Intuitive eating? Yes! Intuitive Exercising? Not So Much

Walking tremblantI’ve been practicing intuitive eating since the beginning of January.  When I’m hungry, I eat what I feel like eating until I feel satisfied. Then I stop.  When I get hungry again, I eat again. I do not weigh myself and I do not eat with weight loss in mind. I will never go on another weight loss diet. For the most part, I am for my own personal reasons opposed to tracking because I find it oppressive. If you find it helpful, by all means, track.

Sam asked me whether I might be attracted to intuitive exercising or intuitive training in the same way I’m attracted to intuitive eating.  One of the principles of intuitive eating as spelled out in the Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s wonderful book is “Exercise: Feel the Difference.” They encourage us to “forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference.”

True, I feel really good when I get active. A few laps in the pool energize me. An early morning yoga class focusing on back bends revs me up for the rest of the day.  And some body weight training with a few free-weights thrown into the mix help me to feel strong.

But for me, it is not enough to feel the difference. When the alarm goes off at 5:50 a.m., which is when I need to get out of bed on Tuesdays to make it to yoga for a 6:30 start, a purely intuitive approach would not get me out of bed every week.  Half the time, my sleepy self would shut off the alarm, roll over, and drift off again until well past 6:30.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I schedule a swim just before lunch, as a break from my morning writing.  I love being in the pool.  But if I had to wait until I felt like swimming, I probably wouldn’t get up from my desk so easily.

The same thing goes for running.  I have to make an effort to get myself out the door some days. Once I’m out there, it’s great. And once I get back, I always feel better and am glad I went.

I appreciate Tribole and Resch’s approach for the way it encourages people to move their bodies for reasons other than calorie burning and weight loss, as just an extension of the diet mentality. The diet mentality approves of things that will lead to weight loss, whether they be food choices or activities. It disapproves of what will not lead to weight loss.

An intuitive eater or exerciser responds to her or his body’s needs at a given time. I am pretty good at this with hunger these days.  Exercise is different.  On occasion, I feel a strong urge to move my body. But, unlike my  hunger, this urge does not come at regular intervals for me.  It certainly does not come frequently enough for me to reach my training goals.

My training goals are the main reason that intuitive exercise won’t work for me.  If I want to increase my swimming and running distance and speed, I need to push myself beyond what is comfortable at the moment.  No one really enjoys intervals, but those short bursts of intense effort broken up by short low effort resting periods are the single most effective and efficient way to see noticeable gains in fitness and in performance.

The same is true of resistance training and yoga.  If I want to see changes in my strength, I need to lift heavier and do things that, on a strictly intuitive level, I might not want to do. It’s never easy to squeeze out those last two burpees! In yoga, it’s a mental and physical challenge to stay inverted in head stand for the full time the instructor expects us to (or, if at home, until the timer sounds). I almost always want to come down before it is time to come down. But I almost always stay up that little bit longer.

Going with the gut will not help me get fitter, stronger, or faster, and will not increase my endurance.

I do not think of my approach as “militant exercise.” I do the things I do because they feel good. But a long run is not a massage, and lap swimming is not a leisurely splash in the lake on a hot summer day. These things feel good in a different way.  I like harnessing my inner power and pushing myself.  As Sam says, painful workouts can be “fun.”

And I like the result. I am stronger today than I was a year ago when I had not yet re-introduced resistance training into my routine.  And my cardio health is much-improved now that I am running and swimming instead of just walking. It’s unbelievably gratifying to be able to run the distances I’m running now when I couldn’t make it all the way around the block less than one year ago.

My goals are not about weight loss and achieving a certain aesthetic, but about athleticism. Sam has a great post about the difference.  Given my training goals, I can’t just take leisurely strolls through the park and expect to get anywhere.

Some might say that, given my training goals, I should be more scheduled and structured with my eating as well. But the key difference I see, for me (maybe not for you), is that I do not want to push beyond my comfort zone in eating. In fact, I have spent years eating in all sorts of uncomfortable ways that don’t feel good in the short or long run.  I’m DONE with that.

Of course, just because I don’t take a strictly intuitive approach to exercise does not mean I never do anything “just because it feels good.”  I like leisurely walks, bike rides, and swims. I do have occasions when I go to a hot yoga class just because I feel like it and not because it’s scheduled. And in the summer when we’re sailing, the majority of my swimming, walking, and kayaking are just because I feel like it.  It’s the training that I need to structure in a more rigorous and demanding way for me to meet my goals.

Upshot: intuitive eating? Yes!  Intuitive exercise? Not so much.

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