Dreading Your Workout? Try “Joyful Movement” Instead

Contributing writer and disordered eating therapist Jenny Weinar explains how to make joyful movement a top priority of your health journey.

The Health At Every Size approach encourages joyful movement — physical activity that is actually enjoyable — over exercise. / Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.

Jenny Weinar is a Philly-based body positive psychotherapist and certified yoga teacher who’s passionate about helping clients struggling with disordered eating, chronic dieting, over-exercising and weight preoccupation find their way home to their bodies. This is the sixth of a series of posts that will (hopefully!) help our readers do the same. Read Weinar on Be Well every other Tuesday.

Moving the body can be a valuable part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but many people believe this requires vigorous gym sessions and rigid exercise routines intended to burn calories or alter the body. In reality, there are many reasons to move your body regardless of its impact on weight, including improving sleep, managing stress, and lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease.

To promote a more inclusive approach to physical movement and healthy living, the Health At Every Size (HAES) approach offers a pathway to pursue health regardless of body size. Notably, though, HAES emphasizes joyful movement over exercise. The concept of joyful movement expands what we traditionally think of as exercise to include and promote moving the body in any way that truly feels good to you.

In a physical sense, this means not forcing yourself into forms of movement that cause pain or discomfort in your body (beyond the general soreness you might feel upon starting a new activity, or the occasional injury you might incur just by virtue of having a body and moving it). Even activities that we don’t typically think of as exercise are celebrated within the joyful movement framework. Gardening, strolling your neighborhood, dance parties in the kitchen — whatever gets you moving from a place of intuition around what will feel good in your body at that moment and allows for pleasure rather than punishment.

But perhaps even more importantly, as suggested by the name, joyful movement encourages physical activity that is actually pleasurable. This goes against what many of us have been taught about exercise: that it is primarily meant to burn calories and doesn’t count if it isn’t intense or goal-oriented. These beliefs are reinforced by social media posts documenting calories burned, miles logged, personal records broken, which can lead us to compare ourselves to others and question if there’s something wrong with us for not relating to movement in the same way.

I often ask my therapy clients who are evaluating their relationship to exercise whether they would still move their body the same way if it had absolutely no effect on their weight or physical appearance. It turns out many people would swap their gym sessions for dancing or hiking if the goal was truly to pursue health, not aesthetics.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there is no place for group fitness classes, long distance runs, or other intense forms of exercise in the joyful movement philosophy. If those are what truly bring you joy, then of course, continue doing them. But it’s important to assess your motivation for engaging in those activities. Even amongst more vigorous forms of movement, there might be some that are more or less enjoyable for you personally. Making this distinction is key because both what you do physically and how much you engage in it can positively or negatively affect your mental health, self-perception, and self-confidence.

When trying to decide on how to move your body it can be helpful to ask yourself what qualities you’re seeking in that experience. Do you want something solitary or communal? Indoors or outdoors? Fast-paced or gentle? Strengthening or stretching? The key is to neutralize all activities and give yourself permission to honor what your body is asking for. A gentle walk is no “worse” than a spin class, and yoga isn’t “better” compared to running around with your kids or dog. Each fulfills different needs.

Just as important as pursuing joyful movement is listening to your body when it asks for rest. You don’t need to have an injury or other identifiable reason to deserve rest, either. By attuning to your body’s needs and allowing for the full spectrum of possible movement, you can pick activities that truly nourish you physically and mentally, which will likely be more sustainable long-term.

Take some time to consider the role movement plays in your life. Do you dread workouts or feel guilty when you take a rest day? Do you plan exercise based on what others are doing, and push through despite injury or exhaustion? Do you think of it as a way to burn off calories, and use this to give yourself permission to eat?

Answering yes to any of these questions might signal compulsive exercise, which often correlates with orthorexia and other forms of disordered eating. While movement can promote health when practiced mindfully, it becomes anything but healthy when used as a form of self-control. If you’re struggling to cultivate a better relationship to movement, body image, or food, you might consider seeking help from an eating disorders professional.