Intuitive exercise: how to take the pressure off your fitness regime

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We’re celebrating body diversity. We’re starting to get strong. We’re eating mindfully. So why are we still forcing ourselves into punishing exercise regimes, asks Chloe Gray?

I really like exercise. I like how powerful I feel when I’ve squatted more than I weigh, and I like the pride and ego boost I get when I finish the set that it would have been 1,000 times easier to give up on. I like that it makes me feel more awake (weird, considering it means getting up an hour earlier).

But I know that sometimes, exercise can make me feel bad. For a long time, I felt like I had to train – dragging myself to the gym despite a lack of sleep or sore muscles – rather than working out because I loved it. Even now, I sometimes overdo it, pushing myself when my body is asking me to stop.  

I’m not alone in that. We’re in the midst of a diet culture pushback: we’ve said goodbye to miserable chicken and broccoli lunches in favour of satisfying foods, we’re years past the ‘beach body ready’ backlash and we know that it’s better to eat a biscuit a day than deprive ourselves of them until we smash 27 packs in one sitting. Yet we don’t seem to raise an eyebrow at punishing workout routines – why?

Dysfunctional exercise

A 2015 paper defines a dysfunctional relationship with exercise as “a spectrum of behaviours from a lack of physical activity to excessive and compulsive exercise behaviours”, with sufferers experiencing “feelings of euphoria, withdrawal, and guilt”. Some studies suggest that 3% of the general public experience this feeling surrounding exercise. I realise that I am no one to disagree with professional researchers, but I’m going to: 3% feels ignorantly low.  

I see it everywhere: in myself, my friends, my colleagues and even strangers on the internet. “Everyone seems to be training 24/7,” says Tally Rye, an intuitive exercise personal trainer and member of the Strong Women Collective. “It means you always feel a pressure to move and to exercise.” 

A woman with a kettlebell sat on the floor between sets, feeling tired after working out too much.
Intuitive exercise: why do we still have punishing workout routines?

It’s not just the amount of exercise we put ourselves through, but the type. Look at Instagram or the names of classes at your favourite studio and you’ll probably find workouts that ‘promise’ a juicy bum, lean arms and a flat tummy – as though achieving those things is the main benefit of the movement.

“Exercise is sold to us as being body changing and aesthetic driven,” continues Tally. “We relate diet culture to ‘tea detoxes’ and Weight Watchers but it’s much more than that. Fitness has hijacked diet and wellness culture, and for women in particular it’s really aggressive.”

What’s intuitive exercise?

Intuitive exercise is the antidote to all of that.

We’ve heard the phrase ‘listen to your body’ bandied about, but it feels unhelpful to describe intuitive exercise in this way. A 2016 study by intuitive movement researcher Justine Reel PhD and her team define it as involving “an awareness of the senses while moving and attending to one’s bodily cues for when to start and stop exercise, rather than feeling compelled to adhere to a rigid program”. 

Most of us know what the latter feels like. Working out on already sore muscles because you think you need to hit your weekly quota of sessions, getting up early despite your mind screaming for sleep or spending more time than necessary in the gym just to close the rings on your tracker. 

“In a culture that says your tracker or plan knows best, and you don’t know how to eat or how to exercise, we’ve lost our trust with our bodies,” explains Tally. 

“Intuitive exercise is understanding what your body needs to do. It’s saying ‘life is really crazy right now, I don’t want to go and do an intense class. What I need to do is some meditation or a gentle walk while listening to a podcast.’ Or, equally, it’s saying ‘I was going to do yoga today but I’ve woken up with a ton of energy and so I’m going to go for a run.’ It’s giving yourself room to be flexible with your training and do what feels good on a daily basis.”

Reel points out that intuitive exercise doesn’t mean anything goes, but rather that you’re free from judgement: “One’s bodily cues and enjoyment have a place in the decision-making process but we still hope to meet recommended levels of physical activity.” 

