What is intuitive exercise?

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK
21 November 2019
Next review due November 2022

When it comes to exercise, do you find that some days you’re enthusiastic and full of energy, but other days it feels like a struggle to even put your trainers on? Perhaps you view exercise as something you ‘should do’ because you know it’s good for your health, but you don’t enjoy it – maybe even dread it.

Intuitive exercise is a relatively new way of thinking when it comes to staying physically active. It offers a different approach, avoiding prescriptive, set exercise types or sessions. Here, I’ll explain what intuitive exercise is and how it might work for you.

What is intuitive exercise?

Intuitive exercise, sometimes referred to as intuitive movement, focuses on connecting and listening to your body, and basing the exercise you do on how you feel. You listen to your bodily cues for when to start and stop exercise, rather than feeling compelled to attend a gym class or a HIIT session, for instance.

Why exercise intuitively?

Rigid exercise programmes are often harder to adapt to reflect how you’re feeling that day. Because of this, it means you’re more likely to avoid doing it in the first place, or feel stressed or demotivated at even the thought of it.

Listening to your body and acting on its cues means you’re better connected with yourself. Because of this, you may feel more positive and responsive to the exercise you’re doing. Thinking of exercise as self-care rather than punishment means there’s a higher chance you’ll partake and therefore enjoy all the benefits that physical activity holds.

How to embrace intuitive exercise

If staying physically active is sometimes a battle, intuitive exercise may be a good approach for you. Here are some ways to practice it.

Avoid structured exercise programmes

Following a gym programme or having a fixed structure to how you exercise means you don’t have the flexibility to adapt how you exercise, or when and where you do it. Try to dial into your body and see how you’re feeling that day to help decide what exercise to do.

For example, if you feel stiff and simply want to use your time in the gym to stretch, go for it. Or maybe you’re craving fresh air, so go for a brisk walk or jog instead of attending the HIIT class you booked in to.

Do something you enjoy

When you’re intrinsically motivated to do something, you do it because you find it enjoyable, satisfying or rewarding. You’re also far more likely to continue with it and maintain your exercise regime, rather than if you’re driven by external rewards, such as losing weight (extrinsically motivated).

If you loathe running, then don’t do it. Why not try a dance class instead, or perhaps yoga or Pilates is more your thing? It’s also important to remember that our bodies are all different and what works for one person might not work for you, or vice versa.

Understand your motivations to exercise

There can be a lot of pressure from social media or even friends to exercise a certain way or have a certain body shape. Understanding your personal reasons for being active will help you to stay motivated. For example, why do you want a strong core? Perhaps it’s to prevent back pain or support you when holding your young children.

Pay attention to how you feel

Make a point of mindfully ‘checking in’ with how you feel both during and after your exercise. Remember to breathe and connect to your body to be in the present moment. Did it make you feel good and energised, or exhausted and in pain?

Be kind to yourself and adapt your workout duration, type and intensity based on how you feel, without feeling guilty that you haven’t ‘pushed yourself’. In fact, research shows that people who are self-compassionate are more likely to keep going and achieve their goals in the long term.

Take rest days

Listen to your body and rest when you feel you need to. Rest and recovery are equally as important as exercise. Perhaps do a less intense form of exercise if you still want to do something. For example, do some gentle yoga at home or go for a long walk instead of hitting the gym or lifting weights.

Think outside the box

There are many ways you can move your body other than going to the gym or for a run. The UK Department of Health recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week from a range of leisure activities. This can include gardening, housework, playing with your children, team sports or walking your dog. Think intuitively – what will you get enjoyment from and where is your mood taking you today?

Move outside

Being outside in green spaces has a whole host of positive effects on our physical and mental health. What’s more, research shows that exercising in the natural environment, as opposed to inside, can increase your enjoyment and reduce your perceived effort. This means you’re more likely to work harder or for longer without even realising.

Consider turning off wearables

Trackers or wearables can be useful for giving real-time feedback and monitoring your behaviour. However, you don’t need this data to be able to exercise intuitively. In fact, trackers could be doing you more harm than good by causing undue pressure. You might not tune in to how your body is really feeling, but instead feel you have to exercise for a certain time before you stop.

10 principles of intuitive eating

You may have heard of the 10 principles of intuitive eating. These include enjoying your food, eating when you're hungry, not seeing foods as good or bad, and not tracking meals. The philosophy behind intuitive eating can also be applied to intuitive exercise. You listen to your body’s cues and how you feel in that moment to work out what type of exercise to do and for how long.

In fact, movement makes up the ninth principle of intuitive eating – to focus on something you enjoy doing rather than seeing exercise as a way to burn calories.

Do you exercise intuitively?

Look at the statements below and see if you exercise intuitively or not.

Thoughts and actions from a non-intuitive exerciser

  • I find myself exercising when I′m feeling negative emotions (for example, anxious, depressed or sad).
  • I exercise even when I don't feel like exercising.
  • I find myself exercising when I’m lonely, even when I don’t feel like exercising.
  • I use exercise to help soothe my negative emotions.
  • I find myself exercising when I'm stressed out, even when I've already exercised.
  • I use exercise to distract myself from or avoid negative emotions.

Thoughts and actions from an intuitive exerciser

  • I trust my body to tell me when to exercise.
  • I trust my body to tell me what type of exercise to do.
  • I trust my body to tell me how much exercise to do.
  • I incorporate a variety of physical activities into my exercise plan.
  • I enjoy different types of physical activities when I exercise.
  • I engage in a variety of different types of exercise.
  • I stop exercising when I feel pain.
  • I stop exercising when I’m fatigued.
  • When my body feels tired, I stop exercising.

Remember, intuitive exercise isn’t about ‘slacking off’ or doing less because you don’t feel like it. It’s about making sure you exercise enough to reap all the benefits of exercise, but in a way that suits your body and mind in that moment. Intuitive exercise doesn’t work for everyone, but perhaps next time you don’t feel motivated to hit the gym, head out for a long, brisk walk instead and see how it makes you feel.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lauren Gordon
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK

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