Intuitive Movement: Learning to Play Again

It’s a bright, summer day. A little girl comes darting out of the house and jumps on her scooter, flying around her yard, breathless, happy. After a time, she tires of that and begins performing cartwheels in the grass, imagining her gold medal finish. She relaxes on the grass, her chest and belly rising and falling with each breath, her hair sticking to her sweaty face. She becomes aware of the sounds of the day: a lawnmower in the distance, neighbors talking in the backyard next door, birds singing in the tree above her, a dog barking. Her breath begins to slow and she’s off to jump rope, skipping around her yard, chasing her cat. Suddenly, she drops the rope and is off to read a book under the tree.

…The boy eyes the pitcher on the mound. His senses are piqued, picking up on the rustle of the crowd, the heat of the day, and the stillness of the pitcher. His hands grip the bat, his feet ground into the dirt. The pitcher winds up and throws. The boy tenses, then releases, swinging the bat. Strike one. The smell of grass and dirt wafts in the breeze and he steadies himself for the next pitch, shaking off his doubts. He positions his body, the bat poised and ready.

…Her coach tells her she needs to play, the team needs her. Her right knee is pulsing and stabbing her with pain and her left Achilles tendon is inflamed, causing her to hobble on tiptoe. The lower half of her body is bathed in icy water, in an attempt to freeze out the pain. Her coach asks the trainer to “tape it up;” to tape up her pain, her dreams. She has worked her whole life to be on this top-level collegiate soccer team. The game is in an hour. She needs to make a choice: to perform under intense, teeth-grinding pain and keep her place on the team…or sit out the season to nurse her injuries and lose her varsity position.

…It’s 5am and the alarm rings: time to hit the gym before work. She peels herself out of bed, brushes her teeth, and drives over. She wishes she were still in bed but knows she has to work out. It’s Monday, so it’s Gym Day. On Tuesday, it will be Spin Day. Each activity is carefully planned, carefully calculated. Days off are a slippery slope and are to be avoided, lest she slip into a sea of lethargy and never workout again.

…He sits alone in the gym locker room, wondering why he is there. He knows he can swim well, but the sting of the fat-shaming comment by his fellow swimmer still remains. His anger melts to hot tears that are immediately wiped away. He is weary of the comments on his body size, the annoyed looks he gets when he enters a lane with a fellow gym-goer. He is tired of being made to feel like his body takes up too much room and doesn’t belong. He packs up his gym bag, pauses, and looks at himself in the mirror. His chest fills with disgust and his stomach feels leaden as he mourns the fact that his body is not societally acceptable. He is not allowed here, no matter his skill level. He picks up his gym bag and leaves.

When did play become forced exercise for you? When did movement become a chore, one more thing on the “to do” list? When did you associate moving your body with pain or to change the shape of your body? Or, despite the odds, have you managed to maintain a joyful approach to the movement of your body?

There are so many reasons the joy is taken out of movement. As illustrated above, we can move from the carefree child to the athlete riddled with injury, to the adult who has lost their connection with their body and the joy of moving it.

The eating disorder takes a lot of things from us and movement is no exception. Over-exercise, exercise compulsion, excessive exercise, and exercise dependence are all different names for a well-documented phenomenon in eating disorders. It has been estimated that up to 31.8% of women and up to 28.4% of men report body dissatisfaction and engage in exercise to reduce their body size, indicating that the purpose of exercise for many – even without eating disorders — is specifically to lose weight. To move one’s body simply for enjoyment is a foreign concept for many.

It has been shown that the inclusion of exercise in those diagnosed with anorexia actually increased weight gain and decreased obligatory attitudes towards exercise in nutritionally supported individuals. Interventions aimed at reframing the place of exercise in one’s life can potentially assist in the treatment of eating disorders. In a 2016 review, guidelines were suggested to facilitate the healthful re-introduction of exercise in the treatment of eating disorders in those who are nutritionally supported, medically cleared, and monitored. These guidelines set forth a team approach, as well as a “debriefing” involving discussion of emotions, sensations, and thoughts before, during, and after the exercise session.

If exercise is so beneficial, even to those who have abused it in the context of their eating disorder, how can we come back to movement that is joyful and free? How can we come back to our roots in intuitive movement?

First and foremost, it is important to have a team of providers that are ensuring your medical safety and nutritional status. Ideally, you will have support even during your exercise by a trained professional who specializes in eating disorders. A contract might be indicated to ensure that all team members, including the client, are on the same page in terms of what exercise(s) is (are) being done, intensity of the exercise, and duration. With these parameters in place, the exploration of your relationship with body movement can begin.

Getting Back to Intuitive Movement

Below are some guidelines to start you on your journey back to your intuitive movement roots.

  1. Remember what it was like to play.
    Call to mind what it was like to play growing up. Did you start and stop? Move from one activity to another or stick with one for a long time? Did you play by yourself or with others? Which did you prefer and why? Did you rest and take in the sensory experience?
  2. Assess what activities you enjoy/have enjoyed and why.
    What activities have you enjoyed so far in your life? Think broadly! If applicable, organized sports will be on the list and also recall the play you did in your backyard, with your neighborhood friends or alone. Looking for hidden treasure in the bushes counts! Now that you have a list of activities you enjoyed, think about what made you enjoy them. Was it being with friends or the silent moments of solitude? Did you enjoy your competitive side? Did you enjoy the feeling of accomplishment? If needed (and it probably will be), in a separate column, list what the eating disorder “liked” about certain activities.
  3. Be honest about what activities were a part of your eating disorder.
    The more honest you can be about this, the more prepared you will be to re-incorporate movement wisely back into your life. Write down every eating disorder thought and association. Writing these down won’t necessarily prevent you from ever doing that particular activity again, but it might allow you to be more savvy in terms of what activities are more healthful to you, especially if feeling vulnerable. If running was a big part of your eating disorder, then it might be wise to switch to another activity for a time to explore a different relationship to movement as a whole. Eventually, the running might be able to be re-introduced when you’re more grounded in what movement can be like for you when it’s not hijacked by the eating disorder.
  4. Explore movement as if for the first time.
    Try a new activity! There’s nothing like being a novice to get you to truly engage with your body in a way you have never done before. You might be surprised and find something you never thought you’d enjoy.
  5. Be willing to talk about your emotions, thoughts, and sensations.
    Perhaps the most important, be willing to talk about what comes up for you with your movement. You’ll make discoveries about your recovery, your relationship with your body and movement. You’ll get to know where the eating disorder “sneaks in” and can actually address it. Being honest about the eating disorder as it comes up is the first step towards reclaiming movement and becoming more attuned to what your body is craving that day, whether that be a tennis match, a run, a hike, or rest.

Whatever movement you do, keep in mind that you need to eat enough to support your activity, so consult with a Registered Dietitian who is certified in eating disorder treatment. Preferably, find someone who is a certified personal trainer or coach who also specializes in eating disorder treatment who can be there with you as you embark on your journey back to intuitive movement. In the end, you will have a renewed relationship with your body and how you move it.


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Additional Reading:

Excessive Exercise
Falling into a Fitness Obsession in Eating Disorder Recovery
Intuitive Eating
Female Athlete Triad
Eating Disorders in Athletes

About the Author:

Lauren Anton, MS, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) and Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) specializing in eating disorders, sports nutrition, and athletes with eating disorders. She is a national speaker and has been quoted in publications such as The Washington Post and BuzzFeed. She is in private practice in Los Angeles, CA.


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Written – 2018