wear me down. Here are a few of my favorite online people and spaces, ones that help remind me of my truth and let me know I’m not alone: Rachel Cole, The Food Psych Podcast (and FB group), Jes Baker, Melissa Toler, Curvy Yoga.
3. Try not to buy into the belief that exercise is complicated: One of the things I realized in stepping away from traditional exercise constructs was that working out, for many people, has become an unnecessarily complicated endeavor. From digital gadgets to be purchased and constantly monitored to specific clothing and footwear, to fancy equipment and elite, expensive and often cult-like workout spaces, there seems to be this underlying message that exercise has rules or at the very least a set of ideal parameters. This happens to be one of the main reasons why I love the concept of movement so much more than “exercise” or “working out”. Movement is really really simple. It’s anything where your body is in motion. Walking, gardening, having sex, dancing, stretching, swimming, skipping. This re-simplification feels important. Because every time we believe we need to wear, purchase or belong to something in order to properly “exercise” we just end up erecting yet another false barrier to finding our own true and unique version of health and happiness.
4. Lean into the discomfort when you can. Ask for support when needed: If you are moving away from heavily structured exercise and/or over-exercise or shifting toward a practice of more movement in your life, chances are you are going to feel uncomfortable at times. I know I certainly did. See if you can stay with that feeling and uncover what it’s about. Is there fear? If so, what are you afraid of? Name it. Bring it into the light. I’m afraid I’m going to fail again. I’m afraid I’m going to be lazy. I’m afraid I’m going to gain weight. I’m afraid I’m going to lose weight. I’m afraid of being in my body. I’m afraid of not being loved and accepted. Honor whatever discomfort shows up, let yourself feel it, say how you’re feeling out loud to yourself or a friend or a therapist. Chances are it will begin to shift once it’s given some space to exist. This is probably the hardest work you will do in this process.
*Note: The process of moving into inhabiting our bodies more fully can often be blocked or made difficult due to past abuse or trauma. It’s a good idea to work with a trauma informed therapist or practitioner along the way if this work feels like it may be compromising your feeling of safety in your body or triggering emotional pain that requires professional support.
5. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: You’re trying on a new way of being and attempting to distance yourself from some pretty heavily ingrained patterns. You’ve also likely experienced some form of body related shaming or trauma in your life as most of us have. Because of these things, this healing journey requires heaping doses of self compassion. I held compassion for myself as a child attempting to navigate difficult circumstances first with food and later on with exercise and for myself as a woman who had been imprisoned for years by an ideal body image that was ridiculous and unattainable. I also continue to have compassion for myself as a human being trying to exist on a planet ripe with the contrasts of deep beauty and equally deep suffering. Compassion was the thing that helped me stay the course and create a new relationship with myself and also subsequently with those around me.
6. Don’t be afraid to try new things: It’s easy to get limited by the narrow scope of exercise that is marketed to us. Use this time to expand your view and experiment with any and all kinds of movement that pop into your head. Notice when your body feels most alive and if and when the mind no longer find’s itself counting calories burned or noting steps taken. During what kinds of movement do you actually find yourself more fully IN YOUR BODY? What kinds of movement could you do for hours and feel lost in it? Explore fully the sensation of pleasure as it relates to movement for yourself. And do your best to release ideas that limit exercise to activities that feel like “shoulds”.
7. Understand that it’s ok if you’re moving less (and also if you’re moving more!): It took me a bit of time to get to the point where I was able fully access my body’s rhythms with regard to movement. For the first several months I kept running into what seemed liked constant fatigue and/or disinterest with regard to exercise. Here was one of my greatest fears; that this process would lead me to a life a laziness, apathy and ill health. This is not what happened. It turned out that after so many years of over-exercising, my body needed some time to re-set and recover. Though it created panic at times, holding myself through that period of time where it seemed like I would rarely ever exercise again allowed me to move into a natural balance of rest and movement that I’ve now easily maintained for years. Continue trusting your body and movement will find you again, I promise.
8. Before deciding whether or not you’re going to move your body take 5 minutes to be still and ask some of the following questions: How do I feel today? Am I fatigued, energized or somewhere in between? Does anything in my body feel tense or painful? What are the emotions I am feeling in this moment? Am I aware of any thoughts coming up about what I “should” be doing with regard to movement and my body? If so, what are those thoughts? Are they true? What type of movement, if any, might feel really good? If I’m not craving movement itself so much, is there something else I would really love to do?
I often use something I call the imagination tool when I’m having trouble figuring out whether or not I want to move my body and/or what kind of movement my body might be desiring. It’s a simple exercise in which I allow my mind to imagine doing different activities and then I gauge my body’s response to each activity. Typically when I do this, one activity will come out as a clear winner with my body. It shows up as a feeling of lightness, an opening through my chest and shoulders or a small spark throughout my body. When one or more of these sensations show up, I know I’ve found what my body is asking for.
