How I shifted from compulsive exercise to joyful movement, plus 10 tips
My relationship to exercise has changed drastically over the past decade of my life, but most significantly in the last 3ish years. It wasn’t until I was in the beginning of grad school when I realized my dependence on exercise had become much like a drug addiction – something to help me cope with a lot of stress and numb unwanted feelings/emotions. But since we live in a culture that normalizes things like dieting, and disordered eating and related behaviors (i.e. excessive exercise), it’s easy to be labeled as “healthy,” and even be applauded for the effort to “better yourself.” What a bunch of bullshit.
Before I was able to change my relationship to exercise, I found intuitive eating and committed to that journey of truly connecting and listening to my body, honoring and trusting its hungers and desires. The exercise piece was the hardest and last part of adopting the intuitive lifestyle.
Just like intuitively eating and not dieting, to truly be connected to our bodies and move them in a way that is nourishing and joyful, we have to drop the external noise. We have to unhook from all the numbers. Just like counting calories to guide our food choices is not honoring our bodies’ needs, obsessively counting miles ran, calories burned, etc. further disconnects us from ourselves. It keeps us in the head and out of the body.
For a long time, I felt safer there – in my head … more in control. But I got to a point (after experiencing things like panic attacks and functional hypothalamic amenorrhea- FHA), when I realized staying in my head and following arbitrary rules was not keeping me safe. It was not keeping me in control – it was controlling me.
[You can read my article on FHA here, to understand the physiological mechanism, consequences and treatment behind it—if you’re struggling with this, it is 100 percent reversible through lifestyle changes… I did it and know many others who have, too.]
And intuitive eating and movement empowers us, bring us back into our bodies, and help us re-connect, trust and honor our bodies, instead of letting outside forces dictate how we eat and move. We were born knowing what our bodies’ need!!
Already exercising intuitively? That’s fabulous. But if you share a similar story as mine in relation to exercise, and know that you would like to develop a healthier relationship to it, or you are just wanting to move in a way that is more enjoyable or aligned with yourself, here are some tips to get started:
Ask yourself, “What do I truly enjoy?” For example, I truly enjoy being outside in nature with my dog either walking, hiking or running, dancing my ass off in no particular way, and doing both gentle yoga and flow yoga practices.
Ask yourself, “What do I really dislike?” For example, I simply do not enjoy lifting weights or really being in a gym in general. I don’t like intense workout classes that make me feel like I’m being punished, and especially the ones where the instructor makes comments like, “Get that bikini bod!!” UGGGH.
Be honest with and listen to yourself. Let yourself let go of movement that does not feel good to you and honor your body’s ability to tell you what it needs. I had to get real honest with myself about this one. One example was weight lifting – I thought I had to do it for some reason, but it really did not nourish me at all — the way being on trails or on my yoga mat do. But once I honored that, it was a no-brainer to end my gym membership.
Plan tentatively. For instance, maybe you say, ok I’ll go for a walk or run tomorrow morning, and you wake up and your body really isn’t feeling that. Instead, maybe you rest or pick a different form of movement. Sometimes, I’ll plan to go on a run and it’ll end up being a walk (or visa-versa) because that’s what feels best in my body that day. Also, there’s no set number of days anyone needs to exercise. It is what feels good in your body and works with your schedule. For me, I really enjoy and benefit from moving my body in some way most days and always make sure I have one or two full days a week where I am resting. Like intuitive eating, I try to leave space in my life for some movement, but I let it be flexible depending on how I am feeling or what’s going on that day.
Make it FUN!! If it’s not fun (or at least uplifting), why are we doing it? I can honestly say that my old days of getting up before 6 am to run X amount of miles in the dark does not sound fun to me now (I doubt it did then either). Lately, my movement has been super fun, especially my solo dance parties. I also love going to yoga classes with my girlfriends or my mom … always fun to practice with someone you love.
