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Joyful Movement - Feel the Difference

A key part of your intuitive eating journey is healing your relationship with your body, and your relationship with movement and exercise can’t be overlooked! This is part 9 of the ten principles of intuitive eating - a process in which we work to heal our relationship with food and our bodies. If you are here to learn more about intuitive eating, I suggest starting from the beginning (principle 1 - reject the diet mentality), as there is so much to explore, that I recommend starting with, prior to getting to the last two principles. 

Diet culture exploits exercise and movement in the same way it uses food to influence our feelings about health and our bodies. If you have a history of dieting, it won't be surprising that your relationship with exercise and movement will also need some work.

With diet culture, the focus is often on looking the part and aesthetics, which directly impacts the way that you may perceive movement. This affects you in many different ways, both psychologically and physically. We already know that your body weight, shape, and size are not entirely within your control - there are so many factors that contribute to your physical body. So this all-encompassing idea of ‘eat less, move more’ as the answer to everything, it’s really an empty promise filled with false direction. The food you eat and the exercise you partake in cannot guarantee a specific body weight/shape related result.

Mentally, this can leave you feeling frustrated and like you are failing when you do the workouts, eat the vegetables, and don’t end up with a six-pack. This might lead you to eat less and push your body harder and harder (hello, no pain no gain mentality), sapping it of the nutrients and energy it needs to take on the work. This can damage muscles and joints, increasing risk of injury. 

All of this might lead you to resenting exercise and movement. You might look at all physical activity as a punishment, leading you to avoid it entirely, which, of course, isn’t great for the body either. 

Importance of movement 

Physical activity and movement are critical components of health, just as nutrition is! This is why it’s important to include movement in the conversation about intuitive eating because in the same way that it is important to listen to your body’s cues around hunger and fullness, you must learn to listen to the body’s desire to move. 

Humans are inherently pulled to move our bodies, and we do so freely as children before the rules are set and the fun is taken out, so when we talk about physical activity in the intuitive sphere, we look for joyful movements. This is why I am using the term ‘movement’ rather than ‘exercise’ or ‘workout’ - as the latter two terms are often laden with rules or conditions about what ‘counts’. 

Regular physical activity has a lot of benefits, like reducing cognitive decline, depression, some cancers, hypertension, heart disease, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, and stroke. It can also improve your quality of life and bone density, memory, gut microbiome, cardiovascular circulation, satiety cues, strength, balance, mood, stamina, stress tolerance, and sleep quality. That’s a long list of benefits! So why do we feel an aversion to it? 

Rediscovering Joyful Movement

The ick is coming from moving your body for aesthetic and weight loss reasons because you may end up doing things that we do not ENJOY. The self-talk around going to the gym becomes “I should…” or “I have to…”, rather than “I want to”. Rather than desire, the workouts and exercise becomes an obligation and a means to make up for a meal that you ate. In the physical activity world, it’s well known that the more enjoyable an activity is, the better the adherence will be - which essentially means that people will continue to incorporate physical activity if they actually enjoy doing it.

When you are a child, you run because you like the feeling of the wind in your face. You dance because it makes your soul happy, and the music is good. You spin, jump, and flip without worrying about the physical benefits or how you look. You don’t check the calories burned on your watch; you just move and let your body tell you when you are done. 

Now, I’m not saying no one enjoys lifting weights in the gym, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, as adults, we feel like we ‘have to’ go to a gym and follow a strict routine for the movements to benefit us. The rigid expectations around “working out” can take all the fun out of it. 

All movement is good movement

The good news is that structured workouts are not the only way to benefit from exercise. When you expand your definition of movement, there are a million and one ways to move your body. If you do want something structured or a place to gather with like-minded people, you can check out fitness classes of all types. You can find everything from yoga to Scottish dancing lessons (though you might have to look online). 

You can walk around your block or up a mountain if you want to get outside. While outside, you might take up a sport — something slow like golf, or get more physical and join your local rec teams.  And if sports or movement for the sake of movement isn’t your thing because you feel like you are too busy, I will let you in on a well-kept secret. The movement you do while running errands, chasing your kids, cleaning your house, and doing yard work all ‘count’ as movement. Literally anything you do that you are physically moving your body, counts as movement.

Take time to discover kinds of physical activity that bring you joy and happiness, feel doable, and are easy to add to your day. Consider which movements leave you feeling rejuvenated and energized. Start by sitting less and standing more, taking small movement breaks during your day to stretch and walk around. The next steps become much easier when you see the difference it can make. 

