How the Rise of Intuitive Movement Led Us to a Gentler Pace in Fitness
“How are you feeling today?”
Azul Corajoria asks me this question every time I sign on for our weekly Zoom sessions. But she’s not my therapist. She’s my trainer.
Corajoria has me talk about my emotions, my energy levels, the state of my body and mind before we jump into lifting or gentle stretching, an AMRAP (“as many rounds as possible”) workout or something low impact, depending on my answers. This checking in is a key component of practicing “intuitive movement,” a philosophy of exercising (or “moving”) in a way that honors your physical and psychological needs.
“Intuitive movement is listening to your body,” says Elyse Resch, RDN, who is one of the coauthors of the 1995 book Intuitive Eating, which first introduced the idea of “intuitive exercise” to the mainstream. She and her coauthor Evelyn Tribole updated the term to “intuitive movement” in the fourth edition, which came out in 2020, because they thought it was a more inclusive term (“exercise” felt a little too close to the idea of means-to-an-end physical activity). “Movement is so natural and is such an important part of well-being—as long as it’s not connected to weight loss,” Resch says.
In many ways, intuitive movement is about freeing physical activity from the clutches of diet culture. “We’ve seen exercise as a means to kind of control and manipulate and work against our body…to try to make our body fit like a square peg in a round hole,” says fitness coach Tally Rye, the author of Train Happy and the Train Happy Journal, a book and a workbook about intuitive movement. Instead of resisting your instincts or punishing your body, the key is to work with your body, she says.
Resch adds that practicing intuitive movement means disconnecting exercise from “drudgery,” and not feeling like “it’s something you have to do rather than moving your body because it feels good.”
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It’s also about divorcing activity from the goal of hitting a certain metric, like a number of calories or target heart rate. “I always say, you’re looking for a form of movement that while you’re doing it, it either feels good or it challenges you in a way that you value,” says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University lecturer and the author of The Joy of Movement. “After the workout, you feel better about yourself, you feel better about the world, you feel better about your community and your place in the world, and that should be the metric that you follow.”
The idea has caught on. Search “intuitive movement” on Google and you’ll find more than 62 million results, including plenty of pages for intuitive movement coaches. The hashtag #intuitivemovement has 8.4 million views on TikTok. As an intuitive movement influencer, Tally Rye has over 130,000 Instagram followers. Which is why, if you are an Online Person, these messages might sound familiar—and you’d be forgiven if they induce some skepticism.
Yet the trend may be less of a new fad than many think. “Sometimes the practice comes before the terminology, and I think [intuitive movement is] probably something that a lot of people have been doing forever, since ancient times,” says Chelsey Luger, a wellness advocate and co-author of The Seven Circles: Indigenous Teachings for Living Well. She notes that developing intuition is something that Indigenous people have been intentionally honing as an important skill for generations.
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“I’ve only seen the actual term ‘intuitive movement/intuitive exercise’ move into popular use within the last few years,” says fitness coach, researcher, writer, and advocate Ragen Chastain, pointing out that the principles have nonetheless been practiced for decades. One example McGonigal cites is a dance technique called Nia, which was putting forth intuitive movement ideas back in the ‘80s.
“The world is sick of being told how they should look and how they should be evaluated as valuable in the world and how they should be controlled,” Resch says while reflecting on the idea’s rise in popularity in tandem with the backlash to diet culture. “I think they’re open to something that has an autonomous feel.”
McGonigal, who also teaches dance to both college students and older people (predominantly women), saw in her students that the pandemic had a hand in prompting people to reevaluate their relationships with exercise, and turn to tuning in and looking for joy.
“I saw a real shift over the last couple of years,” McGonigal says. “People hadn’t necessarily appreciated what movement could do, that it could give you an opportunity to be in spaces that inspire you, to celebrate who you are, to compete in all these different aspects of what makes movement meaningful and enjoyable,” McGonigal says.