Do it because it makes you feel good and out of respect. If you have ever only exercised because you want to change your body or it gives you a false sense of control (see next bulletpoint), it may be a good idea to back off completely and re-calibrate your relationship to movement. Exercise has all sorts of benefits, completely unrelated to how we look, like disease risk reduction/prevention (including depression), and increased mood and focus. Listening to our bodies to tell us what they want each day is body respect. Exercising punitively is not.
[Personally, when I realized I had an unhealthy dependence on exercise and was ready to make changes, I backed off significantly. I stopped signing up for races constantly decreased my running significantly. I also decreased intense, heated yoga classes, and got in more restorative, gentle practices. That’s not to say that running races or hot, intense yoga classes are bad things, or that I won’t ever do them again. I just knew I needed to let go for a while to get in a healthier place. At first, it was a little uncomfortable and my mind was not happy. Compulsive and over- exercise is an unhealthy coping mechanism, and when we try to release coping mechanisms (much like letting go of eating disorder behavior or withdrawing from drugs), it can feel really f-ing scary, and maybe even like a loss of identity. But if you allow yourself to endure that discomfort, and find other ways to care for yourself and your life, that are not destructive, man, that freedom on the other side is SO AMAZING.]
Keep in mind – exercise is not therapy. Like I said above, exercising compulsively or obsessively serves as a coping mechanism, and can feel like it’s taking away your problems. The truth is – it’s not. If you’re going through something in your life that’s really challenging, or your dealing with trauma from your past, seek therapy. Reaching out for help is strength, not weakness. Exercising and numbing the pain away doesn’t work long-term – it will just make things worse. Indeed, movement has its benefits and can certainly be an integral part of a truly nourishing self-care routine – when it is not rigid, punitive, or used for control or food compensation. It can help you be more connected to your body if it’s done in a loving and intuitive way. And yes, it gives you endorphins and a dopamine release, which helps boost mood for some time, and that’s all good and well. But it is not addressing what’s going on underneath.
Remember you don’t need to compensate for anything. Moving our bodies is not something we need to do to “work off” food, and we certainly do not need to “earn” food through exercising. We have earned food by being born.
Drop the “no pain, no gain” BS. The other day I was running and planned for a tentative amount of time. My hip started talking to me after a much shorter time than I am used to running, but I started walking without any question. In my old frame of mind, I would have been like, “C’mon you need to at least run for X amount of time” and pushed through it. I started talking back to that voice – “Says who??? Some stupid rule??? No Thanks.” Once you realize external rules take you away from your body, and how freeing it is to respond with love to its signals in each moment, that’s when exercise really becomes joyful. You do not need to “push through pain” in order to reap the benefits of exercise (that’s the opposite of listening to your body).
Try restorative or gentle yoga. They are slow, nourishing practices that help you to physically and emotionally release in a safe space. Gentler yoga practices are a great way to slow down and truly hear your body. Yoga is my number one go-to when it comes to getting and staying connected to my body. It is a beautiful fusion of body, mind and spirit.
I used to exercise to feel like I was enough, and to try to control my body, my feelings, and thus, my life. Now, I move to energize myself, to get in my body and out of my head, to feel my strength, and to release energy.
I promise — shifting from habituated and rigid exercise routines to intuitively moving is worth the initial discomfort and “loss of control.” I put that in quotes, because — like I said above — when you start to eat and move intuitively, you actually are taking back your control… and really, your life. And then you start to LIVE intuitively, not just eat and move intuitively, instead of trying to live just like other people, and listening to external rules, guidelines or “should”ing all over yourself.
You may be wondering how re-learning to eat and move intuitively can help you live your whole life more authentically. It’s a doorway into a lifetime of freedom. Think about the saying – how you do one thing is how you do everything. If you’re eating and moving in some restrictive, controlled, stifled, rigid way, chances are you may be living a lot of your life that way. When you listen to your intuition, you can hear YOU loud and clear, and can confidently make bigger life decisions, beyond eating and exercise, knowing that you have all the answers right inside you.
If you would like help and support on your journey to becoming an intuitive mover and eater, and to heal from disordered eating and/or let go of dieting for good, please send me a message on my contact page or email, and we can discuss working together in the near future.
In true health,