Intuitive movement is moving your body in a way that is joyful. It involves listening to your body and honouring how it feels and what movement it needs that day. In this blog post I’m going to outline a bit more about the principles of intuitive movement and suggest some ways in which you can learn to move in a more intuitive way.
The roots of intuitive movement
The idea of intuitive movement is grounded in intuitive eating, a framework for nurturing your body and making peace with food, developed by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. The intuitive eating framework includes ten guiding principles and the ninth principle is: ‘Exercise and feel the difference’. This means exercising in a way that you enjoy, and focusing on the way it makes you feel, rather than the calorie burn. Intuitive movement rejects diet culture’s message that the purpose of exercise is for weight loss, despite research consistently showing that exercise alone is largely ineffective for weight loss (Cox, 2017), and shifts the focus instead to moving for pleasure.
Movement versus exercise
The term ‘intuitive movement’ rather than ‘intuitive exercise’ is deliberately used because all types of movement are valued under this framework, not just traditional forms of ‘exercise’, such as working out in a gym. Intuitive movement acknowledges that any form of bodily movement may bring joy and health benefits, therefore no one way of moving is superior to another. Anything from swimming to gardening, and martial arts to yoga are all encouraged in the framework of intuitive movement. Another important feature of intuitive movement is that it challenges the belief that movement must be of a certain intensity and duration to be deemed worthy. Instead, all intensities and durations of movement count and intuitive movement actively encourages you to stop moving when you’re satisfied, rather than push through fatigue, boredom or pain as a more traditional approach to exercise might do.
The benefits of movement
Intuitive movement emphasises the numerous health benefits of physical activity that are unrelated to weight loss. In terms of mental health, movement can improve mood and reduce anxiety, depression and stress (Brand et al., 2018; Gordon et al., 2018; Herring, Hallgren & Campbell, 2017; Stubbs et al., 2017). Regarding physical health, movement is associated with a reduced risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and hip fractures (Reiner et al., 2013; Warburton et al., 2006). And in terms of cognitive health, being physically active improves cognition and is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia (Basso et al., 2015; Taaffe et al., 2008; Lin et al., 2019).
The importance of flexibility
Another important aspect of intuitive movement is avoiding rigid structure with exercise, and promoting flexibility. This might be saying, ‘I slept really badly last night and I’ve got a busy day ahead. I’m going to snooze my alarm and skip my morning workout, and just walk to work today instead.’ However, intuitive movement might also be saying ‘The sun is shining and I feel full of energy today, so I want to go for a run’. Intuitive movement is not about being lazy, it’s simply about listening and responding to your body’s signals, and always being prepared to change the plan.
Ultimately, intuitive movement can lead to better adherence to physical activity than a more traditional fitness routine, because you’re more likely to stick with movement that you enjoy and that fits around your life than exercise that you dislike and have to fit your life around. In addition, the likelihood of overuse injuries is lower with intuitive movement, because as an intuitive mover you’ll rest when you’re feeling tired or sore, and allow your body to recover, rather than push through pain or discomfort because your training plan says you have to.
How can I move more intuitively?
If you’d like to try moving in a more intuitive way, here is my advice to get started:
Tip 1) Ask yourself, ‘if exercise had no effect on how my body looked, what movement would I enjoy doing?’
Often we do things out of habit or because we think we should, and as a result many of us have forgotten what we actually enjoy doing. It’s good to think outside the box of traditional fitness activities here – I’d encourage you to make a list of all the ways you might like to move, even things you’ve never tried before (see my list at the end of this blog for some ideas to get you started!), and try an activity from your list every so often. If you’ve not yet discovered a way of moving that you enjoy, then keep trying new options - there will be something out there for you but it might just take a little bit of exploration to find it.
Tip 2) Be curious about how different types of movement make you feel
Maybe keep a diary of how you feel before, during and after the activities you’ve identified above. This will help you to become more in tune with how your body feels, and will remind you of the feel-good factor that you’ll hopefully discover with certain forms of movement, which will help motivate you to do it again. Remember that it’s totally okay and normal to not enjoy some forms of movement, but learning what feels good for you and what doesn’t is an important part of your intuitive movement education. For me, I can’t beat the feeling of gliding through a swimming pool or running with the sun on my face and dance music in my ears to make me feel alive, but I’m not a fan of team sports. And that’s okay.
