When body cravings and body abilities don’t align.

One of the principles of intuitive eating is joyful movement. That is, finding movement that brings you pleasure and rejuvenates you. I’ve spent several years getting away from obligation-based, scheduled movement and, instead, allowing my body’s cravings for movement to dictate how and if I move. This works 70% of the time, but now I find myself with a recovered mindset, but grappling with a body that is limited in some ways. This got me thinking about how letting your body’s cravings for movement be your guide for movement can be complicated when your body’s cravings and your body’s abilities don’t match up.

In a recent post a few of you agreed with the idea that our mission on earth isn’t to be as able-bodied as possible. I’m in a HAES-aligned clinician group on Facebook and I posed the question of how to make sense of a body that craves movement, yet is limited in the movement it can do and the response I got (that I felt like actually understood where I was coming from) said, “it’s a grieving process. Similar to grieving the loss of body size you once thought you could achieve.”

There’s been a couple things I’ve found helpful when struggling with the pain and discomfort that limits my movement, specifically knee pain and some tingling that I imagine is nerve pain. Some of the pain I’m in is a choice, since as long as I don’t move in that way I’m not in pain. I know that isn’t everyone’s situation. I still have a lot of function in my body. There is so much I can do pain free and many things I can do as long as I limit my other movement that week or month. I say that not as an ooh look at me, but since I know some of you are in pain at baseline no matter what you do. Pain or a shifting of abilities that is out of your control and not due to something you have done to yourself. For those of you in that position, I’m not sure how helpful this post will be, but I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section on reconstructing your identity separate from the movement you can no longer do. Here are a couple things that’ve helped me with making sense of the limits my body sets for me.

But before we get to that, if you are living in an eating disorder, your cravings for movement could be too high. The level of movement you do isn’t driven by honoring cravings for joyful movement, but instead exercise is something you have to do to feel safe. Akin to an addiction, it is something you have to do to be okay, rather than something you get to do because you are okay. In these situations, movement is done because a person hates their body, not because they want to care for it. At this point, your exercise routine is not improving your health, but instead it’s pulling you deeper into an exercise compulsion/disordered eating/self-hate. If you are struggling with overexercise, these pasts posts on compulsive exercise may be better suited for you than this one. If exercise was part of your eating disorder, movement may never be a healthy way for you to cope with life stressors and alternative coping strategies need to be explored. You likely are not a person who will be able to use movement as a mood stabilizer or a way to process through your thoughts.

1. Peak pose concept.

Some of my favorite yoga classes are where there is a peak pose we are working to be able to get into and the poses increase in intensity as we make our way to that pose. That idea of gradually preparing the body for a movement you want to do is something I like. I liked this idea so much that I adopted it into my own life, as in, what is the peak movement I want to be able to do and then back tracking to what do I need to do movement-wise and rest-wise to support me in doing that pain-free (sensation is okay, but pain is not). For me, one of my “peak poses” is functional for my family and one is just for me based on what I find pleasure in. Your “peak poses” are self-determined based on your values and what is rejuvenating to you. If you want me to be more specific on what that looks like for me, I’m happy to share in the comment section, however I’ve gotten a request to share less specifics at times and I can see the benefit in that for readers on their own journey, so I’m going to leave the movement specifics out of the body of this post.

2. Remembering this activity is not essential to my life.

When it comes to movement, no specific type of movement is essential to my life. It is annoying to not be able to move in certain ways as much as my body would enjoy, however, it is life annoying, not life threatening. I am still an active participant in my life and in the lives of those I care for regardless of my ability to do certain activities.

When talking to a grad school friend recently who used to be an athlete and who handles letting go of things that aren’t meant for her well, I asked what that transition away from being an athlete was like (I knew her for years before she even mentioned she once played a sport at a very intense level) and she said she just knows, “it’s not good to have her identity tied to transient things. The only thing worth tying your identity to are relational thing.” Yes. Amen. Then she also mentioned that, “Sports can be a path to learn some life lessons. However, movement/exercise/sports/fitness are not the life achievement.” Well said.