Unless I am booked in for a session at my Pilates studio, I typically hold my exercise plans each day VERY VERY loosely. This means that I tend to have a general idea upon waking as to whether or not I plan to enjoy some form of exercise or relax into a rest day but for the most part I let my body’s intuition be the guide and I'm always open to changing direction based on that. The ultimate question I hold in my mind when it comes to exercise is, “What would feel good today?”
This is a dramatic shift from the days of my exercise disorder when I was chained to a very specific and cumbersome workout schedule, one that had little to do with health and nothing at all to do with what gave me pleasure. The focus back then was three fold; to tame and alter my body, to punish myself for overeating and to exercise enough to numb my emotional pain.
My current approach to exercise is a version of what many in the eating and exercise disorder recovery arena are calling Intuitive Exercise. As an ally and partner to the growing community of Intuitive Eating (which I heartily endorse), Intuitive Exercise offers a way of moving my body that releases strict rules about if, when, where, how and for how long I exercise, in favour of a system that puts my own individual body’s needs and desires at the centre of the process. Basically it’s a way of bringing my body back into connection with movement as opposed to handing it over to people and programs that don't have access to my own internal wisdom. This does not necessarily mean that you must toss aside gym memberships, personal trainers or workout schedules (although it may be beneficial to separate from them for a time depending on your current relationship to exercise), it simply means that you begin to seek out joy inducing movement practices and strive to remain in true connection with your body throughout the process.
For any of you who have been in the body shaping and/or weight loss game for a while, you likely have figured out that most fitness programs typically do not tend to create joyful relationships with movement. At least they never did for me. What they did end up creating however was a proverbial exercise band wagon that I would jump on all fired up on the structure and the workout tracking only to find out several weeks or months down the road that my body and soul simply could not sustain the enthusiasm my mind had experienced upon signing up. I’m going to guess that this scenario may sound familiar to some of you. I believe much of this so-called “loss of motivation” comes from the fact that most exercise programs actually ignore the body altogether. Sounds strange, dosesn't it? But here’s the thing; instead of listening to the body’s needs and desires and seeking out positive feeling states with regard to movement, exercise plans, programs and challenges tend to be created and committed to almost exclusively with the mind. So although we're led to believe that exercise is prescribed according to body-centric principles (exercise science and current concepts of health, as skewed as they may be), the all important voice of the body itself is actually no where to be found. The practice of Intuitive Exercise is all about learning to listen for and trust that voice.
So here's what we're told; A certain amount of cardiovascular exercise is good for our hearts and lungs. Some form of resistance training helps increase lean muscle mass and bone density. We also know that regular sessions of movement have the ability to benefit mental health. This information is not wrong, BUT it’s also not helpful in and of itself. If it was, far fewer of us would be at such odds with our bodies around movement. The data and science alone just ignore so much. They ignore the importance of ancestral and sacred ritual that was often the purpose of movement. They ignore the mind, body, spirit connection. They ignore the very complicated relationship most humans have with their bodies due in large part to a lifetime of toxic cultural messaging and media. And they also ignore the fact that a very large segment of the population do not have the financial ability and/or privilege that allows them access to the "fitness" and "wellness" that's being marketed to us. That is a really big problem. In fact the data and science are most often used as both a tool of shame and a tool of exclusion, one that many industry and health professionals mistakenly believe to be motivational. All of this makes me angry and I believe we can do better.
Humans tend to do repeatedly what feels good on some level. So why don't we aim to invoke feelings of pleasure during movement instead of plying people with statistics and bullshit body shaming. Let's help people uncover rewards that stretch beyond the physical appearance of their bodies! Let's up level our consciousness around movement! Trust me, tearing down tired old, oppressive constructs can be super fun!
What we need more of now are motivational movement “WHYs” that we can truly get excited about. Here are a few of mine;
My practice no longer has anything to do with why or how I “should” be exercising. Intuitive Exercise, for me, paints a picture that is so much richer and more colorful than anything I could have experienced when I was using movement solely to try and control and punish my body. It's given me freedom I didn't know I had been seeking.
“EARN YOUR BODY”
“EXERCISE UNTIL YOUR BODY BEHAVES”
“NO SHORTCUTS, WORK FOR IT”
This is fitness culture in a nutshell.
It stinks and I'm over it.
Maybe, just maybe, you might be over it too.
And if you are you can follow me to Part Two of Intuitive Exercise: The Art of Listening Before Moving where I'll be discussing specific tools to help you start creating and nourishing your own Intuitive Exercise practice.
Lori Race is a healer, wellness clinic owner and amateur writer with a passionate message to share from her personal trainer past.