This is where I struggle: as someone who genuinely enjoys exercise, how do I know whether I’m going to the gym because it’s my hobby or because I feel obliged? “It’s about one’s psychology related to exercise, not the behaviour itself,” Reel tells me. “Ask yourself what ‘counts’ as exercise and what type of enjoyment you obtain from the movement.”

If you’re someone who can train six days a week without any negative impact, that’s great. But if three workouts a week is mentally and physically draining you, it’s time to check in. To help you do that, Reel developed the Intuitive Exercise Scale, which involves ranking how much you agree with 14 statements such as “I find myself exercising when I′m feeling negative emotions (for example, anxious, depressed, or sad) even when I don’t feel like exercising” and “I trust my body to tell me what type of exercise to do”.

The benefits of intuitive exercise

On a simplistic level, doing what you like means you’re more likely to stick to it, whether that’s a job, the food you eat or your workout. It means you’ll be willing to let yourself sleep, socialise and sweat when you realise that’s what you really need.

On a more scientific level, another paper by Reel states that “feeling compelled to exercise to the extreme yields negative consequences such as overuse injuries, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and problems with social relationships”. When we know how beneficial exercise is for supporting our mental health, it’s absurd that diet culture has made our relationship with exercise so toxic.

Fighting back against the patriarchy isn’t usually listed when discussing the benefits of exercise, but if we stop working for the bodies that society wants us to have it’s amazing what we can do. For Tally, it was discovering the joys of reading and writing, something she never had the brain space for when she was obsessing over her training. “I’ve been able to learn more and consume more because I’m not distracted,” Tally explains. She’s even written her book, Train Happy: An Intuitive Exercise Plan for Every Body.

“[Diet culture] is a political way of keeping us preoccupied and distracted and consumed with trying to look our best rather than using our brains to the full capacity.”

How to exercise intuitively 

To start with, change the language. “We think of ‘exercise’ as repetitive movements like running or classes where you’re repeating things over and over again. But the concept of ‘movement’ is quite open and it means you can fit a lot of things into it,” says Tally.

Then, make all movement equal. “Challenge the fitness beliefs, like when people say yoga isn’t a valid workout or your inner monologue says you didn’t sweat enough so it didn’t count,” Tally continues. “Making peace with exercise is about knowing that there aren’t good workouts or bad workouts, there’s just different ways of moving your body and they have different outcomes.” 

Focusing on the benefits of exercise that don’t include aesthetic goals is easier said than done, but it’s an important step. Reel says that outside messages don’t promote intuition, and that means questioning everything you see. In an Instagram post shared by Tally, she suggested avoiding these external cues about the quality of your workout by covering calorie counters of cardio machines and taking breaks when your body wants one, not when the teacher says they’re allowed. 

I think it’s also calming to realise that overhauling your mindset doesn’t mean you have to totally start from scratch. Tally talks about how training for a marathon or triathlon will need to include a plan or regime, but the difference with that is that it is based on hitting a goal that isn’t based on feeling bad about yourself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve at something, provided you’re training with the intention of crossing the finish line, beating your personal best and enjoying the experience and challenge. 

Reel agrees: “Many people crave structure and that is okay too. The idea is that if one is intuitive they will stop exercising or at least slow down if they experience pain or injury even if it does not fit into the plan.”

Tally says something that sticks with me: “When we let children run around we call it play, and what’s sad is that we’ve taken that fun element out of movement. I think making time in your week to move your body is like adult playtime.”

Now, when I go to a class feeling tired I swap to a lighter weight rather than forcing myself through it and rendering my body useless for the next week. I stop being in agony and just reasonably struggle to a point I expect from exercise, and my brain stops beating me up for failing to finish the set. It’s empowering. When I go out for drinks with friends instead of setting my alarm for the gym the next morning, I allow myself to sleep off the gin. The day after I tend to smash my session well-rested, rather than knackered. I’ve realised it’s fun to listen to yourself. 

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Image: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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