What is joyful movement?

Help Yourself to Joyful Movement: A Better Approach to Exercise


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What do you think of when you hear the word “exercise”? Do you cringe at the thought of muscle pain, or dread knowing that your next workout will be a grueling endurance test? Is this just what exercise is to you – an unpleasant event necessary for health and wellness? If so, then it’s time to change your perspective on exercise. It doesn’t have to be an intense marathon workout in order for it to be effective. In fact, some of the best exercises are those that make us feel good! In this post, we’ll be talking about joyful movement, and how it’s a better approach to physical activity. Let’s jump right in!

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What is Joyful Movement?

Joyful movement refers to enjoyable, self-directed physical activity that feels good. It takes the focus off weight loss as an end goal and instead focuses on joy, self-acceptance, mobility, and personal interests. It can be any type of movement – from gardening to dancing or yoga! It’s not about exerting yourself beyond your limits (just like many people may have believed for years), but rather it’s about feeling good in the present moment with whatever movement you’re doing. Joyful movement is one of the principles of the Health at Every Size® model:

Life-Enhancing Movement: Instead of structured physical activities, this principle is about supporting physical activities “that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose”. Choose is the keyword here. What good is it to practice physical activity if it’s something that we don’t enjoy or that doesn’t make us feel good, right?

This research paper explains it best: “As joy and passion are the strongest driving forces to physical activity, this highlights the importance of supporting people to find a kind of physical activity that they like”.

Intuitive fitness

This type of physical activity is also known as intuitive movement or intuitive fitness. The idea of joyful movement contrasts with what people are often told that they should do – namely, exercise for a certain amount of time each day to lose weight and look a certain way. This approach can also help reduce feelings of guilt or body shame, instilled in us through diet culture and anti-fat bias, while promoting body trust and self-care.

Thus, joyful movement is a better approach to exercise because it focuses on feeling good rather than just physically exhausting oneself. And as we know from the Theory of Self-Determination (a theory that has been widely studied in psychology) people are most likely to feel motivated and invested when they’re doing something for their purpose – such as joyful movement!

Engaging in joyful movement versus structured exercise ultimately helps to:

  • Support the connection between mind and body, instead of focusing on aesthetic results
  • Reduce physical and mental stress, instead of increasing it
  • Provide authentic enjoyment and pleasure, instead of using exercise as punishment
  • Empowers and uplifts the body, rather than exhausting or depleting it

Why is Joyful Movement Important?

health at every size joyful movement
Whatever makes you feel good-and smile!-counts as valid movement

Joyful movement is important because it helps us improve our relationship with exercise. First of all, the body needs and wants movement. It needs it for motility, flexibility, and strength. Physical activity is necessary for muscle and bone preservation, as well as metabolic health. Movement also supports physical health (such as heart health) and emotional health (all those feel-good endorphins!). 

However, due to the current diet culture we live in, difficult and punishing exercise is seen as some sort of moral imperative. So much that there are people who are addicted to exercise, yet are praised as being “healthy” and “disciplined.” Just like orthorexic eating patterns, compulsive exercising is difficult to extricate from its disordered core. You know: “no pain, no gain”.

Joyful movement and intuitive eating

Joyful movement, like intuitive eating, is actually the opposite of structured exercise. It invites us to explore and experiment with movement until we find something we actually feel good doing. We listen, honor and respect our body’s needs and internal signals versus listening to external regulation like rigorous exercise regimes.

Joyful movement is also flexible. You are able to recognize and accept that there may be times when you don’t work out for several days or longer, and that’s okay. You can come to trust that your health and wellbeing will not collapse as a result of taking a break from moving your body. Over time, you will come to realize that rest days are just as important as active days. 