3. Maybe high impact movement just doesn’t make sense for my body anymore.

A reader emailed me the below and I’m wondering if some of you will relate?

Hi! I’m a long time reader of the blog!

I know you’ve addressed exercise compulsions and such on the blog before, but I wondered if you’d do a post about specifically exercise and women. I had a baby 10 months ago and I was really in to MommaStrong for a long time…and then just ended up feeling like it was sapping my energy instead of making me feel better, so I stopped (I have had issues with insomnia off and on for years and it’s been rough since having a baby… He sleeps through and has since he was 10 weeks but its been since around then that my sleep became really shitty…of course). Anyway, I’ve just always had this sneaking suspicion that higher intensity and even moderate (as in, above play swimming with my son/walking/playing in general/stretching) just isn’t as good for us as we’re told? The older I get, the more it seems to make sense to just be doing low intensity things that keep my cortisol low rather than things that increase it and end up making me feel shitty. Maybe it’s just me and my body. But I’m curious if this is probably true for a lot of women, where their bodies just DO NOT like harder exercise, even if the endorphins feel good in the moment. Of course either way I’m listening to my own body and sticking with what makes my own body feel better, but I’m curious!

What do you guys think? Have you noticed something similar in your own body?

Thanks for reading! I’d also love to hear where are you at with movement these days? Are you working to get to a healthier relationship with movement or have you found a healthier relationship with movement? If you’ve found a healthier relationship with movement, what does that look like for you?


  1. That last email is really interesting- I have definitely noticed that high intensity exercise makes me feel awful, personally. I do enjoy moderate/low intensity exercise though, like swimming, walking, stretching, etc. But man- if I go on a run, I have a stomachache and am grumpy the entire day.

    So, if you don’t mind sharing.. how did the new bathing suit work out for you? I really like it! I have always loved bathing suits in the past, but definitely struggle to find supportive ones postpartum. 

  2. Great post. I can definitely relate in many ways. I used to force myself to be a runner. I was never a runner earlier in life but in my deep ED days, it became an addiction/compulsion. But it was so hard on my body. Same for HIIT. I have a wonky knee and that stuff just isn’t good for me. As I have been in recovery, the exercise part has taken even longer than the food part. But now I am able to enjoy walking, yoga, and even going to the gym. Yoga classes became a little too performance focused for me so I stopped going to the studio and I practice more at home now, when I want to. My gym has a 30 minute circuit with step boxes and weight machines. I find it fun and energizing, but some days, it’s a simple walk and some days it’s nothing at all. I think the key (for me) is to not track anything, and not plan ahead-other than packing a gym bag! When I find myself planning out my movement, I find it turns down a dangerous path.
    I also love the “peak pose” concept. Good yoga teachers use this concept well and you are right, it does translate to life!

    • I love this idea of not planning out movement! Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth! This is often a needed step in repairing a relationship with movement that can last for years or a lifetime and can be so so beneficial!

  3. Hi kylie,
    It was interesting reading this post, as I also struggle with knee problems. I was wondering if you could talk about how to incorporate healthy exercise (ie physical therapy for my knees) back into your life. Something Ive struggled with since recovering from an eating disorder is shifting from the recovery mindset of  not doing intense exercise into a mindset that allows me to do the necessary exercise to keep my body healthy. Functionality is important to me as ive lost out on a lot of activities that i love and feel are life affirming. How do you remain a competent exerciser who listens to their body and doesn’t over extend it while  also challenging it with specific exercises to become functional. I would also love to more specifics about your peak movements. Thanks!

    • Hi Sophie, This is a big question and I’m gonna paint some broad strokes here in my response since I don’t know all the specifics. The first thing that comes to my mind is REST. Adequate rest between movement sessions has been very important to my knee health and rest is something I can hear my body asking for and respect. My functional for my family peak pose is to be able to go from a bottomed out squat position to standing without wincing in knee pain (not like ten of these in a row, but when my kids need a hug on their level and then to be picked up I want to be able to do this pain free). Adequate rest and the MommaStrong program have been really helpful in supporting my knees. Honestly I’d probably recommend MommaStrong to moms and non-moms alike, as the emphasis on utilizing your glutes, rather than relying on the knee joint, has been really great for my knees. Knowing that my goal is to not wince in pain when picking up my kids keeps me accountable to taking care of my knees other times a week. For instance, a bike ride sounds nice right now, but my knees are already feeling a bit achy, better not.

