the tenth part of my deep dive into intuitive eating covering what it is, how to begin to put it into practice and my take on it as a registered dietitian.
Today’s post is all about learning to feel the difference between healthy & unhealthy exercise routines, the ninth principle of Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program.
If you missed previous posts in this series, you can catch up now:
- Intuitive Eating: What Is It? – a basic overview of what the Intuitive Eating program is
- Intuitive Eating: Reject the Diet Mentality (Principle #1) – a discussion of the first principle within the Intuitive Eating program and the very important first step that needs to be taken in order to start your journey.
- Intuitive Eating: Honoring Your Hunger (Principle #2) – a conversation about the importances of listening to your body and the very real biological responses that occur when we don’t
- Intuitive Eating: Making Peace with Food (Principle #3) – discussing how to embrace this very critical step of the IE process and why it can be scary to do so
- Intuitive Eating: Challenging the Food Police (Principle #4)– covering everything from what the Food Police are to how to work on overcoming their detrimental messages.
- Intuitive Eating: Feel Your Fullness (Principle #5) – discussing ways in which we ignore our internal signals (like fullness) and ways to get back in touch with them.
- Intuitive Eating: Discover the Satisfaction Factor (Principle #6) – understanding how to tap into your true cravings and how to honor them without guilt.
- Intuitive Eating: Coping With Your Emotions Without Using Food (Principle #7) – learning to recognize when you’re using food to cope & some suggestions on how to move away from doing so.
- Intuitive Eating: Respect Your Body (Principle #8) – learning to respect the body you were given and treat it as it deserves to be treated regardless of its shape and size
And you can always find all the posts I publish in this series right here should you wish to revisit one at any point.
The second to last principle in Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program is all about exercise and learning to distinguish healthy from unhealthy routines.
I love this chapter in their book because their message is something I have always whole-heartedly believed in: you don’t need to do some militant exercise program to be healthy. Just get active in whatever way feels good to you!
So many people ask me what my exercise “program” is and while I work to follow a general routine of cardio and strength training, the details of it change all the time depending on my mood. I really have always just tried to make exercise fun – do activities that I enjoy and fit my mood (unless I’m specifically training for something).
When you’ve only ever had negative exercise experiences, it can seem crazy to think anyone would actually enjoy the act of doing it. That said, there are likely a number of past experiences you’ve had connected to exercise that have put a bad taste in your mouth and, if rectified, can likely reunite you with a healthy, enjoyable exercise routine!
EXERCISE GONE WRONG:
Moving our bodies is great for our health, there’s no disputing it. However, there are a number of circumstances under which doing so actually hurts not only our health, but our mindset. Here are a few experiences you might have had related to exercise that could be causing you to be less than enthused about the idea of working out:
Focusing Only On Weight Loss / Calories Burned
Tribole and Resch recommend you “[s]hift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise” which I couldn’t agree with more. When you take the focus off how many calories you’re burning and how much weight you’re losing, you can instead tune into how exercise makes you feel. And in figuring out how exercise makes you feel (more energized, happier, less stressed, etc.) exercise goes from something you dread to something you can look forward to and enjoy.
Exercising on Improper Fuel
Dieting and exercise tend to go hand and hand which can make exercise feel more like a punishment than something to be enjoyed. Particularly because dieting often means limiting calories or carbohydrates (or both!) leaving you with little energy to do day to day things let alone exercise!
I’ve said this time and time again, but carbohydrates are the preferred fuel of our bodies and brains. It’s no surprise that when your diet is low in them, you find yourself with a lack of energy (and subsequent motivation) for working out. As I’ve discussed before, if carbohydrate load is too low, your body starts breaking down your own muscle to convert into usable energy to support your needs. If your only experience with exercise has been in this state, it’s no wonder you don’t enjoy it! Don’t blame yourself or label yourself a “failure” – it’s your body’s natural biological response to exercise on improper fuel. You’ll be amazed to see the difference when you a) exercise when properly fueled and b) participate in activities you actually enjoy rather than activities you feel you should be doing.
Similar to crash dieting, crash exercising occurs in a burst when someone is trying to get in shape in a short amount of time. And, if you haven’t already guessed it, crash exercising, just like its dieting counterpart, is often counterproductive. It usually leads to individuals doing too much too soon and either burning out or worse, injuring themselves. As with weight loss, toning and building muscles takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and is best done in small, manageable increments over time.
Having an All-or-Nothing Attitude
Either you’re “doing everything right” or doing nothing at all. Exercise is best when it’s a part of your daily life in ways that you enjoy. The all-or-nothing attitude tends to create fast and feverish boughts of exercise that are short-lived and don’t help create a positive, lifelong relationship with activity. Just as with eating well, there is no “perfect” exercise routine so trying to stick to one (especially if it’s not one that feels good!) is fruitless. Move when your body feels motivated to do so but cut yourself slack when it doesn’t. Allow yourself days (or even weeks!) of rest as needed without any guilt. If you listen to your body and let it be your guide, it will always steer you in the right direction.
Rebelling Against Well-Meaning Individuals
If you had a bad experience growing up with your parents telling you to exercise or if your friends and loved ones try to help “keep you on track” and remind you to exercise, it can turn you off from it all together. Again, as well-intentioned as these things might be from others, they take the focus off how exercise makes you feel it tend to put it on things like weight loss.
BREAKING THROUGH THE BARRIERS TO EXERCISE:
If you’ve experienced any or all of the above, it’s likely that exercise is not your favorite – and understandably so! When we exercise for the wrong reasons, with the wrong mindset or with the wrong fuel, it’s only natural that your body will reject it.
