You may have heard of intuitive eating, the practice of tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness cues to inform how you eat. Now, some people recommend applying a similar concept to your fitness routine and practicing intuitive exercise.
Although there are some benefits to this way of exercising, not all experts agree on its effectiveness. So, we decided to break down the pros and cons of this new fitness idea.
What Is Intuitive Exercise?
Intuitive exercise is when you listen to your body to dictate how you work out from day to day. You know that your body feels differently every day: Sometimes you’re bursting with energy and ready to crush an intense treadmill class. But some days you feel sore and tired, and you might not be too excited to do sprint intervals for an hour.
Faced with such a dilemma, some people will buck up, adopting an attitude of “It’s Tuesday, and Tuesday is treadmill day. I’m going.” Others will bail on their workout plans entirely, and maybe even feel guilty about it because they think they’re failing to reach their goals.
But intuitive exercisers are different. If they don’t think that their body is in the right state for a certain kind of exercise, they’ll acknowledge how their body feels and decide to do something else, like restorative yoga, instead of nothing at all. Or maybe they’ll just do a modified, shorter workout.
“Intuitive exercise is the concept of really being connected with what feels right for your body and what will optimally serve you in a particular moment,” explains Jessica Matthews, DBH, professor of integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University, in San Diego, California.
The Benefits of Intuitive Exercise
Intuitive exercise can help you stay more active by avoiding black-and-white thinking about exercise. “When we have all-or-nothing thinking approach, we may scrap our plans until the conditions are ‘right,'” Matthews says. By tuning into your body, you can determine the kind of movement you need at a given point in time.
“Intuitive exercise can also help you initially choose the kind of exercise that you’ll find most enjoyable and motivating, ” says Thieme. If you hate running, find another form of cardio! Take a look inward to discover the kind of exercise you’ll look forward to doing. “The more you enjoy exercise, the more consistent you’ll be,” adds Thieme, “and that’s most important factor in realizing any fitness goal.”
The Drawbacks of Intuitive Exercise
Although intuitive exercise may sound ideal, not everyone is on board with it as a primary way of working out. “Listening to your body is critically important when it comes to exercise—especially during a workout,” says Thieme, adding that it’s what allows you to challenge yourself without increasing your risk of overtraining or injury. “But basing your daily workout choice solely on what you feel like doing doesn’t support the kind of progressive consistency that optimizes results.”
In other words, you run the risk of your workouts becoming random instead of strategic and goal-driven. That’s especially problematic if you’re training with a specific goal or event in mind. “If you want to run a half marathon, you can’t just see how things go day-to-day,” Matthews says. “You need to progress in a safe and effective manner.”
It can also be easy to slack off if you only exercise intuitively. “You risk being misled by your mind and potentially untrue thoughts like ‘I’m too busy’ and ‘I’m too tired’ instead of doing what’s truly best for your body,” says Thieme. “I can’t think of a single successful athlete that ever said, ‘I got where I am by doing what I felt like doing each day.'”
How to Use Intuitive Exercise Effectively
If you’re interested in intuitive exercise, there is a way to use it and still achieve your fitness goals.
To start, it can be a good jumping off point if you’re new to working out.“If you’re just beginning your fitness journey and lack motivation, this approach might be helpful in getting the ball rolling,” Thieme says. It reduces some of the pressure to find the perfect kind of exercise to start with, and helps you to just get moving!
It can also help you stay active when life occasionally prevents you following your structured workout program. In those instances, use intuitive exercise to find a way to challenge your body and move your fitness forward instead of just bailing on your workout.
Regardless of how you pursue intuitive exercise, the key to doing it effectively is to be honest about how you’re feeling and to always push yourself. “That’s a winning recipe for [exercising] consistently and reaching your goals,” Matthews says.