Intuitive Eating Intro: 5 Misconceptions About Joyful Movement

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

Are you confused about how to practice joyful movement with Intuitive Eating?

In a nutshell, joyful movement is an approach to movement that emphasizes pleasure and self-care over punishment and self-control. As a concept, it runs opposite to diet culture-based exercise that really weaponizes movement (think “earning” food or “compensating” for so-called “excess” calories.) Although it seems simple on the surface (just move in ways that feel good!) this advice can feel especially confusing if you’ve never had a positive relationship with exercise or your body.

Myths about joyful movement can really complicate this further. 

For example, maybe you assume that joyful movement shouldn’t be rigorous or challenging. Or perhaps you pushed yourself into over-exercise territory in the past and debate whether exercise is safe for you at your current stage of recovery. Or maybe you think joyful movement won’t have any “real” impact and isn’t worth doing at all, which is preventing you from taking action on your physical health goals.

Joyful movement is a complex topic that requires a certain degree of finesse. While there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to joyful movement, let’s explore 5 common misconceptions about it.

1. Joyful movement should be gentle.

Joyful movement isn’t about the form it takes as much as it is about the motivation. There’s a big difference between hitting the gym every day to compensate, punish, or change your body, and going to the gym to improve your mental health, strengthen your bones, develop muscle mass, improve your cardiovascular health, or increase your energy levels. Fun activities can totally leave you sore, so please don’t avoid movement just because it isn’t “gentle.”

In addition to motivation, you  also want to consider how black-and-white thinking might be showing up in your relationship to exercise. Movement-related goals are totally compatible with Intuitive Eating. That said, there’s a difference between rigidly committing to a schedule at the expense of your body’s needs, and acknowledging when you need rest and giving yourself the time and space to recover without guilt or negative self-talk. 

2. If you don’t want to move, it isn’t joyful.

In the same way that Intuitive Eating isn’t about only eating when you’re hungry, joyful movement isn’t about only moving when you feel like it.

There’s a number of equally valid reasons you might choose to eat as an Intuitive Eater. I’d invite you to consider the same with movement. While it’d be nice to move whenever we feel like it, our busy, modern lives don’t always support this. Most of us need to prioritize our needs…otherwise they might not get met. Much like meal planning, movement might need to be scheduled in advance. The “intuitive” or “joyful” aspect comes down to how you meet this need. Do you participate even if you’ve had a long day or didn’t get the sleep you needed the night before? While diet culture might call this an “excuse,” consider how healthy it is to push yourself to your limits without regard for well-being. 

On the flip side, you don’t need to be overly pumped for movement to be joyful. When it comes time to exercising, there might be parts of yourself that would rather binge-watch Netflix. This is why it’s so important to get clear on your motivation for movement. Personally, even though I’m not always keen to exercise, my desire to maintain mobility and strength over the course of my lifespan ultimately outweighs the desire to hang on the couch with a cup of tea. This is motivation enough to live an active lifestyle even if I don’t always “love” exercise. This would be a different story if I forced myself to engage in exercise I hate (hello, burpees) or to commitment to an unsustainable frequency.

We move (or don’t move!) for a number of reasons outside of desire alone. While it can take time to discern our intrinsic reasons for joyful movement when we give up dieting, clarifying your motivation will help you to understand whether your exercise routine is values-aligned. 

Wanting to move can be a reason, after all. But so can wanting to improve your mental health, enhance sleep quality, socialize with others, and countless other reasons that have nothing to do with changing your body. Sometimes the body needs to lead.

3. Joyful movement doesn’t “count” as real exercise.

Do you believe joyful movement doesn’t count as real exercise?

I don’t know about you, but I got the message very early on that play was not a valid reason for movement — that I needed something somehow more serious.

But who determines what movement “counts”? Does walking up a flight of stairs count? Stretching? Dancing in the kitchen with your kids? Swimming in the ocean? Tossing a frisbee in the park? When we allow all movement to “count”, we might do more of it — and have more fun while we’re at it.

Secondly, you might not always have the time or energy to do an hour-long workout. How might legalizing all movement help you to move your body more (if that’s desired)? How might legalizing all movement allow you to better meet your needs? How might legalizing all movement help you over the exercise hesitance hump and into a regular movement routine?

There isn’t necessarily a difference between joyful movement and regular exercise apart from the motivation. And from my experience working with clients, those who exercise for reasons unrelated to their size or body image tend to enjoy it more and have an easier time sticking to it rather than binge-exercising and stopping for months at a time.

4. You can only walk, practice yoga, or engage other mind-body practices as an Intuitive Eater.

By this point it should be clear that no form of exercise is off-limits. In the same way that stretching, frisbee-throwing, and low-impact exercise “count,” marathon-running, weight-lifting, and high-intensity interval training are welcome, too. Think of movement the way you do food: diet culture doesn’t get to own salads and smoothies, and diet culture doesn’t get to own competitive or high-intensity movement, either. 

I will add that mind-body movement can be super helpful if you’re new to Intuitive Eating. Many chronic dieters lack interoceptive awareness, and movement like yoga and pilates can support this. 

5. Physical health goals are incompatible with Intuitive Eating.

You can totally decide to run a 5km, 10km, or a longer distance as an Intuitive Eater, improve cardiovascular health in measurable ways, or commit to another physical health goal. Consider that Evelyn Tribole, co-founder of Intuitive Eating, was actually a long-time marathon runner. 

Goals are entirely welcome in Intuitive Eating. It’s how you approach them, as discussed in the first point, that makes the difference. Do you set a goal and chase it relentlessly even when injured? Or do you plan for plenty of down time? How will you feel if you don’t achieve the goal for whatever reason even after working diligently toward it? Can you appreciate the journey toward the goal in addition to the destination? 

At the same time, it’s worth considering your motivation for running a race or committing to other physical goal. Is it for charity? To meet a challenge? A chance to socialize and connect with others? Do you enjoy running or the movement you’ve chosen? This isn’t to dissuade you from moving, but to help you to really think about your wants and needs apart from completion.

Conclusion

Like any mindfulness-based eating practice, it’s common to see shifts to your movement routine.

The thought that we might do any one thing in any one way for all of eternity is not only a lot of pressure, but highly unrealistic. As someone who used to over-exercise and recovered by resting a lot, walking casually, and attending very low-key movement classes (think restorative and yin yoga), I understand the unique challenges inherent in reducing exercise intensity and slowing down. That said, joyful movement is possible.

What questions do you have about joyful movement? What misconceptions have you heard? If you’re further along in your journey, how has a joyful movement practice benefitted you?

Additional Resources:

  1. How to Become One of Those People Who Likes Exercise, Refinery29
  2. What is Joyful Movement?, Made on a Generous Plan
  3. Enjoy Exercise with Joyful Movement, Wellness Workdays
  4. Joyn, movement for every body
  5. Body Positive Fitness
  6. GoodBodyFeel

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