All the Things Your Body is Telling You About Your Movement Needs

August 17, 2022

Disclaimer: Discussing movement in eating disorder recovery can be difficult because there is so much nuance in one’s relationship with movement. Before digging into the concept of body cues in movement, I want to kindly remind readers that engaging in movement should be accessible to all (and currently isn’t due to systems of oppression), but should never be a moral obligation. Additionally, there may be times in eating disorder recovery that listening to your body cues about movement isn’t safe due to medical necessity. Just like a meal plan may be used in the early stages of recovery to allow you to stabilize your nutritional intake and challenge disordered beliefs about food, fitness parameters can operate similarly. For more information about safely integrating movement into eating disorder recovery, check out Safe Exercise at Every Stage.

If you listen closely, just as your body communicates messages regarding hunger and fullness, it also signals the need for rest and need for movement. Similar to intuitive eating, we encourage all to take notice of their body sensations when moving their bodies. Creating a balanced relationship with movement involves listening to and responding to your body from a place of non-judgment, compassion, and curiosity.

Every day, our body gives us cues that we listen to without judgment. For example, when my bladder is full, I attune to that body cue and go to the bathroom. Yet when our bodies give us cues during exercise, an unbalanced exerciser will ignore these cues. Those with unbalanced exercise struggle to trust their body cues for various reasons, here are just a few:

  • They are attached to external criteria to measure the “quality” of a workout (i.e. – it only “counts” if they run a specific pace or burn a particular number of calories). When they don’t have external criteria to measure their workout, it can create an intolerable feeling of distress.
  • There are judgments about how their body responds to movement; often, clients have judgments about feeling out of breath, and they become “hooked” by the judgments about their body cues.
  • For those with a history of trauma, being in their body and attuned to body cues does not feel safe.
  • They participated in a sport where their coaches or other athletic staff praised or rewarded them for ignoring body cues.

When was the last time you asked your body if it wanted to move? Do you find yourself “going through the motions” and engaging in certain forms of movement despite your body’s cues not to? One way to begin attuning to your body cues is to ask yourself, “how do I know my body wants to move or rest?” Some cues that indicate a desire for movement include feeling energetic, joint/muscle stiffness, lethargy, etc. Other times, the body might ask for rest through cues of fatigue, tiredness, soreness, rumination about rest, disinterest in movement, etc.

Body cues often ignored during exercise include muscle soreness, fatigue, breathing rate, muscle contraction, pain, etc. When body cues are ignored, it increases the risk of injury, can contribute to exercise dependence, and make movement less enjoyable.

Given the various reasons people avoid attuning with their bodies, practicing this principle of balanced movement will vary. Some ways to begin becoming more attuned with body cues include:

  • Engage in movement without any external information- cover the cardio machines, run without a GPS watch, stop wearing fitness trackers. Get curious about the internal body cues – what intensity and duration is your body asking for without the external information validating it?
  • Notice when judgments about body cues or sensations come up during movement. Dig deeper – what are the underlying beliefs you have that have led to these judgments?
  • In tandem with working through your trauma with a mental health therapist, engage in trauma-informed movement approaches that allow you to access your internal body cues in tolerable and safe doses.
  • With the help of a mental health therapist, begin practicing distress tolerance, allowing you to build the capacity to be with difficult emotions, thoughts, and sensations.

If you find your body cues are always asking for the most intense/longest duration movement option, it may indicate the eating disorder is manipulating how you interpret your body cues. I encourage you to approach this situation with curiosity and compassion. Would you feel distressed if you listened to your body ask for, and attuned to cues for less intense or shorter durations of movement? If so, it may be time to work with your treatment team to create fitness parameters to challenge the unbalanced movement and allow for supported exposures.

Attuning to your body cues can be difficult at first, especially when navigating a fitness culture that praises “pushing past your limits.” Approach movement sessions from a place of non-judgment and curiosity, giving yourself permission to make mistakes and misattune to body cues at times. Remind yourself that learning to respond to body cues is a marathon, not a sprint.

Hannah Frazee, BS, ACSM-EP-C graduated from the University of Iowa in May 2021 with a Bachelor’s degree in Health and Human Physiology-Exercise Science. She is a registered exercise physiologist through ACSM and has completed the Safe Exercise at Every Stage (SEES) webinars. Hannah’s value for social justice, especially Health at Every Size ®, and fat-positive eating disorder care is integrated into her work. As a straight-size, white, cis-gender woman, she recognizes the immense unearned privileges her body holds. She continues to critically consider how to facilitate programming involving sport/movement that is affirming to patients of diverse identities. She strives to provide athletes an opportunity to explore their relationship with sport/movement from a place of non-judgment and curiosity. For more information about McCallum Place, please visit: