One writer investigates how intuitive movement can change our relationship with exercise for the better, and why we should be thinking about ditching PBs for good.
When I first started strength training around three years ago, I tracked my workouts religiously. Every warm-up set and one rep max, every 5k jogged and Russian twist begrudgingly completed. I found so much comfort – and motivation – in the numbers that showed me I was getting stronger. Every time my workout app would chime with “New Personal Best”, my heart leapt.
But at some point along the way, I started to feel chained to the idea I had to hit a milestone every time I exercised. Even if I felt physically satisfied after a workout, I’d leave disappointed that I hadn’t achieved a new PB.
So much of what we associate with movement is tied to numbers, calories burned or steps taken. The International Sports Sciences Association suggests that workouts are more efficient, and therefore successful, with a numerical goal in mind, and I don’t disagree. But what if we erased everything we’ve learned and been told about fitness milestones: would movement alone still make us feel as good? Would enjoying ourselves while we move our bodies be enough of a goal?
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Intuitive exercise: how to take the pressure off your fitness regime
“Having fitness goals can be useful, and when we train we’re often pushing ourselves towards better endurance or more strength,” Annette, a trainer at fitness app Ponzu, tells Stylist.
“However, that everyday, more intuitive movement like walking or hiking is also so crucial for our health. You don’t have to always be pushing and getting to your peak fitness level, as long as you’re releasing those endorphins and feeling good while keeping your body active.”
The intuitive fitness movement, pioneered by influencers like Tally Rye, refers to the practice of connecting and listening to your body to figure out how it feels and what type of movement it needs that day. Instead of picking what type of exercise you think you “should” do, you instead use your body’s internal cues to figure out the best type, length and intensity of the workout.
When exercising intuitively, you’re actively choosing to move your body for the sake of self-care or health benefits, instead of doing it to lose weight, burn calories, or hit another numerical goal.
Annette identifies how, often, we quantify our workouts not by how they make us feel, but how much we “got” out of them. “We have this idea around ‘proper’ exercise. Sometimes we get on a machine or pick up an exercise and we’re always focused on how our time has improved or how much the weight has been upped, but not necessarily on nailing the technique.”
In theory, the psychological and health benefits of exercise should be enough on their own, without making exercise always a competition to beat ourselves, or other people.
Exercise is a scientifically proven mood booster, decreasing symptoms of both depression and anxiety, as well as stress and increasing our self-esteem. Physical activity increases body temperature, which can have calming effects on the mind, leading to better, deeper sleep. Exercise also helps regulate your circadian rhythm, our bodies’ built-in alarm clock that controls when we feel tired and when we feel alert.
So why do we feel so tied to milestone achievements when we know well that just doing the thing is beneficial enough for our health?
How to practise intuitive movement
In my own training, the thing that began to divorce me from my obsession with fitness milestones was lockdown. Unable to weight train, I plunged myself into doing whatever exercise I could as a welcome distraction from the outside world, as well as to give my body the physical boost I knew it needed.
While I timed a few runs (mainly out of intrigue having not jogged for about five years before that), I found that I really leaned into intuitive movement. Walking one day and doing a home workout the next, because it felt right. Stretching because I wanted to relieve tension and feel limber, not because my app told me I had to do two yoga flows a day.
Annette recommends yoga flows, mobility work and stretching as her favourite ways to exercise intuitively. “You’re not necessarily going to do the same amount of reps or lift the same weight, but you’re still going to reap the benefits. It may not feel as intense, but it’s keeping that level of fitness inside you that will help you get mentally as well as physically stronger, and more confident.”
Conducting a body scan is also a great way to start tuning into your body’s physical and emotional state. As intuitive eating counsellor and dietician Alissa Rumsey writes: “Starting at the top of your head, focus on each of your body parts and how they are feeling. Head, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, back – making your way slowly down your body. This will help you figure out how your body is feeling that day – whether it is tight and sore, stressed and wound up, or loose and energised.”
Rumsey also suggests avoiding an “all-or-nothing” mindset when it comes to movement. “When you try to keep a strict exercise routine it can mean that, if it doesn’t happen, you end up feeling guilty, which can cause more stress and lower motivation to exercise the next time. Research shows that self-compassion is linked to increased motivation and improved health behaviours so in the long run, this can actually help you maintain a consistent exercise routine.
“Intuitive exercise is flexible, so if you end up missing a workout, you show yourself some compassion, be understanding about why you couldn’t make it to the gym, and then move on. ”