You might know I’m an advocate of Intuitive Eating for promoting a healthy relationship with food, but today, I want to discuss Intuitive Exercise.

First, consider the commonalities between Intuitive Eating and Intuitive Exercise – and also between Diet Mentality and Exercise Rigidity/Exercise Avoidance:

Intuitive Eating + Intuitive Exercise

Diet Mentality + Exercise Rigidity

Pleasurable Guilt-Driven
Guided by internal cues (i.e. listening to your body) Dictated by external rules (“shoulds”)
Flexible Rigid
Promotes mind-body connection Leads to body disconnection or numbing
Increases body trust Increases body distrust

Interestingly, you don’t even have to be exercising to suffer from Exercise Rigidity, just like you don’t have to be actively dieting to suffer from Diet Mentality (guilt would be your steady companion though). In fact, assessing your relationship to exercise is less about how much you exercise and more about your mindset around exercise (more on that later).

Here are some signs of Exercise Rigidity. Do you relate to any of them?

  • You feel guilty when you miss a day of exercise.
  • You have strict rules about “what counts” as exercise.
  • You turn down invitations to connect with others so that you can stick to your exercise plan.
  • You push yourself as hard as you can when you exercise (only to risk injuring yourself). You believe no pain = no gain.
  • You exercise even if you’re sick or it leaves you more tired the rest of the day.
  • You suffer withdrawal symptoms if you take a break from exercising.
  • You often exercise longer than you intended.
  • You’re worried that if you stop exercising, you’ll never start again because you’re so burnt out.

At its extreme, compulsive exercise is linked to serious consequences, including stress fractures, compromised immune function, osteopenia, osteoporosis, permanent injuries and even death. Researchers compare compulsive exercise to other addiction models, such as substance abuse and gambling.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that values “fitness” with a religious fervor – as if being fit is the end-all-be-all in life. So unlike gambling and drugs, those suffering from compulsive exercise often get lots of positive reinforcement from others.

I should also mention that those suffering from anorexia will likely need to stop exercising as part of their treatment and be monitored by a treatment team including providers who specialize (dietitian, therapist, doctor and possibly psychiatrist).

Now let’s circle back to exploring your mindset around exercise. The first thing to consider is why you exercise. Research examining why people exercise has found extrinsic motivators such as appearance or what others will think of you is significantly correlated to poor mental well-being. Conversely, intrinsic motivators such as personal enjoyment, are linked to better well-being.

Take a moment to reflect on your relationship to exercise and whether it’s more intuitive and flexible (and thus linked to better outcomes) or rigid and stress-inducing. Consider if what you do for movement — whether it’s raking leaves, swimming, nature walks or working out – meet these four criteria for mindful exercise (as defined by researchers Colgero and Pedrotty). Does it:

  1. rejuvenate your body (rather than lead to exhaustion)?
  2. promote feeling more connected to your body (rather than disconnected or numb)?
  3. decrease your stress, mentally and physically (rather than exacerbate it)?
  4. provide genuine enjoyment and pleasure (rather than pain and dread)?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to increase your fitness level, while also rejecting our culture’s notion that exercise is somehow linked to self-worth. Let’s collectively shed the rules and shoulds of exercise and see it for what it is – one way to appreciate being in our bodies, feel alive, and have some fun.


Reference: Calogero R and Pedrotty K. Daily Practices for Mindful Exercise