Joyful Movement for Performance

joyful movement for performance

In our last post we went over the importance of respecting your body and removing the idea that being healthy is synonymous to being in a smaller body.  If you struggle with body image and find yourself wishing you were in a smaller body, then it is likely that your relationship with exercise may be disrupted, not just your relationship with food. This post introduces you to the 9th Principle of Intuitive Eating: Exercise – Feel the Difference but with an emphasis on joyful movement for performance. We’ll dive a bit deeper into what this means for athletes (professional, recreational, and retired). 

How Fitness Culture Harms Athletes & Active Individuals

The concept of joyful movement is based on the idea that exercise should be a celebration of what the body can do instead of as a punishment for overeating. It is about truly tuning into your body and moving it in a way that feels good. The first thing to consider is your current attitude towards exercise:

What a negative attitude about exercise looks like:

  • “I only exercise to lose weight”
  • “I ate ___, I have to go burn off the extra calories”
  • “If I don’t work out for 60 minutes straight, then what’s the point?”
  • “I hate running, but it’s the only way to burn fat”
  • “I have to work out everyday of the week, or I’ll ruin my progress”
  • “Having a ‘rest day’ stresses me out”

If you are a chronic dieter, it is likely that your thoughts around exercise are similar to the ones above. That’s because dieting makes us feel bad for eating certain foods, and fitness culture suggests more exercise as a “solution”. People on diets also often don’t enjoy exercise because they view it as a punishment. If you’re restricting calories (aka, you’re low on energy), you’ll end up feeling totally drained after exercise (doesn’t exactly sound enjoyable, does it?!). For people who have been in this cycle for a long time, it can seem like you’re supposed to feel this drained from activity when in reality, if you’re fueling properly, you’ll feel  more energized not only during your workouts, but throughout the rest of the day, too!

How To Implement Joyful Movement

→ Switch from EXTERNAL (extrinsic) motivators to INTERNAL (intrinsic/intuitive) motivators

Extrinsic motivation includes focussing on things like:

  1. Calories burned
  2. Minutes worked out 
  3. Pounds lost
  4. Having a similar physique to a famous athlete or other teammate
  5. Moving to a lower weight class
  6. Shrinking your body to avoid being judged while playing your sport

This type of motivation is common because active individuals often want to see and focus on the numerical results of their hard work. However, focusing only on extrinsic motivators can make the training session feel like a chore, requirement or task on your to-do list rather than something enjoyable. Additionally, only focusing on numbers can lead to an unhealthy obsession. You can feel positively motivated by numbers when you are getting the results you desire, but what happens when you reach a plateau? Or you have an off day and can’t reach your numeric goals? Kelly dives deeper into this idea of exercise dependence on her podcast Imperfect Health.

Instead of external motivators, try to focus on intrinsic motivators by asking yourself:

  1. Do I enjoy this workout while I’m doing it?
  2. Does this workout make me feel good after I’m done?
  3. Do I feel more energized throughout the day when I do this workout?
  4. Does this exercise help me deal with stress? (also ask yourself if skipping a workout causes stress)
  5. Am I sleeping better when I exercise?
  6. Is my mind more clear?
  7. Do I feel empowered and stronger? (to do new things, try to exercise, lift heavier weights etc.)

Focusing more on internal motivators will lead to longer term success and ultimately you’ll find yourself choosing activities based on what you actually enjoy versus something that helps you reach a numerical goal and only provides short term satisfaction.

Joyful Movement in Sports Performance

If you’re an athlete or competitive exerciser (i.e. endurance runner) you may be thinking “well, what if my sports requires me to focus on numbers?”. For example: a runner wanting to meet a certain time, an athlete forced to workout a certain number of minutes, or a wrestler who needs to make a weight class. 

In this case, it’s important for you to take a step back and truly evaluate your relationship with your sport to ensure that at the end of the day it is still bringing you joy. Here are some signs you may be developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise as an athlete.

  1. You feel the need to do an extra workout even when it’s not part of your training program
  2. You miss social events to go to train instead
  3. You ignore instruction to rest
  4. You obsess over calories burned 
  5. You feel bad and overly stressed taking a rest day, or even an easy day
  6. Your body is showing signs of excessive exercise and inadequate fueling, such as:
    • Frequent injury
    • Loss of menstrual cycle
    • Low energy
    • Irritability
    • Trouble sleeping

If these things are occurring, it is likely that the joy behind playing the sport is lost. Athletes need to reflect and remind themselves why they exercise, and what it is that they enjoy about the sport they play. It is important for sport dietitians, psychologists and other medical professionals to monitor for these signs and symptoms and intervene when necessary. Be sure to dig deep and ask about the intention behind playing the sport or training. Is it for the love of the sport or to alter their body/psychique to meet standards set by diet culture?

If the lines between your training requirements and joyful movement for sport are still confusing, consider this graphic:

intuitive movement for athletes


Joyful Movement For Retired Athletes

Similar to athletes, if you’re a retired athlete, you may also struggle with the concept of joyful movement. You’re used to training for an event and now have to adjust to exercising like the rest of the population. For retired athletes and even those looking to get started with exercise, it’s important to remember:

  • Every bit counts  – You don’t (and shouldn’t) stress over getting in a 2 hour gym session everyday. Things like walking with your friends or kids, taking the stairs, or stretching during a break at work, are all positive ways to move the body and will provide a multitude of health benefits. 
  • Focus on trying new forms of exercise that make both your body and mind feel good – don’t stick to the same routine everyday because you think it’s what you have to do or someone else you know does it. The body will respond best when you try new things and you will be more motivated to workout when you actually enjoy the exercise.
  • Recovery and rest days are important! Resting its imperative for muscle growth, injury prevention and mental clarity. Just because you aren’t training twice a day anymore or are engaging in less intense activities, it doesn’t mean your body doesn’t still need a chance to recharge.
    TIP: Plan a rest day on whichever week day is busiest so that you reduce stress and then fit in your workouts on the weekends, or days that you have less going on.

Key Takeaways to Embrace Joyful Movement

Whether you’re new to the gym, a seasoned marathoner, a professional or retired athlete, joyful movement for performance can work for you. It all comes down to listening to your body and how it responds to the exercise you do. Asking yourself questions like, “how is my body feeling?” and “what does my body need today?” are crucial to implementing joyful movement for performance.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic or further exploring your own relationship with food and exercise at a deeper level, check out our 1:1 coaching services.

Intuitive Eating for Performance Series

Check out the other posts in this series!

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