Odds are good that if you had an exercise routine a year ago, it doesn’t look the way it used to. In some cases, there’s been an upshot to the pandemic:

  • Some people discovered that they really don’t miss going to the gym and prefer doing workouts at home.
  • Or maybe less time commuting has created space for more morning yoga and more afternoon walks.

For other people, the evaporation of gym workouts and group classes has been stressful.

  • This could because they truly miss them.
  • It could be because of fears that they aren’t exercising enough at home.

Couple that point — which I’ve witnessed a LOT — with our society’s obsessive focus on “pandemic weight gain,” and this spring/summer could be shaping up to be a hotbed of joyless exercise. From a big picture perspective, that’s not healthy.

I have a mantra when I exercise: “Exercise to be strong, not smaller.” This mantra is a way of continuing to deprogram myself from decades of believing that the primary benefit of exercise was weight loss. (My deeply unfortunate forced participation in Weight Watchers — aka non-consensual dieting — at age 16 sparked that notion).

A dozen years ago, every walk, every weight lifting session — every super-intense weekend bellydance workshop that left me feeling like I got hit by a Mack truck — was primarily framed as a means to look better and be smaller. Ah, so much misdirected mental energy!

Shifting definitions of health

Today, I exercise because I enjoy the types of exercise I do. I also exercise because I want to be healthy now and decades from now. That said, what “health” means to me is a different animal from it was back in the days when I was in a pattern of overexercising.

Back then, the only “positive” emotion I could claim for my efforts was virtue. That is not a good recipe for mental and emotional health. It also was no guarantee that I was “disease-proofing” myself, despite what I believed at the time.

Today, my definition of health very much includes the mental and the emotional. I move my body because it makes me feel good, and it offers a much-needed mental break in the midst of a day of writing, researching and seeing clients. Just as I practice intuitive eating, I practice intuitive exercise.

Intuitive exercise is a mindset rather than a specific form of movement. It involves listening to your body about how it feels and what it needs, and using that information to guide you about the type, intensity and duration of activity that’s right for you — in general, or simply on a given day.

Our bodies are meant to move, but we don’t all need to move in the same way. Often, we receive — and internalize — the all-or-nothing message that for exercise to “count,” it needs to leave you a sweaty mess. Intuitive exercise is free from these kind of external rules, as well as the arbitrary rules you might make up in your own head.

Does your inner dialog says something like, “I have to exercise X days per week for X minutes”? That’s a sign you don’t trust your body to tell you what it needs.

Intuitive exercise doesn’t focus on burning calories or changing your body shape. Instead, if focuses on how exercise feels and what it does for your physical and mental health. This makes intuitive exercise a form of self-care.

exercise to stay strong
Rising strong

As an intuitive exerciser, you might ask yourself, “What kind of movement would benefit my body today? What kind of movement do I feel like doing?”

For example, let’s say you go on a day hike or spend the day doing intense gardening. Doing some gentle yoga or going on a leisurely walk may be just the ticket the next day when you wake up feeling a bit stiff or sore.

Which brings me to another benefit. Because you are listening to what your body is telling you, you are more likely to notice the difference between normal muscle soreness and signs of injury (“it hurts” vs. “I’m hurt”). This means you’re less likely to risk a serious injury from pushing yourself too hard.

I’ve been lifting weights since high school. Other than a few periods when I became bored and needed to take a break from it, I love it. I appreciated how it made me feel (strong), even when I was caught up in its appearance-based aspects. Because I’ve been doing it for so long, the finer points of strength training are now intuitive to me:

  • When to inhale/exhale
  • How tired my muscles should feel on the last repetition
  • How to protect my lower back during certain moves
  • Why I should do certain exercises before others
  • Where to put mental focus during each exercise

As much as I heartily advocate strength training for health and healthy aging, it’s important to know that it’s not as DIY as, say going for a walk. Most people will really benefit from taking class or paying for at least a handful of personal training sessions with a trainer who has experience working with people of your age and abilities. If you’re thinking, “I just want an online tutorial,” I recommend the Form Fitness YouTube channel. I’m a fan of Morit Summers in particular, and she really helped me refine my foam rolling technique.

An attitude of gratitude

I regret that that for so many years my reasons for exercising were dysfunctional. I’m deeply grateful that my mindset has shifted. Today, I clearly see the many benefits of physical activity — and that none of them have to do with being smaller.

Part of exercising intuitively is choosing forms of activity that you enjoy — rather than exercise that “burns calories” — so you exercise because you want to, not because you “have” to.

Rather than leaving you tired, sore or cranky, your chosen activities reduce stress and increase your energy while helping you feel stronger, sleep better and generally feel good in your skin. It helps to have a variety of activities at your disposal that you can do as your mood, and energy level, strikes you.

What if your intuition tells you to lounge on the couch instead of unrolling your yoga mat or lacing up your walking shoes?

Part of intuitive exercise is thinking forward to how you want to feel, not only what you want in this instant. If you know that doing some yoga, or going for that walk, will leave you feeling calm, refreshed and energized, than that can help provide deep motivation to keep on moving.

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!