      Something else that comes to mind is sticking to the physical therapy movements you’ve been given and not doing anything else or anything extra. This could be a slippery slope of doing more and more, when what is needed is just the physical therapy movements for 6 weeks+.

      As far as listening to your body and not overextending…I’d say noticing the difference between pain vs. sensations could help. Pushing ourselves to sensation is okay, pushing ourselves to pain results in harm and should be avoided. If one cannot respect the limits of their body and instead move in a way that breeds or maintains injury and disease, then they likely need a goal to not exercise.

  4. I have been consistently running for about 14 years. I had to take some time off around the births of my two kids, but those are the only breaks. Twelve weeks ago, I fractured my pelvis and have not been able to run. I’ve been walking and biking but am craving the intensity of a solid run. My body isn’t ready. I tried to run yesterday and I feel frustrated that I’m still feeling discomfort. Exercise was a huge part of my eating disorder and while I’ve handled this break way better than I expected (thank you recovery!) it’s still frustrating to not be able to do what I want. Thanks for sharing posts like these. 

  5. I recently switched from running to walking. Once every few weeks I’ll feel like a run, but most days a nice walk is great. I dread running but I look forward to walks. It does get confusing for me because exercise is a really big part of how I manage my anxiety disorder… Along with therapy and medication… But yeah if I don’t exercise for a few days my anxiety gets much much worse so in that sense I do feel obligated to do it. I tried other things e.g. meditation and CBT… None of them work as well as the combo of exercise, therapy and meds!! So the best I can do is just choose activity that feels enjoyable and not dreadful to me. 

  6. I can definitely relate to what you wrote and the email! I’ve struggled off and on with insomnia since having my baby 16 months ago. Even when he sleeps through the night, I can have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. (Melantonin has helped!) Anyway, I agree that high-intensity exercise that elevates my cortisol levels simply isn’t healthy for me. I become more anxious and controlling, and I don’t feel well physically. Right now, taking walks with the stroller are great, and I like doing some yoga at home maybe twice a week. It’s nice to hear from other moms who aren’t doing high-intensity exercise. When I see magazine headlines and scroll Instagram, it can seem like that’s what we’re “supposed to” do. But that’s not true health for many of us! I’m thankful for your blog and this community. Keep it up!

  7. During COVID/Quarantine being outside was often my favorite part of the day. I belonged to a gym before and was pleasantly surprised how little I missed it. I used to rotate doing the elliptical and running and since being at home I’ve ran a little bit more than before but also go on walks or gentle bike rides. For me (single, no kids) the time after work to unwind and move my body is so good and I think helped me mentally through being stuck at home. I’ve also began to enjoy swimming and playing tennis. It is cool that hobbies I had as kids are fun now too. Thinking of movement as a hobby – as something fun and enjoyable that I want to look forward to- has helped me. If I ever feel like I am forcing myself to do something, it’s a signal I might need a break.
    But I totally agree about HIIT workouts. There have been times where feeling my heart rate get that high brought a weird pleasure but now it just hurts ha!

  8. Something new with movement for me has been doing body weight exercises at home. I used to be fearful of weight exercises/resistance training of any sort because I felt like it made me hungrier, and that made me feel like I wasn’t in control of my appetite. I also was afraid of gaining muscle and the resultant change to the shape of my body that I’d grown accustomed to. However, I finally came to terms with the fact that much of my neck/back pain was resulting from dysfunctional movements throughout my day because I was lacking arm and core strength specifically. I realized I did not want fear of changes to my appearance or appetite dictating whether or not I could move through life pain free. So, I started being intentional about being okay with my body shape/size and appetite changing as the result of new strengthening movements. I gained weight and my clothes fit differently because I have more muscle now, but it’s been so worth it to be able to lift + carry more easily and without injuring myself.

