How I Went From Punitive Exercise to Intuitive Movement
Like me, so many people with disordered relationships with food and their body view exercise as a tool for weight loss. Strenuous, corrective, punitive exercise had been my most potent weapon in the fight against my body, a penalty for my indulgent food choices, and my last gasp at the thin ideal. I hated it. But the public-facing Kimberly would have identified as an athlete, someone who loved to exercise, someone who was unwaveringly motivated, aggressively pushing the limits of herself physically and mentally, doing half marathons, sprint triathlons, and other endurance challenges. Intuitive Exercise was a term I had never heard of.
But what was my truth? I had no idea. This lifelong quest to perfect my external appearance completely detached me from who I was on the inside. When I started down the path of eating intuitively and working with Wellness Lately, I realized I had no idea how I felt about movement anymore. (It was just like my relationship with food. I didn’t know what I liked eating or when I was hungry.) It had been so long since I asked myself, what kind of movement would feel good? Am I enjoying myself? Do I want to be doing this? Am I an athlete? Punitive exercise had become my permission slip to simply exist. Almost like, I knew my body wasn’t right, but the fact I was exercising so much told the world, “I hear you tell me my body is wrong and I agree, but I’m fighting against that, so give me credit and tell me I’m okay.” Just as I felt like I couldn’t trust myself to ask what I wanted to eat, I couldn’t even entertain the thought of asking myself if I wanted to exercise or not. It didn’t feel like it was my choice.
And I know I am not alone. The last woman that signed up for our coaching program asked me as we wrapped up a call, “Wait, wait, one question, can I still exercise if I am becoming an Intuitive Eater?” This post is our answer to her and all the other women like her starting down this path to become an Intuitive Eater and wondering where and how exercise fits in?
We will define exactly what intuitive movement is. We will challenge the concept that exercise must change your body to be worthwhile and lay out all the actual benefits of intuitive movement practice. If, like me, you can’t remember the last time you looked forward to exercising, we will detail exactly how to get started with an intuitive movement practice. We hope to help you reestablish your body’s connection and glean all the built-in rewards exercise delivers as one of the most essential self-care tools we possess.
What is Intuitive Movement?
Not only can we exercise as part of an Intuitive Eating lifestyle, but exercise, or intuitive movement, as author Evelyn Tribole recently coined it, exists as the 9th Principle of Intuitive Eating and is a critical piece in achieving true wellness. Intuitive movement is the practice of tuning back into our bodies and all of the signals it is sending us to determine what kind of exercise would feel good, how long, how hard, and how often. Intuitive movement is also about staying present inside your body while exercising, experiencing how the movement feels to you, and how it leaves you feeling afterward. It’s personal and different for every individual.
When considering what to do, Dr. Marina Harris, a former Division I athlete, who has her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, reminds us it is essential to “reconceptualize hard, punitive exercise into more gentle movement.” Examples could include stretching, taking the dog for a walk, or even dance. Intuitive movement is highly personalized, and what will feel good to one person may feel like torture to another.
What Are The Benefits of Intuitive Movement?
The very act of focusing on how you feel during and after exercise should help you unearth all the positive mental and physical benefits of intuitive movement. Once you strip away all of diet culture’s ways of measuring your performance externally (pounds lost, minutes completed, how your appearance measures up to those Beach Body fitness trainers), the benefits of exercise are very evident almost immediately. We start to want to exercise. Counter to what most think will happen when they drop rigid plans and strict expectations of every workout, Intuitive Eaters often find themselves exercising more consistently than ever. Old struggles of finding motivation tend to fall away when you effectively dial into how intuitive movement makes you feel and changes how you show up in your day.
Unlike punitive exercise, where you push your body with no regard to its cues, intuitive movement should give you energy, not leave you feeling depleted. Consistent, moderate exercise has been linked to helping individuals fall asleep quicker and wake up more rested. The intuitive movement also helps reduce anxiety, improve digestion, and a whole host of other benefits. Most importantly, body image is positively impacted. We can begin to view our bodies as an instrument, not just an ornament, as Dr. Lindsay Kite and Dr. Lexie Kite discuss in their book, More Than a Body. We begin to practice respecting our body’s function instead of its appearance, which can help dispel the negative self-talk that so quickly spews from our mouths on the reg.
How to Get Started with an Intuitive Movement Practice
The same week I decided to stop dieting, I got a cancerous mole removed from the middle of my back, right between my shoulder blades. My doctor told me I could not exercise at all for at least a month, or I would risk popping the stitches. Looking back, I see that this was a blessing. For so long, I had treated exercise as a chore, a dieting tool I had no choice whether or not to do. I needed some separation to gain perspective and look at the true intention behind why I was exercising every day. What did I want to do? What type of movement felt good for me? After this brief hiatus and a lot of coaching from the gals at Wellness Lately, I felt excited to start exercising again and missed its place in my life.
We see this often in our coaching program (for which I’m now on the coaching team!). Most women come to us having had long relationships with exercise that often mirrors their disordered relationship to food. They may have been forced to exercise by loved ones as children, pushed too hard by trainers, or like me, used exercise merely as a weight-loss tool that never consistently delivered results of external change. Becoming so detached from their bodies, they hadn’t been able to enjoy or feel satisfied from exercise in years. Instead, it was solely a tool to fix or externally change their bodies instead of one that helped them actually be in their bodies and get in touch with their intuitive guidance.
