I have not always had a complicated relationship with exercise. When I was younger, I played soccer in the fall and spring, held joyfully uncoordinated games of badminton in the backyard and chased my cats around the house. I moved when I enjoyed movement, in rhythm with the needs of my body. When I was in middle school, our PE teacher had us log our physical activity for the semester on a spreadsheet. We had to reach a certain number of hours in order to receive an A in the class. Twelve-year-old Olivia had not considered the physical activity she performed to be “exercise” or “working out.” With my formal activities not enough to fulfill the requirement, I grimly set myself up on my family’s creaky treadmill and began to work out for the sheer purpose of logging hours.
Fast-forward to high school, where a burgeoning eating disorder forced me to count and log every calorie consumed and spent. I found ways to make up for cream cheese on my bagel: sit-ups before bed until I was dizzy or frenzied laps around the living room. Thoughts scrolled obsessively through every bite I ate and every movement I performed. I was trapped in a self-punishing cycle, and exercise was nothing more than a way to make up for food.
My saving grace was discovering intuitive movement. According to this paradigm, exercise is not mandatory. Instead, you should move your body in accordance with your internal desire for movement, at an ability level that is appropriate for you. The term “movement” is used instead of “working out” to reinforce that these activities do not need to be formal or planned. Walking the dog, mowing the lawn, or having an impromptu dance party all count. Going to the gym or running a 5k can also qualify as intuitive movement, if those are activities you enjoy doing.
An important principle of intuitive movement is parsing out the motivations for moving your body. Movement can benefit social and psychological wellbeing, not just physical health. Reasons for movement might include relieving stress, socializing and regulating mood. If your motivation for moving your body is losing weight or making up for Thanksgiving dinner, rather than for the enjoyment of the activity, you are not performing intuitive movement. Movement should be motivated by joy, not guilt. People who compulsively exercise run the risk of injury if they push themselves too hard. They also tend to view their worth as a product of their physical fitness. Which, spoiler alert, it isn’t. You are worth much more as a human being than your fastest mile time or twistiest yoga pose.
There is no mandate on how much movement you must perform. If you love to bike fifty miles a day, good for you. If you have a Saturday night dance class but spend weekdays relaxing after work, that is just fine. If you do not enjoy regular exercise, you do not need to change your habits to fit someone else’s notion of health. You do not need to prioritize movement above the many other important aspects of your life. Your body is your business, and health is not a requirement for personhood.
If you are recovering from compulsive exercising, you may need to take a break from the gym until you can return with a healthier mindset. It took me a long time to find movement that I actually enjoyed. I can still get stuck in the mindset that, every time I jump on the elliptical, I am not allowed to leave until I burn a certain number of calories or log enough miles. For this reason, I tend to avoid rigid workouts in favor of long walks with friends. When I want to pick up the pace, I trust my intuition to guide the duration and intensity of the movement.
Intuitive movement is about sustainable, holistic wellness instead of a warped and commodified version of health. There is no required “60 minutes of vigorous exercise per day,” because sometimes you would rather watch Netflix and eat chips. There is no “making up for yesterday” because rest days and self-care are just as valid as movement. Unlike a training program at a gym, there is no end goal; you can incorporate intuitive movement throughout your life, adjusting for your changing ability and circumstances. You can still achieve your individual health goals within the framework of intuitive movement while also incorporating flexibility and self-compassion.