  9. Thanks for this post. At this time, I am enjoying high intensity exercise– I am an avid cyclist with a low stress job, and I’m 24– so it feels right/good/happy to me at this time. I don’t have much else sapping energy from me. However, having recovered from an eating disorder in which I had to take significant time off from excercise and relearn how to move freely AND as someone with scoliosis and chronic disc problems– this is still something I understand and relate to because there have been times in my life where how I want or *think* I should move my body doesn’t align with how I actually can or actually should. It is not easy (especially for those with backgrounds as competitive athletes, I think), but something that helps me is the thought: My body and abilities are ever changing. If I accept these changes as neutral, and decide that the way I can move at the present time is the best of my current abilities– then I am successful. In application, my best cycling time today is my best time today– regardless of yesterdays time or tomorrows time.

    • Man, that’s so good, Mikey! –>”My body and abilities are ever changing.” It sounds like you do a great job of tuning and seeing what you body needs that day, rather than functioning on “have to’s.” So good.

  10. I can relate to this a lot. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia a few years ago and went through a period of time when I was in so much pain I thought I’d never run again. I was a compulsive exerciser through high school and college so it was hard to let go of that identity. Thankfully I’ve found a lot of things that work to manage pain but still have to be very careful about ramping up activity and intensity slowly and my body really prefers low impact these days. I’m grateful for both the freedom from exercise (I can skip weeks without a formal workout and it’s totally fine) and the ability to move and go hike with my kids. But it’s been a long journey and there’s been grief in letting go of things that in my head  I love (running) but in reality make me feel totally sapped and exhausted right now.

    • Sounds like you’ve been able to bring in a lot of flexibility with movement, Annelise. Thank you for sharing! I too have found that any ramp up in activity has to be done in a thoughtful and *super* gradual way to avoid pain and injury.

    • Annelise-

      It looks like I may have fibromyalgia, so it’s always nice hearing from others who like to exercise but have the condition as well. I think I may have “triggered” mine during a period of over-exercising, and it was so hard to give it up until we could figure out what was going on. Thankfully, I have recovered from the over-exercising and disordered eating habits. I’ve been dealing with consistent muscle pain this year, so I’m not doing any exercise as day-to-day activities have been challenging some days. It can be hard to feel like I should/could be doing more with my toddler, but I also know that I don’t need running or other things to define who I am. I so miss exercise classes and such though!

  11. One super helpful thing for me with movement has been thinking of it as “seasonal” which is something you have said before. For me, I have been in school full time and working part time for the past five years, and it hasn’t been conducive for me always having the energy to move my body. I have a three week break right now, and I have noticed that I have much more of a desire to move my body than I normally do with school and work and whatever else. I do find that I enjoy higher intensity workouts right now as I don’t have much else to occupy my time and have lots of energy while staying at home with COVID.

    • The in school full time + working part time life is tiring! Just hearing about that season makes me feel depleted! For many, when we are adequately rested cravings for movement return…and that sounds like it’s been the case for you!

  12. I love your posts talking about exercise and movement :) In my own recovery I’ve found that one of my coping mechanisms that used to be unhealthy (running/HIIT) actually does have a genuine place of joy in my life now that I can do them in the right mindset. I bring this up because you mentioned some will never have exercise as a positive way of handling stress, which genuinely is  true for some. However, I also think that after recovery from an ED, there can be so much joy found in doing something in a healthy way with a completely new mindset. Also, recovery from an eating disorder has allowed me to pursue new ways of movement that I skipped over in the past for it being not “good enough”, but now I have the energy and right mindset to explore weight lifting, or cycling, or whatever other movement I want. Seeing movement for joy and not a chore is amazing haha.

    Thanks for taking the time to write these posts every Wednesday!!