In my professional work as a registered dietitian, I find that my clients sometimes have difficulty dealing with the conditioned guilt that emerges from doing less movement than usual due to illness or life situations.  Many of them have a tendency to over-exercise, view exercise as a way to “burn off” eating “bad foods,” or have struggled with the all-or-nothing mentality of doing strenuous workouts daily or nothing at all. Learning to ditch the dieting mentality and its strict rules while developing body appreciation is key in allowing flexibility with respect to physical activity.

Is Any Movement Considered Exercise?

Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm.

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating 4th Edition

Buy it here: Intuitive Eating

You might think intuitive movement sounds too good to be true. However, when we think of joyful movement, the most important thing is feeling good and being attuned to your body’s needs in whatever type of movement you’re doing. This can include anything from walking to dancing in your living room or gentle stretches before bed!

Movement doesn’t have to be intense for it to count as exercise – what’s important is that you feel good while engaging in that activity.

Taking the focus off the numbers (calories, pounds, exercise minutes) also helps avoid falling into the trap of thinking that certain types of physical activity are better than others. With joyful movement, a 10-minute walk around the block is just as valid as a 1-hour spinning session. Those 10 minutes build up over time, and we have research that supports the fact that even these small amounts of movement can lead to significant health results.

How do you enjoy movement?

Joyful movement is very personal – what makes movement enjoyable for one person may not be joyful for another person. The important thing is to find what makes YOU feel good and make sure to incorporate it into your life as much as possible!

Thus, exercise becomes effortless and pleasant. It can create a sense of empowerement and being in the flow. You feel alive! And you can choose to do it at any age or in any body size or shape because intuitive movement isn’t about how you look but rather what feels good for you right now. It’s about being in our bodies and moving in ways that feel right for us.

I love how the authors of Intuitive Eating explain that focusing on how exercise feels, rather than the calories burned, is a form of interoceptive awareness. This refers to the awareness of the internal bodily signals we are continuously receiving, accessing, and evaluating. It’s key to becoming an intuitive eater, and learning what type of movement we prefer.

How to Find Joyful Movement

Benefits of joyful movement
What good is exercise if it doesn’t uplift, de-stress and empower you?

Joyful movement can be as simple and joyful as taking a walk with your dog, going for an easy bike ride, or working on your garden on a warm summer day. Remember, intuitive fitness is about moving because it feels good to do so, not just because we want to get a certain result.

In this section, I’ll discuss 5 tips you can use to find out what joyful movement looks like for you—and do it!

  1. Focus on what you feel. Focusing on what feels pleasurable versus trying to reach specific exercise targets tends to make physical activity more sustainable. It’s also a great way to bring more pleasure into your life–something we could all use!
  2. Keep moving. Find ways to move throughout your day—standing while talking on the phone instead of sitting for long periods, taking the stairs instead of elevators or escalators, walking around while you’re on conference calls. These small bursts of movement add up over time and can have a bigger impact on your health than not moving at all.
  3. Keep your routine joyful. Do things that you enjoy and find enjoyable, rather than trying to force yourself into an activity or form of movement that feels drab, difficult, or uncomfortable. Don’t know where to start? Think about movement you used to enjoy when you were a kid: roller skating, bike riding, dancing or playing a team sport. Try listening to music you enjoy or watching a fun TV show while you’re on your home fitness equipment.
  1. Keep your body guessing. Alternate between different types of activity to keep things interesting and avoid falling into a boring rut. Check out Joyn, the joyful movement app that’s non-judgemental and weight inclusive, and provides a wide variety of movement types to suit your tastes!
  1. Be kind to your body. Don’t try to force it into doing things that strain and tax it! Be sure to take regular breaks during any workout session—even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time.


The journey towards joyful movement can be a process of self-discovery. It is not the path to perfection, but rather a way for you to start building more self-care, body trust, and self-compassion. You are your own expert on what you need in order to stay healthy and happy. All it takes is curiosity, mindfulness, accountability, and consistency.

So, which tips will you try in order to include more enjoyable forms of movement in your day? Let me know what your favorite types of movement are below in the comments section!

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