Five years ago, I was deep into the kind of fitness that was about pushing myself to the limit every single day, for the sake of squatting more weight or running faster or just getting as sweaty and sore as possible.
My workout habits have since chilled way out for a slew of reasons. I left New York City and its barrage of boutique fitness studios; I started grad school and didn’t have as much time or money to spare; and I started thinking more critically about body ideals and all the sneaky ways they were shaping how I lived my life.
Most of all, though, I realised that I didn’t actually want to be working out so much or so often. I was pushing my body to do things that it didn’t always want to do, and I finally thought, “What would happen if I just stopped all of this?”
I didn’t stop working out altogether, but I started doing it a lot less. I gave myself the freedom to decide how I wanted to move, if at all. Sometimes, all I wanted to do was walk. Other days, I would browse my favourite workout app and pick whichever strength training or running interval workout looked good. Some weeks, running would feel great and so I would do it; other weeks, I would set out on a run and feel terrible, so I’d stop and walk instead.
I’ve since learned that there’s a name for my newly enlightened approach to exercise: mindful movement.
What exactly is mindful movement?
In short, mindful movement is all about tuning out thoughts about how you “should” be exercising, and instead just doing what feels good for you. It’s also called joyful movement or mindful exercise, but it encompasses so much more than what we typically think of as exercise.
Any kind of movement ― walking, gardening, stretching, playing in the yard, etc. ― can fall under the mindful movement umbrella. It’s not just the things you’d typically think to record as workouts on your smartwatch. That said, those traditional types of workouts can absolutely fit into your mindful fitness practice if you actually enjoy them.
“If you hate doing a particular type of workout, just don’t do it,” said Lauren Leavell, a motivational coach and personal trainer based in Philadelphia. “Don’t buy a spin bike because a commercial told you it is ‘the best.’ Stop going to classes you dread showing up for. The easiest way to make movement more of a regular thing is to enjoy what you do.”
Mindful movement is also about body acceptance and letting go of body ideals the fitness industry pushes on all of us.
Another key to embracing mindful movement is rejecting the idea that fitness and exercise are meant to change or “improve” the way your body looks.
“Mainstream culture continues to promote an ideal body that everyone is expected to work towards,” Leavell said. “It completely erases the fact that body diversity is completely natural and assumes that we all have the same ability and access.”
And while buying into body ideals hurts all of us, it can have an even more extreme impact on those living in more marginalised bodies. “People who are differently-abled, fat, BIPOC, queer are almost never included in the mainstream representation of ‘fit bodies,’” Leavell said.
Rejecting this narrow view of “fitness” (and realising that fitness doesn’t have a “look”) is key to mindful movement. Once you do, you can begin to think about movement as a way to honour your body as it is, instead of as a way to change it.
Mindful movement means different things to different people. That’s the point.
Just as intuitive eating and mindful eating encourage you to let go of food rules and eat what you want, mindful movement is all about finding ways to move your body that are fun and feel good to you.
Ilya Parker, a physical therapist assistant, certified medical exercise specialist, and the owner of Decolonizing Fitness in North Carolina, uses fitness to help his clients reconnect to their bodies ― particularly those in more marginalised bodies who may feel rejected by mainstream fitness culture.
Forget the whole “no pain, no gain” thing. “Begin to imagine that you can engage in movement that can be enjoyable, suitable to your unique body, and pain-free,” Parker said.
Leavell agreed. “Most fitness classes pressure people to push through what they are feeling. I am asking people to connect to what they are feeling so that they know where they can go next in a safe and healthy way.”
And if a certain type of movement doesn’t feel good? Stop. “Most of my personal training revolves around being in the body and being able to verbalise what feels good, where you feel strong, and what you notice,” Leavell said. “This differs from mainstream fitness because sometimes it means slowing down and being still.”
The best part of mindful movement is that nothing is off-limits, whether it’s walking the dog, squatting a barbell or hitting up a yoga class. It just depends on what you like to do, and what your body feels up to.
Ultimately, mindful movement is a healthier and more sustainable way to move your body.
“The easiest way to make movement more of a regular thing is to enjoy what you do,” Leavell said. “If you enjoy it, you will be more likely to return again and again, and eventually, you may branch out from there.”
And remember, every day is different. You might be in the mood for something strenuous one day, then only feel up to more relaxed forms of movement for days after that. Both are valid, and only you can know what your body needs.
This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide on the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.