How to Listen to Your Body While Exercising, Eating, and in Times of Stress

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  • Category: Mental Health
  • Read Time: 12 Minutes

How to Listen to Your Body While Exercising, Eating, and in Times of Stress Improve your relationship with exercise, food, stress, and more with these tips

Have you ever gotten the advice of “listen to your body” and wondered what this means? It can feel a bit nondescript and subjective, particularly when the how is not described. Though I also don’t have direct advice for what this means for you (since it varies by person), I wanted to provide some general thoughts on how and when to go about this.

What listening to your body means

Listening to your body is the practice of increasing and maintaining awareness of the signals your body is giving to you. This includes all the physical sensations in your body as well as your emotional and mental state. Greater bodily awareness is related to greater psychological well-being and better management of diseases like chronic pain. High levels of bodily awareness are found in elite athletes and in mind-body practitioners like yoga and pilates instructors (Busch et al., 2020). 

One example of body awareness is knowing exactly what it feels like to be hungry and satiated as well as how the food you eat makes you feel in both the short- and long-term. This way, you can use your body’s internal cues to regulate your food intake and energy needs. It is helpful to have awareness of what our “baseline” for any given physical sensation is so that we know when something has changed (either for better or worse) and know when to seek help for things going on in our minds and/or bodies. 

For many people, we learn to tune out certain signals to be able to get more things done in our daily lives. In some cases, this is helpful. We certainly can’t be constantly thinking about hunger or aches and pains or we would never get anything done. However, when we ignore these signals for long periods of time, we lose the ability to acknowledge and respond to those signals when they are indicating something has changed or is wrong. 

How to listen to your body

The tenets of mindfulness practice described in other FB articles when applied toward one’s body make up the components of how to “listen to your body.” Mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness to the present moment, without judgment. Simply taking a moment to turn your attention inward and being curious about how you are feeling in any given moment without labeling that feeling or experience as “good” or “bad” is listening to your body. However, to get more specific, I will talk about this in relation to several factors that impact our well-being. 

Related: Mindfulness for Anxiety - Barriers and Benefits of Practice

  • Food: Eating while driving, watching TV, working, standing. All of these experiences mean that we are not giving our full attention to the food we are taking into our bodies. Research shows that all other factors being the same, people who eat mindlessly (with distractions like television) are more likely to consume more food than they otherwise would (Ogden et al., 2013). These sorts of distractions take our focus away from the hunger and satiety cues and also reduce the mental resources we have available to attend to the eating process. Therefore, by eating mindfully, we can more fully attend to what we are feeling and how the act of eating changes that feeling.

    Besides these everyday occurrences of mindless eating, there is some evidence that folks with eating disorders experience low body awareness; and conversely people with higher mindfulness tend to show lower eating disorder pathology (Spoor et al., 2005; Sala & Levinson, 2020). Body awareness is an important factor in the treatment of many eating disorders and when preventing relapses. Interventions aimed at improving body awareness in folks with eating disorders have shown to improve body dissatisfaction, quality of life, and the level of severity of the eating disorder (Catalan-Matamoros et al., 2011). A critical component of the mindfulness interventions for people experiencing eating disorders is non-judgment. Otherwise, greater levels of awareness of the body can actually backfire and cause greater fixation on one’s appearance (Sala & Levinson, 2020). As a result, if you are experiencing an eating disorder, it is important to first seek help from a mental health professional before engaging in mindfulness as it can exacerbate symptoms.

    If you are looking to be more mindful of your eating process, be sure to pay attention to how your body feels before, after, and while you eat the food. Again, to truly practice mindfulness, you will acknowledge and then suspend any judgments that arise in the process. By paying attention to how your body feels as you eat, you will continue to eat until you notice a gentle fullness in your belly. This will help you know when to eat, how much to eat, and how to respond directly to your body’s needs.

    Related: How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Eat Intuitively and 3 Benefits of Mindful Eating
     
  • Exercise: Physical activity is another time where folks can start to lose track of what their body is telling them. While distraction is a helpful tool to occasionally help us get through those workouts when we mentally struggle the whole time, distraction throughout every workout means we lose touch of how the movement is impacting our body. This could result in poor form, injury, pushing ourselves too hard, or even not pushing ourselves enough. Regardless, greater bodily awareness is key to getting in effective workouts.

    Interestingly, many people hail fitness trackers (like fitness watches) as the answer to our exercise bodily awareness woes. People rely on them to tell them how high their heart rate gets, how many steps they get in, or whether they are generally moving enough. While this can be one helpful source of data, research shows that these trackers do not increase our bodily awareness or how much we trust our bodies (Busch et al., 2020). Over-reliance on these trackers can even lead some people to not being able to know how their exercise and/or physical activity is impacting them based on physical cues alone.

    Research shows that yoga is one form of physical activity that actually increases our bodily awareness (and actually is linked with lower levels of eating disorders; Martin et al., 2013). This is likely due to the nonjudgmental focus on how each movement feels within the body. Taking cues from yogic practices, regardless of the type of exercise you are doing, you should “listen to your body” by paying attention to your breathing and core, correct form and technique, the physical space around you, and how each movement feels throughout your entire body. While this may seem like a lot to focus on, this will help you get the most out of your workout and help prevent injuries. 