Tip 3) Try moving without your fitness tracker
Fitness trackers have their place in some contexts, e.g. if you’re trying to run at a certain pace or heart rate. However when they’re used obsessively they can induce feelings of guilt and shame, e.g. if you’ve not hit your daily movement target or you’re comparing your stats with other peoples. Sometimes life gets busy, or you get sick, or you just don’t want to go for a walk in the rain to meet your step goal, and that is fine, no matter what your device might tell you! It’s important to re-learn how to trust your body to move of its own volition. Our bodies are extremely intelligent, and believe it or not they’ll actually signal to us that it would feel nice to move if we’ve been sedentary all day, or to rest if we’re tried. I know trusting our bodies can be hard, so start by just doing a workout without your tracker and build up to not wearing it for a day or week, and see how it makes you feel.
Tip 4) Have a loose structure
It’s a myth that intuitive movement is not compatible with having a training plan or preparing for an event such as a marathon. It’s entirely possible, it just assumes that there will be days when your plan doesn’t go to plan… and that’s okay! Try to remember that movement will always be there for you, and if it doesn’t happen today because life got in the way or you just didn’t fancy it it’s really not the end of the world. Nothing bad is going to happen and you certainly don’t have to punish yourself for not completing a planned workout. I know that this can be a difficult attitude to adopt after diet culture has brainwashed us with this ‘no days off’ rhetoric for so long, but once you get into this more relaxed headspace it is so freeing.
Tip 5) Unfollow and remove yourself from people who pressurise you to eat, train or look a certain way
If your personal trainer is bombarding you with messages like ‘no pain no gain’ and telling you to ‘burn off your pizza’, then you should intuitively run away – this is unhelpful and damaging talk, rooted in diet culture, and is the antithesis of intuitive movement. Instead, try to surround yourself with people whose messages towards health and movement you resonate with, both online and offline. There is a growing body of personal trainers who promote intuitive movement and reject diet culture, it just might take a bit of research to find the right person for you.
Here are some ideas of ways to move intuitively:
What would you add to this list?
Basso, J., Shang, A., Elman, M., Karmouta, R., & Suzuki, W. (2015). Acute exercise improves prefrontal cortex but not hippocampal function in healthy adults. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 21(10),791-801. DOI: 10.1017/S135561771500106X
Brand, S., Colledge, F., Ludyga, S., Emmenegger, R., Kalak, N., Sadeghi Bahmani, D., … & Gerber, M. (2018). Acute bouts of exercising improved mood, rumination and social interaction in inpatients with mental disorders. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 249.
Cox, C. E. (2017). Role of physical activity for weight loss and weight maintenance. Diabetes spectrum : A publication of the American Diabetes Association, 30(3), 157–160. https://doi.org/10.2337/ds17-0013
Gordon, B. R., McDowell, C. P., Hallgren, M., Meyer, J. D., Lyons, M., & Herring, M. P. (2018). Association of efficacy of resistance exercise training with depressive symptoms: Meta-analysis and meta-regression analysis of randomized clinical trials. JAMA psychiatry, 75(6), 566–576.
Herring, M. P., Hallgren, M., & Campbell, M. J. (2017). Acute exercise effects on worry, state anxiety, and feelings of energy and fatigue among young women with probable Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A pilot study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 33, 31–36.
Lin, S., Yang, Y., Qi, Q., Wei, L., Jing, N., Jie, Z., Xia, L., & Shifu, X. (2019) The beneficial effect of physical exercise on cognitive function in a non-dementia aging Chinese population. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 11(238). doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2019.00238
Reiner, M., Niermann, C., Jekauc, D., & Woll, A. (2013). Long-term health benefits of physical activity - a systematic review of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 813. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-813. PMID: 24010994; PMCID: PMC3847225.
Rye, T. (Host). (2021, January 25). What is intuitive movement? With Tally Rye [Audio podcast episode]. In Train Happy Podcast.
Stubbs, B., Vancampfort, D., Rosenbaum, S., Firth, J., Cosco, T., Veronese, N., Salum, G.A., & Schuch, F.B. (2017). An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: a meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 249, 102-108.
Taaffe, D.R., Irie, F., Masaki, K.H., Abbott, R.D., Petrovitch, H., Webster Ross, G., & White, L. R. (2008). Physical activity, physical function, and incident dementia in elderly men: The Honolulu–Asia aging study, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 63(5), 529–535, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/63.5.529
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (1995). Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. St Martin’s Griffin.
Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal, 174(6), 801–809. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.051351