Focus on How It Feels
There is nothing better than going out for a run or a walk with no time or distance in mind and just enjoying the act of moving your body. I’ll often go for runs without my watch so that I can just enjoy the process of running without the pressure of going a certain distance or beating a certain time. When I focus on how working out reduces my stress and anxiety, gives me energy, helps with mental clarity and provides me with a sense of accomplishment, I’m much more motivated to do it (and stick with it!) than I would be if I were only doing it to burn calories or lose weight.
When you can really feel the difference between exercising consistently and being inactive, the positive feelings can be a motivating factor for continuing.Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works
Disassociate Exercise from Weight Loss
It’s no secret that physical activity plays a role in weight loss. It’s a well documented aspect of long-term weight maintenance given its significant role in preservation of lean muscle mass and metabolism. That said, it’s only part of the weight loss puzzle (diet, sleep, hydration, etc. all also play a role) which means that if weight loss is the only reason you’re doing it, you’re likely not going to be motivated to stick with it for long (and you may resort to unhealthy habits, like crash exercising, in an attempt to speed it up).
Use Exercise as Me Time
When I was in grad school, taking time to workout was pretty much the only time I had to just focus on me. The rest of the time was reading, studying, doing projects, volunteering, etc. Carving out time as many days a week as I could to workout was a HUGE stress relief and a great way to just disconnect from it all and focus on myself. The same thing happened when I had Owen. Especially when I was still nursing and he wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, having that time allocated to just take a walk or go for a light run or do a strength workout made SO much different in my mental and emotional health (and made me a better mom at that!). In addition, exercise provides benefits such as:
- Increased bone, heart & lung strength
- Decreased blood pressure
- Reduced risk for certain chronic diseases
- Increased HDL (good cholesterol)
- Increased metabolism (which maintains lean body mass and increases energy production in the cells)
Get Rid of Exercise Mind Games
The All-or-Nothing Trap: We’ve already talked about avoiding the all-or-nothing trap. I know first hand how easy it can be to fall into this trap. As a competitive runner through high school, it took me a long time to break out of the mentality that I either had to do all of my planned workout or nothing at all. Now, when I run, I let my body determine how long/hard I’ll go. If I set out to run 6 miles but feel awful at 4 miles, I stop. Rather than berating myself for not finishing what I had planned, I feel grateful for the workout I did get in. Over the long-term, do something is better than doing nothing.
The Too Busy To Workout Trap: I know firsthand how hectic life can be. Often on busy days exercise is the first thing to go. When this is one day or two, that’s one thing, but when it drags on for months or years, it’s worth it to take a look at how you’re scheduling your life. In grad school I found that scheduling in time to exercise like an obligation I would otherwise never skip (such as a class or a counseling session) helped me make sure that I had the time for it most days. If you really truly can’t find 30 minutes in the day, you may be over-scheduled and it’s worth looking at what in your life you might be able to scale back on to give yourself more time for self-care.
Aside from that though, on days when I really was booked morning to night and trying to squeeze exercise in would mean sacrificing sleep or something else important, I would look at my daily living and find ways to be more active. Instead of taking the train from my apartment to campus, I would do the 2 mile walk there and back. By the end of the day I had walked 4 miles without even realizing it because it was just part of my commute (plus it saved me money because I didn’t have to pay for the train!). Or, if I really needed to study, I would take my flashcards and take a walk around the Boston Commons or through Beacon Hill studying as I went. If you really feel like you don’t have 30 minutes to spare in a day and you’ve looked at your schedule and can’t find some wiggle room, then look for ways to incorporate physical activity into your every day life (even if it’s just parking your car further, taking the stairs, or walking to a co-workers desk versus messaging them on slack – those things add up!).
The “It Doesn’t Count If I Don’t Sweat” Trap: The reason I have always been such a proponent of just doing what you love (vs. having to follow a certain workout program) is because studies have actually been done to show that you can gain benefits even from simple activities such as walking or gardening. Tribole and Resch state in their book that “[a]fter reviewing over forty-three studies, the CDC and ACSM concluded that simply moving thirty minutes over the course of most days of the week could reduce the risk of heart disease by half!” And better yet, those 30 minutes don’t need to be all at once. Break it up into 5, 10 or 15 minute bursts – whatever works for you and your lifestyle.
Make Exercise Fun
Are you sick of hearing this yet?? Hopefully not because it’s such an important message! Do things you enjoy, mix it up, listen to a good book on audible or a podcast, watch a show or read a magazine if you’re working out on indoor equipment. Whatever it takes to make it an enjoyable situation for you, is what you should do!
Similar to what we talked about last week in the Respect Your Body post, being comfortable while working out makes a big difference. Working out is not about looking a certain way. It’s about feeling good and that should extend to the clothes you wear. It’s not a fashion show! You’re there to do good things for your body and mind and that’s what matters!
Take Rest Days
Usually with strict diet and workout programs there are little to no rest days recommended. Remember that a few days or weeks of not exercising is not going to disrupt your overall health or weight. If you feel like you need a break, listen to your body and take it. As I’ve said before, sometimes self-care means making the decision not to workout and prioritize sleep, time with a loved one or even a massage instead! Rest also helps keep you motivated. Taking a day off can make you excited for your next workout and gives your body a chance to heal.
ONE FINAL NOTE:
The process of Intuitive Eating can feel slow and sometimes progress can be hard to identify. Incorporating exercise can be a great way to feel a sense of progress and accomplishment as you work through the IE program. Just be sure that exercise is moderate and is not consuming you or interfering with your every day life (i.e. making you feel guilty if you miss a single day, punishing yourself with exercise for eating a certain thing, inability to rest when your body needs it). Do things you enjoy, don’t look it as a punishment and remember that every little bit counts.