Evelyn Tribole says, “When you move in a way that brings joy or aliveness, you are truly nourishing body, mind, and spirit.” This intuitive movement practice aims to bring us back to a place where exercise is all benefits, all rewards. An intuitive movement practice should be individualized, about connecting with ourselves, and an almost spiritual part of our day that leaves us empowered. I personally don’t know of any other way to achieve all these positive mental and physical outcomes in a 30-minute chunk of my day.
Start When You Are Ready:
Take some time. You may not be ready to start exercising again right away. Remember these are the first days of the rest of your life. You don’t need all the answers on day one. Not to be totally corny and woo woo, but get quiet and wait for that intuitive hit that tells you what you feel like doing. Simply ask yourself, “If I am listening to my body, what do I actually need right now? What kind of movement would feel good?”
Try Some Things and Collect the Data:
Just like with food, strap on that anthropologist hat and collect the data. Try something and see how it feels. As Dr. Harris mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be a traditional exercise as you once imagined it. It could be a walk in the woods, gentle stretching, or a night out dancing with friends (in non-COVID times!). Did a walk outside with your kids feel good, but you would have preferred some alone time and something more vigorous? Did old BeachBody workout give you flashbacks of days where workouts went as long as needed to negate the indulgences you ate that day? Remember, it’s all just data. Just note it, and move on.
Make a Loose Plan if it’s Helpful, But Let it be Fluid:
I used to have a rigid plan of specifically which workouts I would do each day. I now allow that plan to exist as a loose suggestion, much like my menu board in my kitchen. I’ve personally found the lack of any plan adds unneeded stress to my already abounding daily life. Simply allowing rest days where I actually need them has made it easier for me to exercise more often. If I am tired, I rest, I don’t have to shoulder the guilt and shame that I used to from “skipping” a day—a significant change.
Intuitive Movement: Feel the Difference, so What Is This Really About?
I can’t tell you how many times I quit an exercise routine because the reflection in the gym mirror didn’t fit the standard of looks I thought I should be achieving. Or how many times, after a week of great workouts and experiencing all the mental and physical benefits, I stepped on a scale to realize yet again the scale didn’t budge, and I immediately thought the activity wasn’t worthwhile. Unlike punitive exercise, in which goals are solely focused on changing how we look, intuitive movement is really about being inside your body as you move, so you can experience how it feels to be active.
When you stay inside your body and focus on the actual movement, instead of defining the exercise as to how successful it is at changing how you appear externally, you can “focus on feeling great, not just looking great.” Ever wonder why athletes typically seem to love their sports? Why are they not checking their MyFitnessPal app to see how many calories they burned during a game? I’d argue it’s because they are in their bodies, not in their heads. They are active, not hovering above themselves, judging and measuring their performance against arbitrary external measures that don’t begin to define their health.
During our podcast interview with Dr. Lindsay Kite, co-Author of More Than a Body, Dr. Kite talks about this concept of self-objectification, being outside our bodies, judging how we look as if we were an object, not a human being with feelings. She relates it to exercise, saying, “If you are evaluating and judging your health and fitness by what you look like, you are depersonalizing it, taking it from something you live in and experience every day to something that can be judged from outside you by anyone else. That should be sad for people, to think we are limiting this big wonderful phenomenon that is our health and wellness, that we have whittled it down to a focus on simply weight and appearance.”
Lindsay is so right. It is sad. Our ability to be active, to have health is a fleeting gift. We will not always be able to get up from our beds and walk to our bathroom, let alone sprint along the beach, going from entirely breathless to completely recovered in mere seconds. Since I have stopped my punitive exercise program and replaced it with this intuitive movement practice, it’s as if I’ve been reintroduced to myself. I’ve been reconnected to that little girl that got goosebumps from swimming fast across the lake, from cutting through the ice of a steep hill on her skis, pushing her body, and trusting it to respond. It’s sad to think I was just finding out I was an athlete when I learned this magnificent gift of my body was somehow wrong.
I didn’t anticipate the healing I achieved through the Wellness Lately coaching program. At the jump, I wouldn’t even have said I had a problem with punitive exercise. Our looks-obsessed culture has normalized pain and obsession. It’s a hidden pleasure from us in ways that are hard to see when we’re knee-deep in it every day. The connection to my body I achieve through intuitive movement has increased my confidence in ways I’d never imagined. I now stand in awe of how my body serves me in action and look back to all the times, where I didn’t even treat my body with respect, and she still managed to pull through. My three babies’ birth, the long hours at work with too little food and too much exercise, all the athletic achievements. I realize the pleasure and satisfaction from the movement was yet another thing diet culture had stolen from me, and it is with pride and pain that I share this all publicly now, in hopes to help someone else.
Much like Intuitive Eating, intuitive movement is a relearning of sorts. If gratefulness and awe are the last things you feel in the middle of a workout, we’d love to talk you through to the other side. If you can relate and feel like you can’t remember the last time you looked forward to a workout, schedule some time on our calendar to discuss your specific struggle. We will lay out the mindset shifts necessary to start living a life you are excited about, full of all the little nuggets of joy and pleasure where you now experience dread and boredom. You can heal your relationship with food, your body, and exercise. And there is so much joy and empowerment to be found when you do.