Intuitive Exercise

The Answer to Compulsive Exercise & Exercise Resistance

Thanksgiving is over, and the next holiday wave is about to hit. I know some of you are still worried about the “extra food” you have consumed. I also know that many of you worry about the holiday abundance that is already developing. More food brought to offices. Cookies being baked (which I have to say I am fully enjoying), favorite holiday candies on the shelf. A popular thought amongst many is “I will make up for this later” or “I will start over in January”. This is never something I recommend. Practicing intuitive eating means listening to your body on a daily basis, holiday season, or not. It means allowing all foods without compulsion or excess and without later compensation. One common form of compensation is exercise.

<a style="background-color:black;color:white;text-decoration:none;padding:4px 6px;font-family:-apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, &quot;San Francisco&quot;, &quot;Helvetica Neue&quot;, Helvetica, Ubuntu, Roboto, Noto, &quot;Segoe UI&quot;, Arial, sans-serif;font-size:12px;font-weight:bold;line-height:1.2;display:inline-block;border-radius:3px" href=";utm_campaign=photographer-credit&amp;utm_content=creditBadge" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" title="Download free do whatever you want high-resolution photos from Emma Simpson"><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px"><svg xmlns="" style="height:12px;width:auto;position:relative;vertical-align:middle;top:-1px;fill:white" viewBox="0 0 32 32"><title>unsplash-logo</title><path d="M20.8 18.1c0 2.7-2.2 4.8-4.8 4.8s-4.8-2.1-4.8-4.8c0-2.7 2.2-4.8 4.8-4.8 2.7.1 4.8 2.2 4.8 4.8zm11.2-7.4v14.9c0 2.3-1.9 4.3-4.3 4.3h-23.4c-2.4 0-4.3-1.9-4.3-4.3v-15c0-2.3 1.9-4.3 4.3-4.3h3.7l.8-2.3c.4-1.1 1.7-2 2.9-2h8.6c1.2 0 2.5.9 2.9 2l.8 2.4h3.7c2.4 0 4.3 1.9 4.3 4.3zm-8.6 7.5c0-4.1-3.3-7.5-7.5-7.5-4.1 0-7.5 3.4-7.5 7.5s3.3 7.5 7.5 7.5c4.2-.1 7.5-3.4 7.5-7.5z"></path></svg></span><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px">Emma Simpson</span></a>

As many of my clients have asked,

“How do I break my exercise rules?” “How do I stop using exercise to compensate for food or as permission to eat?” 

As someone who has formally compulsively exercised (I was a personal trainer and health club manager after all) and also had a period of exercise resistance in the midst of my worst years of bulimia, I can say that exercise, like eating, eventually has to become intuitive. Intuitive exercise means listening to the body, honoring the body, and exercising for the right reasons. We are so focused culturally on the aesthetics related to exercise. Seeing the endless social media selfies of sculpted posteriors and abs is one nauseating example. This is not the right reason to exercise. 

Since exercise can often include numbers; number of minutes, total speed, number of repetitions, it is the perfect activity for those of us who tend to have compulsive tendencies. In recovery from eating disorders, it is therefore recommended to stay away from any gadgets that can increase the tendency to count. That means apple watches, pedometers, etc. The idea is to drop down from the constantly active mind to the body. Just as we do with hunger and fullness cues, we check in with our body to listen to what it is communicating. Is it overly-tired? In pain? Or ready to move and stretch? It can be quite a difficult task to differentiate between what the body and the mind want as they are so intricately, constantly connected. To complicate things further, in order to increase strength and fitness, it can take a certain amount of physical discomfort. Should you push yourself through that last repetition or jog to that next lamppost? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no. This is where that intuition in intuitive exercise comes in. It takes awareness and self-honesty. What is the main reason you are pushing yourself? If it is guilt, calories, how your body looks, or a ritualistic standard that has become a new requirement, don’t do it. If one the other hand, it is about strength, ability, or health, you are more likely on the right track. Yet it remains tricky. 

On the other side of the coin, we also do not need to be afraid of movement. One of my teachers and one of the original treatment providers for eating disorders, Francie White coined the term Exercise Resistance. As Francie states “Actual resistance to exercise can be a result of deeper emotional blocks that most people are not aware of.  What buried emotional blocks could be thwarting your exercise plans? They are usually an event or series of events in which someone or some group of individuals usurped your instinctual connection to trusting and listening to your body.  Often, with the health attitudes of today claiming authority over what, how and when someone should move, eat, think and feel, it is easy to become overwhelmed with advice about how to do something that actually comes naturally to women, if left alone with enough time, enough access to nature, enough rhythm, the right clothes and allowed to find the wilder side of our often tethered-in selves”. For more on exercise resistance, read Francie White’s blog

We all know the benefits of exercise. It’s drilled into us. Better cardiovascular health, improved sleep, better mental health, cognition, increased muscle strength and healthier bones. But what happens when we overdo it, especially alongside restriction of calories? Suddenly those bones and muscles become weakened, broken down, mental health and sleep suffer. But what is a normal amount of exercise? With so many of my clients being athletes, this can of course vary as to training needs. But for the general population we can turn to the Center of Disease Control for their recommendations. “For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalence combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity”. Moderate activity is defined as yard work, walking briskly at 2.5 miles per hour or slightly faster whereas vigorous-intensity activities include jogging or running, hiking uphill, bicycling faster than 10 miles per hour. Muscle-strengthening exercise is also recommended for about 20 minutes twice per week. 

I share these numbers not so that we get further into our heads about it but so that we understand that it does not take hours each day to achieve better health. I do not believe that your body wants to move vigorously for hours each day. My hope is that having some understanding of what is adequate, helps in setting more reasonable goals. 

One quick note on children.  In my opinion, we need to give children ample opportunity to play. Movement for kids is naturally intuitive. My son runs not because he is concerned about the cookies he ate, but because he likes to see how fast he can go. He plays and moves his body almost constantly without any adult instruction. I believe that the word exercise is unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst when it comes to our children. It has an obligatory and punitive undertone, whereas play is fun and natural. 

So, what might intuitive exercise look like? 

·     Dropping down from the mind to the body

·     Asking how the body feels and listening

·     Doing this throughout activity not just when deciding whether or not to move 

·     Purposely breaking any number rules. That might mean doing less than what your mind tells you

·     Not pushing to run to the next landmark when your body is asking to slow down 

·     Not counting steps, calories, minutes, etc. 

·     Maybe it’s moving 3 times per week. Maybe it’s 5

·     Maybe it’s 30 minutes.  Maybe it’s occasionally a two-hour bike ride

·     Maybe it’s a leisurely walk or sprints on the beach

·     Maybe it’s yoga or dancing or playing with your kids

·     Whatever it is, it is connected, and it is mindful 

How you practice intuitive movement will be unique to you. We are all individuals and the type of movement that gives me joy may not excite you. For me, physical activity is a time of inspiration, reflection, and creativity. This blog was in fact half-written during one of my outdoor activities. It is a time to be with myself, especially in nature. A time I feel strong, empowered, connected.

During this holiday season may you practice not only intuitive eating, but intuitive exercise. With the New Year approaching, perhaps you’ll explore how you define your movement and whether it is time to become more in-tune with what your body wants.   


Marlena Tanner2 Comments