    • Hi Beth, thanks for commenting and sharing this. I agree with you! Exercise/movement/play is a genuine source of joy, excitement, and pleasure when done in the right mindset. Since movement can be a large part of people’s EDs, I think it’s a good recommendation to diversify the ways we achieve stress relief to make sure they all don’t involve movement. I should’ve said that exercise isn’t a way for many with an ED past to process through their emotions or to fix a distressing event in their life. We shouldn’t ask exercise to do something it isn’t capable of…which it doesn’t sound like you are. It sounds like movement is just fun for you now and done in a way that feels good and allows for care of your body.

      For some of those with ED pasts, exercise was used as a way to numb…so that should be noted and approached thoughtfully for those individuals, but you are right in that complete healing, paradigm shifting and time away from ED mentalities and behaviors can lead to joy and pleasure in movement. Many types of movement (high intensity and gentler movement included) can be a way to return a person back to their window of tolerance, as I explained a bit in this previous post: People have different needs based on if they end up hypo- or hyper- aroused after a distressing event.

      I appreciate you sharing your experience. Writing posts at times can be tricky to speak into multiple stages of recovery. That isn’t a woe-is-me statement, just I can’t encompass everything in a post, so I appreciate when other perspectives are shared in the comments section, so others who relate can see and feel validated!

  13. Hello there, I’m a mama to two boys, and the second is only four months old, and I think this post is crucial to postpartum mums.
    I had a difficult pregnancy this second time around, and I spent a lot of it very ill and having trouble eating, which was very triggering for ED recovery, alongside, I was physically unable to do anywhere near the amount of walking and playing with my rambunctious four year old that I wanted to.
    One of the things that helped me get through was remembering just like being really mobile and highly functioning, being less mobile and lower functioning are phases in a normal physical life.
    This is obviously only applicable when you do not operate with chronic pain or permanent injury, but I still think it applies in a way. We all have good days where we have less pain and are more able to do things with our bodies and days where our limitations have us in a corner, and we have to acquiesce.
    I struggle a lot with rigid thinking, and the idea that I had to do things perfectly or not at all was a big theme in my ED days, and I think that “all or nothing” mentality is actually nurtured by society in an incredibly unhealthy way.
    All of this to say, letting your body’s limits direct your movement is beautiful and often difficult.
    Since I had my second son, I have returned to running, something I did and loved before my first child was born, but unlike that time, I cannot run every day, and I cannot push myself to run the speed or distances I could when I was 32.
    Now, I can only run two or three times a week, and when I do, I listen to my body, and if anything starts to hurt, I stop and walk the rest of the way home.
    Those things would have felt impossible to my rigid mindset before kids, but now, I just feel grateful for the amount that my body still lets me do period.
    I hope this didn’t come off as too ableist.
    Anyway, thank you for your conscientious posts Kylie. They always make me consider things in a way I hadn’t before.

  14. I really resonate with this post right now as I am about 6 months pregnant and the ways that I am able to move my body have changed so much. Some days it’s harder for me to come to terms with this than other days.

    I can also relate to high intensity movement not feeling good to my body in the long term (even when I am not pregnant). I also had signed up for Momma Strong, but felt that the workouts were a little more intense than what I enjoy doing on a regular basis. I feel much better doing pilates, stretching, taking walks, and doing other forms of low impact exercise. I find that any exercise that raises my heart rate a lot makes it harder for me to relax for the rest of the day and sends my anxiety into overdrive.

  15. YES! Totally relate to the email. I used to do Kayla Itsines’ Sweat workouts 3x a week because I read that HIIT was good for women with PCOS. But every time I finished a workout, I felt like I was going to die—like heart pumping out of my chest + can’t catch my breath after ten minutes type of feeling. Even after 8 weeks her program, I never felt more toned or fit. I just felt tired! When I transitioned to yoga and walking, all of that changed. These exercises made me feel rejuvenated and strong, and I actually noticed more muscle definition after being consistent with the yoga! Even now, when I try to add in a HIIT workout, I still cannot breathe most of the time, and it’s awful. That’s how I know that high intensity is just not for me, no matter what kind of shape I’m in.

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