Deriving pleasure from movement and exercise is one of the most important factors for sustaining regular exercise rather than focusing on the traditional fitness parameters of frequency, intensity, and duration. Identifying your benefits and reasons to exercise outside of weight loss and body changes is what will keep you motivated. What do you want your body to be able to do? How do you want to feel? What brings you joy and makes you look forward to moving your body? 

Mindful exercise and the connection with your body

Diet culture tells you to follow the no pain, no gain mindset with exercise, which removes pleasure and joy from the equation. This leads to body disconnect and ignoring the messages you likely are receiving from your body, telling you to move or rest. 

When you disconnect from your body, you lose touch with what you need to feel good. You might start saying things like, “Why does my back hurt?” after sitting hunched in your chair all day. Or you may feel lethargic and have a headache because you didn’t move your neck or stretch your shoulders while you sat at the desk for 8 hours. 

If you are relating to that, you need to do some mindful movement. Moving your body while paying attention to how your body FEELS to discover which activities you enjoy. Things you might take note of include: 

  • Rate of breathing

  • Speed of heartbeat

  • Muscle tension and relaxation

  • Overall perceived effort and exertion

Mindful activities should rejuvenate rather than exhaust. They enhance the mind-body connection, can alleviate rather than amplify stress, and provide genuine enjoyment and pleasure.

To start, ask yourself, how would pursuing physical activities for pleasure and enjoyment affect your desire to be active? What kinds of activities do you want to engage in? What kind of environment do you choose to be in? How would pleasant physical activity feel?

While you find interest in moving your body again, ensure that you are considering the harms of exercising too much. What messages does your body send you that tell you to rest? How do you know when you need to take it easy? If you feel pulled to move when you need to rest, is that coming from external or internal sources? What kind of low-impact movements can you do that allow your body to heal and rest? 

Exploring barriers to exercise and how to break through them

While not enjoying movement can be a barrier to exercise, I want to acknowledge that it might not be the only thing that is standing in your way. There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to access to movement. 

Movement is not naturally easy for all people. Whether you are dealing with a chronic illness, pain, disability or injury, movement in the typical forms might not feel right in your body. Different symptoms and physical limitations can create a wall between what you know you need to feel better and what you can physically do. 

**Disclaimer – please always check with your doctor before starting a new activity plan or workout to ensure that it is safe for you. 

If this is the case it is a good idea to work with a professional, someone educated in your condition, or a physiotherapist who will understand the mechanisms of injury to help you better heal and move to avoid injury. You might consider modified exercises that can be done sitting in a chair or on a bed. There are also many different types of fitness equipment that you can likely adapt to your needs. 

Beyond the physical, you might be faced with family, cultural, socioeconomic, and environmental barriers that are important to acknowledge. Often we internalize a lot of shame around not being able to do something even though the barriers we face are out of our control. There is no easy answer to facing these barriers as they will be unique to each individual. The best practice is to do what you can with what you have because something is always better than nothing. 

Lastly there are the internalized barriers that you might face born of diet culture and the way you have approached movement in the past. Like movement being a punishment for what you ate, or something that you felt pressured to take part in. If your negative emotions are linked to the diet mentality and rigid thinking, it is up to you to examine how you feel about them. Do you feel like you are stuck with a rigid routine? Like you have to do a certain amount for it to feel “worth it?” What would feel better? 

Whatever you feel is holding you back, you need to examine from every side. Ask yourself why it feels like a barrier? If that barrier wasn’t present what type of movement would you like to do? What kinds of small changes can you make today towards your goals? 

The healing process is never a linear one, and there are a lot of steps to fixing the broken relationships between you and your body. Diet culture has had its say for too long and has left lasting effects on most people in some way. You are not alone if it has affected your relationship with movement and eating. Diet culture has used movement as a tool to control and exploit your feelings about your health and your body. The health and wellness industry profits off of every new workout plan that you buy into in an attempt to fix what was never broken. The key to healing this relationship is to ditch the rigid structure that might disconnect you from your body’s cues and embrace a more flexible and intuitive way of moving. Find movements that feel truly joyful in your body. The best exercise for you will always be what you enjoy and look forward to doing. All movements are beneficial, so whatever you decide will be the right thing for you. Listen to your gut and trust the feelings that tell you when to move and rest.

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