    Related: Mindful Movement: How It's Done and Why It's Good for You
     
  • Other physiological factors: Our bodies are so intelligent and communicate a lot to us about our lives. For example, a book I highly recommend by Bessel van der Kolk called The Body Keeps the Score tells us about how our bodies hold and manifest trauma. While a full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, we often have physiological reactions that are communicating to us something important. Fatigue, exhaustion, pain, or generally anything that is out of the realm of our “typical” experience is important to be aware of. Research shows that folks experiencing chronic pain due to back abnormalities (scoliosis) experience improved body image, mental health, and quality of life when they have greater body awareness (Yagci et al., 2020). While many of these concerns are frequently ignored, downplayed, or invalidated by medical professionals, we know that increasing awareness of our bodies despite these experiences will help improve our relationships with them. 
  • Emotions: Our emotions are essentially communicators of needs. Ever notice how when you get an acute sense of fear, your stomach drops? This is an example of how emotions tend to manifest in physical sensations. If you are truly listening to your body, awareness of emotions is an important factor to consider. When you experience an emotional reaction (particularly strong ones), take a second to pause and identify what that emotion is and where it is coming from. Recognize where and how you feel it in your body. Chances are good that it is telling you something that you need to hear. Part of this involves increasing your vocabulary to be able to most accurately describe your emotional experiences. Acknowledging and leaning into emotions, as scary and vulnerable as it can be, will almost always lead to the best outcomes for the long-term. In fact, ignoring and pushing away our emotions often leads to those emotions “coming out” in other, often harmful, ways. 

    Related: 6 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

When to listen to your body

Though I would like to say you should always listen to your body, that is just not possible. Practicing mindful awareness of one’s body takes up cognitive resources that we simply can’t exert 100% of the time (we would get nothing else done!). However, I do want to recommend that this is something that everyone ideally practices daily. I recommend that folks who struggle with finding or making time to listen to their bodies schedule time(s) in their day to listen to what their body is telling them. Even if you have ignored or pushed away feelings in your body, the important ones will most likely stick around and still be there when you are able to tune into your experience. The key to managing these feelings is that you don’t push it off for too long. 

That being said, it is important during meal times, during physical activity, or when you are getting particularly strong physical and/or emotional feelings at any time to tune into those experiences. 

Limitations

There are some instances where people should not necessarily listen to their bodies. For example, people who are actively experiencing an eating disorder have often lost their ability to feel the cues their body is giving to them. In this case, things like intuitive eating may not work and, if done correctly, could even contribute to maintaining the life of the eating disorder. In this instance, the individual needs to work with physicians, dietitians, and licensed mental health professionals to work on their unique needs. Mechanical eating is often prescribed as a means to get the person’s physiological eating needs met before training the self to increase bodily awareness and work toward intuitive eating. 

Additionally, it is extremely common that our emotions are communicating one thing and our personal values indicate something totally different. As a very simple example: when you are invited to hang out with your friends on Friday and feel really excited, and also know that you are currently prioritizing saving money and need to rest for an important engagement early Saturday morning. Though a relatively innocuous example, it illustrates the need to distinguish between listening to our emotions to act on them compared to listening to our emotions to acknowledge them. In this case, we have to make decisions that accommodate both values and emotions. 

How do you listen to your body and how does listening to your body change your experiences? Let us know in the comments below!

References

Busch, L., Utesch, T., Bürkner, P., & Strauss, B. (2020). The influence of fitness-app usage on psychological well-being and body awareness: A daily diary randomized trial. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 42, 249-260. 

Catalan-Matamoros, D., Helvik-Skjaerven, L., Labajos-Manzanares, M. T., Martínez-de-Salazar-Arboleas, A., & Sánchez-Guerrero, E. (2011). A pilot study on the effect of basic body awareness therapy in patients with eating disorders: A randomized control trial. Clinical Rehabilitation, 25(7), 617-626. 

Martin, R., Prichard, I., Hutchinson, A. D., & Wilson, C. (2013). The role of body awareness and mindfulness in the relationship between exercise and eating behavior. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 655-660. 

Ogden, J., Coop, N., Cousins, C., Crump, R., Field, L., Hughes, S., & Woodger, N. (2013). Distraction, the desire to eat and food intake. Towards an expanded model of mindless eating. Appetite, 62, 119-126.

Sala, M., & Levinson, C. A. (2020). The association between mindfulness facets and body checking in individuals with high and low eating disorder pathology. Mindfulness, 11, 2199-2205. 

Spoor, S. T. P., Bekker, M. H. J., van Heck, G. L., Croon, M. A., & van Strein, T. (2005). Inner body and outward appearance: The relationship between appearance orientation, eating disorder symptoms, and internal body awareness. Eating Disorders, 13, 479-490. 

van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Yagci, G., Karatel, M., & Yakut, Y. (2020). Body awareness and its relation to quality of life in individuals with idiopathic scoliosis. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 127(5), 841-857.