Enjoyable exercise could be riding your bike like you're a kid again, as in this photo of a women in ripped jeans and white sneakers, coasting on a bike with her feet outstretched, on a tree-lined road.

How do you feel about exercise, physical activity, movement or however you like to label it? A fun pastime, a necessary to-do, or the seventh circle of hell?

There was a time when “exercise” was  something we did for leisure. If you enjoyed swimming, you took to the water like a fish outdoors in the summer, and maybe at an indoor pool in the winter. If you loved tennis, you would happily hit a ball around the court. If you reveled in nature, you camped and hiked, went for walks in the park, and maybe skied in the winter. If dance was your jam, you would bust a move every chance you could get. It was enjoyable exercise, if you even called it exercise, which you probably didn’t.

Today, many people approach exercise with the same sense of determination and goal orientation that we otherwise dedicate to earning a college degree or advancing in our careers. Joy? What joy? You have to do better than you did yesterday, reach the next goal target, otherwise, what are you doing it for?

Enjoyable exercise could simply be dancing when the mood strikes you, as in this photo of a young woman with long, dark blond hair and a white sleeveless T-shirt, dancing in front of a yellow wall, holding a brown leather glasses case.
Exercise that feels like fun

Just like the best time of day to engage in physical activity is the time of day you’ll actually do it,* the best type of activity is one you enjoy, because that increases the odds, again, that you’ll actually do it. 

* This  may change with the time of year — I’ll happily go for a walk at 6 a.m. in the middle of the summer in order to avoid afternoon heat, but right now when there’s a foot of snow outside my door and it’s still dark for another 90 minutes? Not a chance.

We know that exercising/moving regularly is good for health. But when you’re busy, and you have a lot of things you enjoy doing, it can feel hard to slot exercise into your schedule — unless it’s joyful.

Part of the reason that honing in on enjoyable exercise helps makes it easier to stay active is that it feels good while you’re doing it (“feels good” is an individual assessment…some people like the feeling of sweating and breathing hard, some people like to feel relaxed and stretched, others like feeling the fresh air on their face and hearing the birds sing). That means your focus is internal. Another is that if you are too goal-oriented with physical activity that has an external focus  (I’m thinking specifically of using exercise to shrink or shape your body), you can become frustrated and give up when you aren’t seeing the results you want — especially if you were using a type of activity that you don’t really enjoy.

Enjoyable exercise might be swimming, but probably not exactly like this underwater photo of a curvy woman with long blond curly hair, in a blue grecian-style dress and flowing cape
Bringing back the joy of movement

Here’s a challenge for you: 

Choose one form of movement that you use to love (but stopped doing somewhere along the way) or one that you want to try, and take committed action to include it in your life.

What do I mean by “committed action”? I mean start doing it right away if you have everything you need to get started or restarted. Decide when you will do it, how long you’ll do it for, and what your plan B will be. (For example, I’m going to do yoga 5 days per week, committing to 15 minutes but going longer if that feels good and I have the time. I’ll do it in the morning, but if I have an early appointment then I will do it in the evening as a wind-down before bed.)

If you don’t have what you need to get started, then take committed action to knock those obstacles out of the way. For example, if you need a pair of walking sneakers, start shopping. If you want to try Zumba, go online and look for classes near you. If your obstacle is trickier, perhaps rooted in weight stigma, then that’s going to take some reflection and maybe some righteous anger (directed at society, not yourself).

Another way to make movement even more enjoyable (and sustainable) is to insert a little mindfulness. Here’s what that might look like:

  • Paying full attention to how it feels to work or stretch your muscles
  • Noticing, and absorbing, the good feelings (relaxed or energized…or both) once you are done
  • Being open to sights and sounds around you if you are doing an outdoor activity

Increasing your awareness of the internal benefits of exercise can be encouraging, and practicing mindful movement can be a mindfulness practice in and of itself. There’s research demonstrating that being mindful during strength training (weight lifting, resistance bands, and so on) can increase its physical benefits. I would think this would be important during yoga, too. While I sometimes listen to podcasts during walks (especially if the weather is gross and I need even more motivation than a certain set of pleading brown golden retriever eyes), I usually alternate between brainstorming about whatever article I’m working on, and mindfulness (is that a bald eagle or a red-tailed hawk I hear?).

Enjoyable exercise feels good while you are doing it, as in this photo of a young woman with long, dark hair in a ponytail, and black and gray leggings and long-sleeve top, doing a deep side lunge stretch in a park.
Walking my talk

Here’s how I’m doing this challenge in my own life. 

  • I stopped doing yoga a few months ago because we no longer have a computer that has a DVD drive (gee thanks, technological “progress”) and that’s the only place I can do yoga (unless I want a golden retriever trying to do downward dog next to me). I have never been good at doing yoga totally on my own, and that’s not likely to change. So…last week I signed up for the Glo Yoga streaming service. I’m still in the free trial period, and so far, so good. It’s $18/month, which is less than the cost of one live class, and there’s no long-term commitment.
  • I bought a few digital Zumba classes off of Amazon Prime Video. I’ve been wanting to try Zumba for a long time (I have clients and family members who love it), and this gives me something else to do when there’s a foot of snow outside. Like today.
  • I’m reintroducing bellydance. I have at least a few dozen DVDs (those I can do carefully in the living room as long as the aforementioned golden retriever doesn’t get too excited), and I used to use them regularly back when I was also taking live classes twice a week (and workshops from pretty much every guest teacher who visited Seattle). That came to a near screeching halt when I started grad school almost 10 years ago. Time to bring it back!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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