Imagine waking up in the morning eager to do your workout for the day. Imagine exercise feeling like a reward and not a punishment. Imagine how easy it would be to exercise consistently if you were doing workouts that you enjoy.
Believe it or not, this could all be possible with intuitive exercise.
What is intuitive exercise?
You may have heard of and even tried intuitive eating, an evidence-based approach to health and nutrition that aims to help you get in touch with your body to make better food choices instead of setting strict rules about what you can and can’t eat. This isn’t a permission slip to eat doughnuts for dinner. Instead, the goal is to get in touch with your body to know when you’re hungry, full or satisfied.
Likewise, intuitive exercise, or movement, is about listening to your body to decide what exercise or movement it needs that day.
Intuitive exercise is akin to somatic movement, which, according to the Somatic Movement Center, is movement performed “with the intention of focusing on the internal experience of the movement rather than the external appearance or result of the movement.”
Those who practice somatic movement see a connection between the mind and the body.
“How would we think about moving our bodies if we weren’t thinking of the body as this disconnected machine?” asks Crystal Davis, who teaches somatic movement and dance courses as an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Davis practices what she preaches and listens closely to her body. When her body told her she was overdoing it in a high-intensity dance class she was taking recently, she replaced it with a line dancing class instead.
During one class, a look at her fitness watch revealed she was still getting a great workout.
“My heart rate had gotten up to a similar place and with less impact on my joints, and a little bit more joy,” Davis says. “Our bodies are expressive of how we feel in our characters and personalities, and our preferences of how we like to move. And so those things are not things we should be dismissive of, but that we should get to celebrate.”
Trust your body
Just as some folks may be leery of intuitive eating because they’re afraid they’ll overeat or not get adequate nutrients, you may worry that by trying to practice intuitive movement you’ll end up not moving at all. But if you’ve made a commitment to exercise most days of the week yet you don’t feel like moving, check in with your body to figure out why.
“The emotional stuff is also connected to how our body is giving us signals,” Davis says. She adds that we should ask ourselves, “Did I have a hard emotional day today that makes me not want to get up and do my exercises?”
Florida-based chef and health coach Eryka Perry of Not Just Catering sees intuitive movement as an act of self-love as you learn to trust your body and yourself.
“Your body has always done what it needs to get you to where you are,” Perry says. “Wherever you are in your body and in your life, it is your body’s attempt to support the things that you desire.”
Now that you desire a healthier lifestyle, trust your body to help you out.
“Trust your body to acquiesce to that as well,” Perry says. “Trust your body to give you those signs.”
Davis says we must shift how we view our bodies in order to trust ourselves.
“Somatic work requires that you slow down and pay attention to yourself in a way that you’re actually trusting your body, instead of thinking of fixing your body,” she says. “Your body is a source of knowledge, wisdom, information.”
As we age, movement, in general, may become tougher since we wake up with more aches and pains and stiff joints than we used to. But Davis believes the older we get the easier intuitive movement becomes.
“Young bodies can do a lot of stuff. They are very mobile and can exert a lot of energy. But as you age, what replaces that energy is a wisdom,” Davis says. “Older bodies have an ability to listen and take signals from the body in a different way than younger bodies tend to, because we’re sitting on more information. We’ve been in our bodies for longer and so there is a wisdom that can often help us move more efficiently.”
Intuitive movement may help you build healthy habits
Most wellness experts will tell you that creating a healthy lifestyle is about building healthy habits, and that’s exactly what Perry focuses on with her clients.
“Do things with curiosity, not judgment,” she says, adding that she might encourage a client to start with something as simple as 10 minutes of intentional movement each day and then ask the client to get curious about how the movement feels. “How does your body feel?” she’ll inquire. “What is your body asking for?”
Davis believes that when we are more intuitive, we are better equipped to develop healthful habits.
“Once we listen to what the body is telling us, we become more intuitively aware of those habits and patterns that we have,” Davis says. “And then we start to slowly, very slowly, go through and consider another way to do things.”
Whether working with clients in person or online, Nesi Ewing of Uncovering the New U always starts her workouts by having her clients check in with their bodies.
“We encourage our clients always to be intuitive, listen to your body and just move daily,” Ewing says.
Some of the questions she asks of her clients include: “How do you feel? How was your weekend? Are you holding a lot of stress? Do you have any aches and pains that are not normal? What is your body telling you? Are you tired or fatigued?”
Likewise, when you wake each morning, you can do a head-to-toe body scan and ask yourself similar questions. Checking in with your body could let you know if you need to stretch, dance, go for a walk or do some strength training exercises.
Checking in with your body also can help you set fitness goals that aren’t based on what your body looks like or a number on a scale. If you enjoy belly dancing but struggle to get through a class because it hurts your knees, you may decide to incorporate more exercises in your workout regimen that will help strengthen your knees.
Practicing intuitive movement doesn’t mean you never challenge your body.
“If you’re doing new things, if you’re pushing your body beyond what it is used to, it’s going to be challenging,” Perry says. But being in tune with your body can help prevent you from hurting yourself along the way. The key, Perry says, is to pay attention to your body and go slow.
“Pushing myself down to the bottom of a squat may not feel as comfortable as staying in the top of the squat, but I can tell when it hurts,” she says. “Slowing it down and being curious as to what this feels like helps me to push beyond what I think I’m capable of. You may say, ‘I can never do more than five push-ups.’ But is your body telling you that you can’t or is your memory telling you that you can’t?”
Doing movement that you enjoy will help you exercise more consistently too. Davis says finding what you like will take some trial and error but is worth the effort.
She recommends checking out fitness classes offered at your local YMCA or finding some multigenerational dance classes. See if there are any African dance or Chicago stepping classes in your area.
If you want to go deeper with somatic movement, check out the International Somatic Movement Education and Therapy Association to find a somatic movement practitioner near you.