How to Apply Intuitive Eating Principles to Exercise

New to Intuitive Eating? Check out more about it here, here and here.

Many people on the body-positive/IE/HAES (Health at Every Size) journey quickly find that the diet mentality is also deep-rooted in exercise and fitness culture.

If you have a difficult relationship with exercise, it can get better! Just like you can make peace with food, it’s absolutely possible to make peace with exercise too! Below are the Intuitive Eating principles, interpreted from a fitness/exercise point of view.

What principles resonate most with you?

Reject the diet mentality

The diet mentality applied to the fitness world is that exercise exists to lose weight, get lean, or build muscle.

Exercising without regard for your mental and emotional health can lead to cycles of over training, injury, movement restriction, then mental/emotional turmoil from not being able to work out.

End the cycle by changing your intention: Moving for pleasure and self-care.

In addition,  there’s the belief that exercise (and “eating well”) is part of an overall obligation to “be healthy” and if you don’t do it, you’re lazy or morally inferior. The truth is that your physical health is not wholly under your control and judgement towards yourself and others is counterproductive to holistic wellness – you cannot guilt yourself or others into improving health.

Get curious about your thoughts around exercise to lose weight and “get healthy.” What judgments are you making about yourself and others regarding weight and health? Is it possible for you to exercise as an act of self-care and pleasure?

Honor your energy (Honor your hunger)

Remember when you started eating intuitively and you couldn’t always figure out how your body told you it was hungry? The same might be true for understanding how your body signals your energy level.

Physical fatigue requiring rest feels different than mental or emotional fatigue that might also require rest, or it could benefit from gentle movement (your favorite yoga poses, or walking in the sun perhaps?).

And sometimes, your body might be asking for something more intense, or more fun like a dance class or weight lifting session!

For both eating and movement, it takes time, experimentation, and endless self-compassion to figure out what your body cues are and how to listen to them the best you can.

Try keeping a journal of body sensations you notice and types of movement (or rest) that you tried. Then note the after effects of that rest or movement – does your body feel the same? Better? Worse?

Make peace with exercise (Make peace with food)

Exercise, like food, is not up for moral debate.

Exercising and being “fit” does not make you a good person. “Missing” one workout (or years, or a lifetime, of workouts) doesn’t make you a bad person, lazy, or undisciplined.

Exercise is just that – exercise.

In addition, no one type of activity or workout is “better” than another: When you want a grilled cheese sandwich, you eat it. When you want ripe strawberries, you have those. So, when your body needs a stretch session, enjoy the sensation it gives you. When your body wants to run, put on those shoes and hit the pavement!

Challenge the fitness police  (Challenge the food police)

Once you become aware of the societal pressure to exercise, and to exercise in specific ways, you’ll notice the constant chatter about it everywhere – friends, family, and all forms of news media.

Fitness has become a religion of sorts, with several branches of dogmas – you must do high intensity interval training, or functional movement is best, or building long, lean muscles by using a special machine.

Keep in mind, these dogmas are exactly like different types of diets – there is no one size fits all fitness program, and most are unsustainable long-term.

Find the activities you enjoy right now, and continue to modify and change your routine to fit your life and your physical, mental and emotional needs. Anyone who tells you otherwise (including the “fitness police” that lives in you own head) is plain wrong.

Respect your fatigue (Respect your fullness)

Many fitness programs and classes promote pushing yourself well beyond fatigue during workouts and furthermore, not taking appropriate amounts of time for rest and recovery between workouts.

Just as discussed in the “Honor your energy (Honor your hunger)” principle above, it takes time and experimentation to understand how fatigue feels in your body, and how much rest you need.

If you have a history of over training, fatigue may feel like an everyday norm for you. This is why it’s sometimes recommended that you take several days, weeks, or months completely off from exercise to let your body fully recover so that you understand what your true “normal” feels like. Speak with your healthcare team to see if this might be the case with you.

If you haven’t been consistently active in a long time, suddenly adding lots of exercise puts a lot of stress on your body (not to mention your mental state!). Incorporate new activity slowly; a good rule of thumb is to add around 10% more volume or intensity week over week.

For example, you might start your first week with 2 workouts of 20 minutes (total of 40 minutes), then in your second week you can do 1 workout of 20 minutes and 1 workout at 25 minutes (45 minutes total; just a bit more than a 10% increase from week 1).  The following week both workouts can be 25 minutes, and so on. [This is an example, some folks may require different activity levels].

Note that the 10% rule is a very different approach than most workout programs out there – many popular fitness programs start with several, long (60 minutes) workouts in a week and increase intensity level very aggressively in a short period of time. This can lead to injury at the worst, or at the least a combination of physical and mental burnout by the end or soon after the end of the program. Unfortunately, a lot of people blame themselves instead of realizing that the program set them up to fail.

Trust that listening to your body and slowly increasing time, intensity, and complexity of your fitness activities is a better long-term option than an all-or-nothing intense program.

And, have compassion for the inevitable periods in your life (illness, injury, stressful circumstances) where you may have to scale way back on the time you spend on your fitness.

Finally, you don’t need an excuse to not exercise -it’s your body and you owe absolutely no one a justification.

Discover the satisfaction factor

Have you ever distracted yourself from walking on the treadmill by watching TV? Wished the clock would tick faster during a boot camp class? Silently pictured hitting your instructor instead of the punching bag?

These distractions while exercising aren’t very different than eating while preparing dinner, squirting Sriracha on your steamed broccoli so you can choke it down, or realizing you ate the whole bag of chips on the drive home from the grocery store.

What happened to making eating and exercise pleasurable?

You won’t be satisfied if you’re not fully present. Ask yourself why you watch TV on the treadmill – do you actually like walking on the treadmill? Or are you just doing it because you “should?” Maybe there’s another activity that you actually ENJOY?

After associating exercise and movement with what you love, you won’t need to distract yourself; it’s a welcome part of your life!

Respect your body

Your body has physical, mental, and emotional needs and limitations.

Finding the right balance between these needs and limitations is a challenge, but it’s possible.

If your health and fitness decisions come from a place of respect and kindness, you are much more likely to find this balance.

Eat Intuitively- feel the difference (Exercise – feel the difference)

Exercise and eating are inextricably linked; exercise is a part of the Intuitive Eating principles because humans were meant to move. Without movement, it becomes much harder for our bodies to give clear hunger and fullness signals.

And the reverse is true: To move regularly, we need to nourish our bodies.

Listening to and trusting your hunger and fullness cues helps give your body the energy it needs to live and move!

Honor your health

Did you know that one of the greatest predictors of health is your socioeconomic status? This shows that health is a lot more complicated than food and exercise!

Your social and family relationships, emotional and mental health, financial status, spiritual growth, career aspirations (and more!), are all a part of your overall “health,” not just exercise and food.

Instead of trying to control your body, exercise, and food intake, ask yourself, “How can I honor my health today?”


If you’re recovering from an eating disorder, please discuss any concepts you read here with your treatment team before making any changes to your activity level.