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Joyful Movement: Feel the Difference

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | August 18, 2021

young woman with long ponytail doing yoga in a park; outdoor yoga, warrior one pose yoga, sun salutation

It was a journey for me to find the joy in movement. When I went to UConn for undergrad, it was the first time I ever had access to a gym. I had grown up dancing several times a week, which I had never really looked at as “exercise,” but more of a hobby I loved doing. I think something about no longer dancing once I started college, and that “don’t gain the freshman 15” voice in the back of my head, made me start using the campus gym regularly.

And I mean, regularly. I rarely missed a day and mainly did cardio for an extended period of time. It became something I felt like I had to do. What I wasn’t taking into account, was the amount of cardio I was already getting walking literal miles around UConn’s HUGE campus every day. I became so drained. I can vividly remember one day in my senior year when I was walking back from the gym and thinking, “am I going to make it back to my room?” My legs felt like they were walking through quicksand and I felt like I could fall asleep standing up.

It became something I felt like I had to do.

Luckily, yoga entered my life in a different way that senior year, too. I had been practicing yoga for about 4 years at that point, mainly with the intent of “sweating it out” and burning calories in challenging heated classes. I had found a yoga studio off campus, which, I didn’t know at that time, ended up being a huge help for my mental health. The class didn’t feel like exercise — it felt like a beautifully choreographed dance that made me feel good in my body and mind. The college stressors were gone in those moments of flow, and I left feeling calm, content, and happier. My body also somehow felt energized and calm at the same time, like all tension had been released. This class soon became the highlight of my week.

But it took me a little longer to really understand joyful movement. I continued to practice yoga regularly when I moved to Boston for grad school, in addition to frequenting the gym. Those thoughts about how I “should” be doing so much cardio per week were the driving forces until one day it hit me. I had a similar moment of exhaustion like I did in my senior year of college; I was sitting in the locker room after work, staring at my gym bag, and trying to work up the motivation to change into my gym clothes and hop on the treadmill. And I just thought “I don’t enjoy this at ALL.” After a few more minutes of debating if I should make myself workout or not, I got up, walked out, and let my month-to-month membership lapse.

Yoga made me realize that there should be joy in movement (i.e., physical activity, exercise). Your body and mind should feel good while you’re moving and continue to feel good after. I realized that whenever I left the gym, I didn’t have those great feelings like I did after yoga. I also didn’t look forward to going the gym — I actually kind of dreaded it and felt like I was forcing myself to be there. It was hard to recognize this in the moment because going to the gym was just part of my routine, but once I took a break, I realized it wasn’t benefitting me in the ways movement should be.

Yoga made me realize that there should be joy in movement.

This brings us to joyful movement — one of the 10 principles of intuitive eating and components of Health at Every Size.

The way you choose to move should be adding something to your life — like joy, energy, body tension release, stress reduction, etc. It should be something you feel called to do; you have the energy for it, enjoy doing it, and feel good after. Unfortunately, it can often feel like something you “should” do to burn calories, compensate for eating certain foods, or achieve a “perfect” physique. When we start to shift our focus from exercising for weight management and body image to moving for pleasure, we are taking a huge step in our journey towards joyful movement.

Joyful movement does not need to be regimented or look the same every day. I’ve learned that somedays, I feel like I need the stretch and flow of yoga, while other days I need to get outside and go for a walk, or I have the energy for a cycling session. Sometimes I’m not called to move in any of these ways, but need to clean and do laundry, which involves stair climbing, scrubbing, etc., (along with debating if it can wait another day or two) and that can feel like enough movement for the day. And on other days I’m called to just rest, and I honor that, too.

This is how movement looks for me now. For others, it might be that they find joy in running or getting a gym workout in every day. Just because that wasn’t for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else. There is no right or wrong way to move. Joyful movement includes all forms of movement, whether you enjoy walking, running, bicycling, stretching, deep cleaning, gardening, etc. And by moving in a way you enjoy, and don’t feel like you’re forcing yourself to do, you’re actually more likely to do it regularly and reap the physical and mental health benefits of exercise.

By moving in a way you enjoy, you're actually more likely to do it regularly and reap the physical and mental health benefits of exercise.

If you feel burning calories has been the driving force of your physical activity, or that you aren't finding much joy in it, it can help to ask yourself: what types of movement did I enjoy as a child? Was it swimming, biking, helping my parents in the yard? As children, oftentimes our choices about food and movement were not driven by weight management but genuine enjoyment.* I learned that yoga helped me reconnect with that younger, inner dancer in me, and that the other ways I was trying to move at that time were not enjoyable.

Just like when you reject diet mentality with intuitive eating, when you shift your mindset from exercising for weight management to moving for pleasure (and fun, enjoyment, energy, stress release, etc.), you’re on your way to a better relationship with your body and yourself.

Stay tuned for more on joyful movement and intuitive eating. And subscribe here for more on my anti-diet approach to nutrition, health, & wellness.

*If weight management was the focus of the way you ate and moved, or were instructed to as a child, moving in those ways now will likely not bring you joy. You may need to explore other types of movement and check in with how they make you feel to start your journey towards joyful movement.

young woman doing yoga in the park, stretching, yoga, outdoor yoga

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