What is intuitive eating and how does exercise fit in?


Intuitive eating is a non-diet way of eating that connects you with your body and heals your relationship with food. Intuitive eating is broken down into 10 principles that you can read more about here. Intuitive eating isn’t just about eating—it’s also about creating healthy habits, like an intuitive eating exercise plan that keeps you feeling excited and motivated to move your body.


The term we use for this is joyful movement. Joyful movement focuses on listening to your body and finding ways to stay active that feel good. The focus of joyful movement is not aesthetic. When we focus too much on how exercise changes the way we look, or how much we weigh, movement becomes more about punishment than pleasure.

What type of movement should you include in your intuitive eating exercise plan?


Moving your body doesn’t have to look a certain way to be enjoyable and beneficial! If you’ve only ever exercised to lose weight, you may only view movement like running or weight lifting as “real exercise.”


There are, however, many ways to move your body that don’t involve pounding pavement or lifting dumbbells. Like:

  • Boogie boarding
  • Dancing
  • Dodgeball
  • Fetch with the dog
  • Gardening
  • Geocaching
  • Hiking
  • Hula hooping
  • Ice skating
  • Jump roping
  • Laser tag
  • Kayaking
  • Paintballing
  • Pilates
  • Ping pong
  • Playing with your kids
  • Rock climbing
  • Roller skating
  • Sailing
  • SUP
  • Trampoline jumping
  • Volleyball
  • Walking
  • Yoga

Movement can be fast and sweaty, or it can be slow and mindful. All types of movement “count”! It’s often best to incorporate several different styles of movement into your routine to switch things up.


Movement can also be split into many, smaller parts over the course of your day. Research shows that any type of movement that gets you up from sitting for long periods of the day can improve health outcomes. So, standing up from your desk to stretch, walking the dog around the block, or stepping out to get the mail can all be part of your joyful movement routine!

What kind of movement do you actually enjoy?


Take a moment to consider all the ways to move your body from the examples above. Does anything stand out to you? It can be fun to try activities that you haven’t done since you were a kid! It can also be fun to invite friends or family members to move with you.


One of my best recommendations is to experiment with the duration and intensity of different types of movement to find what you like best. For example, do you hate running? Maybe you would enjoy it more if you incorporated walking intervals. Is yoga too boring? Maybe you would enjoy it more if you practiced a more upbeat flow to pop music.


You might also find it beneficial to change up the environment in which you exercise. The gym is not the only place you can move your body! Try doing a body weight circuit in your back yard, or doing a Zumba video in your pajamas in your living room—you choose what feels right for you.

You want to move joyfully, but just can’t seem to get there


Like with food and diets, you may have rules around exercise that you need to challenge before finding movement joyful. Try exploring the following questions:

Barriers to exercise can also include physical or emotional trauma, rigid thought patterns, confidence and body image, or time management. It can be helpful to discuss these with your dietitian or therapist.

How much exercise is best?


The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends 150 minutes of movement per week, or around 20 minutes per day.


Depending on where you are on your journey to joyful movement, you may challenge yourself to move more or less. For example, if you’ve been stuck in a more sedentary pattern, you may challenge yourself to move more by setting timers throughout your day to get up from your desk and stretch. If you’ve felt stuck in a rigid and rigorous exercise routine and feel guilty for taking days off, you may challenge yourself to incorporate more gentle movement and rest days.

How will you benefit from exercise?


There are many well-documented benefits to adding regular movement to your routine that don’t have to do with changing your weight! Exercise can reduce the risk of developing a variety of health conditions, including:

  • Cancer
  • Cognitive decline
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes

Exercise has also been shown to improve quality of life in many aspects, including:

  • Appetite regulation
  • Balance
  • Cognition and memory
  • Digestion
  • Libido
  • Mood
  • Sleep quality
  • Stress tolerance

As you can see, there are many benefits to exercise that don’t have anything to do with weight or the number on the scale!


Create an intuitive eating exercise plan without rigidity


Just because movement can be joyful doesn’t mean it will be spontaneous. Most people find it helpful to set intentions around movement in advance. However, being intentional about what, when, and how long you move your body doesn’t mean you have to be rigid with your routine. I’ll give you an example…


You set the intention to attend a 5pm pilates class after work on Wednesday. You go to work on Wednesday prepared, wearing stretchy pants and sneakers—but at 4:59pm something stressful comes up at work that keeps you late. You could:

A) Attend the 9pm class even though you are physically and mentally drained; you get home much later than you planned and don’t get to bed at your normal time and feel even more tired tomorrow

C) Skip class and also skip dinner that night; No workout means you didn’t burn enough calories to “earn” your food

E) Skip class and do 15 minutes of stretching when you get home to help you de-stress and sleep better that night

B) Skip class, but only if you “make up for it”; You decide to attend both the 5am and the 5pm class on Thursday to make up for the fact that you missed a day

D) Skip class and move on with your life; You’ll try to attend class another day because you enjoy it and like seeing your friends, but it’s also ok if you can’t fit it in this week

Options A, B, and C are all examples of having a rigid or disordered mindset around exercise. Setting intentions around exercise should not come at the expense of your physical, mental, or emotional health.


Options D and E are examples of having a healthy relationship with exercise. Intentions should be flexible and incorporate cues your body is sending you about what movement to do, at what intensity, for how long, and how frequently.

Intuitive eating exercise resources:

Kristin Jenkins is a dietitian nutritionist based in Maryland. She has been involved in the field of eating disorders and disordered eating for over 6 years and brings both personal and professional experience to her work serving clients who struggle with their relationship with food and their bodies.