Now, however, exhortations to “find what feels good” are not only coming from intuitive movement practitioners like Rye and Corajoria, but also from six-packed spokespeople of body transformation programs. Just as intuitive eating has gone mainstream, intuitive movement—whether it’s called by that name or its principles are being touted on their own—is an in-vogue approach to exercise. And sometimes, that means it serves as the woke beard of a weight loss exercise plan. It’s all fine and dandy to say you’re exercising for the “joy” of it. But what’s really motivating you when you’re pushing to finish that last mile? Why do you really get up off the couch to hit the gym? And if you listened to your body all the time, wouldn’t you just stay on that sofa? Isn’t that… bad?
Rye notes that “unconditional permission to rest” is a crucial piece of the intuitive movement puzzle. When her clients embrace this, they often go into what she calls the “fuck it” phase, which can mean not exercising at all. But once they’ve really internalized the idea that they can rest whenever and however much they want, clients tend to gravitate to movement in a way that makes them feel more authentically good. For example, one of Rye’s intuitive movement clients almost always ends the session with Rye before their hour is up. The client stops the session when she is ready, and not after an arbitrary amount of time.
“Intuitive movement is something that can be extremely helpful for those who had messy break-ups with exercise due to toxic fitness culture/fatphobia etc., and now want to find a more peaceful relationship with movement,” Chastain says. “The idea that you can choose movement based on how you feel, how your body feels, rather than using rules and strictures can be life-changing.”
“The idea that you can choose movement based on how you feel, how your body feels, rather than using rules and strictures can be life-changing.”
In fact, researchers have been studying how intuitive movement could help people with eating disorders recover. Justine Reel, PhD, an interim dean and professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has been teaching eating disorder patients an intuitive approach to exercise since 2005. In 2016, she published an intuitive movement framework in the journal Eating Behaviors as a way to help standardize care. Today, she says she has been approached by treatment centers and research institutions around the world to translate her work into multiple languages.
Intuitive movement is really about returning to a time before diet culture colored our relationships with our bodies. But who actually gets to call a rest day a part of an intuitive movement practice without judgment? It’s easy enough for a thin person to say, “I’m listening to my body and letting it rest.” But fat people face prejudice for falling into stereotypes of laziness and unhealthiness. That gets even messier when people in larger bodies are people of color or have disabilities.
“The more overlapping identities a person has, the more difficult it’s probably gonna be for them to embrace these ideas for themselves,” says Chrissy King, a former fitness coach and the author of forthcoming book The Body Liberation Project. When the message of intuitive movement comes from someone who fits an idealized standard of beauty, “it feels very like, Oh, this is cute advice, but that’s not really helpful for me.”
Rye admits that it took years for her thoughts to actually follow and believe the words she was putting on social media about body acceptance. And, as King notes, so many of us have spent so much of our lives influenced by diet culture, we’ve developed disordered exercise habits and lost touch with what our bodies crave. “It really is a practice to lean back into self-trust and to really tap back into that intuitive desire of what your body actually wants,” she says. “And it does absolutely take a lot of practice and a lot of continued effort.”
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I wondered whether the fact that I have a standing date with a trainer means that I’m not practicing intuitive movement. There are, in fact, many days when I don’t want to move at all once that appointment comes around. But my motivations for moving are that I know that I will always feel more energized afterward, and that exercise helps me sleep better—which ultimately makes me happier. Corajoria sees this as fitting into the framework of intuitive exercise or mindful movement, because it’s reframing my workout as “an act of self care.” As long as the way I move isn’t rigidly pre-determined, perhaps a standing date can still be “intuitive.”
And what about the fact that exercise is just plain good for you, and that health organizations the world over recommend about 30 minutes a day of movement? McGonigal advocates for separating “health” motivations from exercise, because if you connect exercise to joy, you will get those health benefits anyway. But knowing that you’re helping your heart beat stronger and your lungs breathe deeper might bring some people joy.
Intuitive movement may not be the best approach for everyone, but its rise in popularity has certainly been to the benefit of many who try it. “Nobody is obligated to participate in movement,” Chastain says. “But every body should be welcome, and be allowed to participate on their own terms.”