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A Guide to How Joyful Movement Can Support Your Recovery Journey

Picture of practising joyful movement through dancing
Photo by Drew Dizzy Graham on Unsplash

Do you worry that regular exercise will always be something you struggle with?

It’s a common issue for many who have spent many years using exercise as a means to shrink their body.

If you’re struggling to fit exercise into your week, the idea of joyful movement can feel somewhat out of reach.

This post will explain:

How would you describe your approach to exercise? Would it be "I probably over-exercise and wish I had a more balanced approach." Or "I don’t enjoy exercise." Perhaps you oscillate between the two. They’re often exhausted, feeling disconnected from their body’s needs and may have had a difficult relationship with exercise in the past.

When exercise is coupled with not eating enough or perhaps being done at an unsuitable intensity or duration, a person often experiences burnout or injury. I have found that whether a person is overexercising or not exercising regularly, they experience feelings of guilt.

I use the words "movement" and "exercise" interchangeably here. For some, the word "exercise" is connected to painful and gruelling experiences. When I asked my community which word they preferred, the majority said "movement."

Establishing a healthy relationship with movement can play an important role in your recovery journey.

Get comfy and let's see different ways that you can develop your own joyful movement practice.

What is Joyful Movement?

This blog post follows on from my "Mindful Movement Principles" blog post. Principle number four is enjoying yourself. Joyful movement is the act of exercising in a way that brings you joy (okay, stay with me). Moving in ways that you find pleasurable, as opposed to engaging in the physical activity you think you "should" be doing. Therefore, choice is key when it comes to joyful movement. Movement can look different depending on what you feel you’ll enjoy in that particular moment. On some days, that might look like a high-intensity class. Other days, you might fancy a gentle Pilates class. Regardless of what you choose, it’s centred around what's best for you and what brings you joy.

Why is Joyful Movement Important?

Our survival depends on our ability to recognise what is a helpful experience versus what experiences are harmful. This requires not only being able to decipher our bodies' cues for danger but also their cues for safety. Both of these states are regulated by our autonomic nervous system.

Triggers occur whenever we don’t have the capacity to cope with a perceived threat. Whenever this happens, our autonomic nervous system sees this as a threat to life and activates our survival mode response (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn).

Glimmers is a term coined by Deb Dana, a social worker and trauma expert, who describes them as micro-moments that occur when we experience cues of safety. When we feel safe, we’re able to connect to ourselves, others, and the environment around us.

As we increase our awareness of these micro-moments, they build up and can eventually create a shift in our autonomic nervous system state. Taking us from feeling an impending sense of dread or feeling numb to relaxing into a true felt sense of safety.

Experiencing joy is one of the body’s signals of safety, and movement is one way that we can access cues of joy.

Movement is important for both our mental and physical health. The benefits of exercise include:

  • Increased ability to tolerate stress

  • Alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

  • Increases cognitive health

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Lower risk for certain chronic diseases (such as osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes)

  • Helps build and maintain lean body mass (a key factor in slowing down age-related muscle loss)

  • Improved blood sugar regulation

  • Better heart and lung strength

  • Reduced inflammation

Barriers to Joyful Movement

Joyful movement requires us to bring our focus to our internal experiences. Our ability to sense and connect to our visceral (interoception) and musculoskeletal (proprioception) systems as opposed to living in our heads can form a key component of our mindfulness practise that supports both our mental and physical wellbeing.

Focusing on numbers

Whilst exercise may result in changes to your body (e.g. increased lean muscle mass, decreased fat percentage etc), using this as a motivation to move will not serve you in the long-term. There are many benefits to exercise that have nothing to do with aesthetics. That internal glow-up that we get from exercise increases our quality of life, improves our overall health, and will help keep us mobile for many years to come.

What’s more, when we approach exercise from a place of wanting to shrink our bodies, we run the risk of using exercise in a way that is harmful and unsustainable. This in turn increases our risk for injury and burnout, both of which can impact our ability to move and reap the long-term benefits of exercise.

Not making time (being overly busy)

Constantly being on the go can lead to overwhelm, exhaustion, and disconnection from our needs. Feeling the need to constantly be busy can be a sign of deeper underlying issues such as unresolved trauma or low self-esteem, and it is often a way that a person distracts themselves from uncomfortable feelings and emotions.

Rushing around day in and day out can leave little time for self-caring activates such as joyful movement. If this sounds like you, I can tell you that you are not alone. The inability to slow down or stop is a common barrier that comes up in sessions with clients who are struggling to nourish and care for their bodies.

From the perspective of the autonomic nervous system, a person who doesn’t feel safe enough to slow down, stop, or rest is most likely living in flight or flight survival mode. This can cause joyful movement to either not happen at all, have too high an intensity (unable to slow down), or be excessive (unable to rest).

Diet mentality

Diet mentality taught us to disconnect from our bodies and ignore our needs. We are praised for disconnecting from hunger and satisfaction cues. We put our life goals on hold until we shrink our bodies. We deny ourselves love and self-compassion because we cannot connect our emotional needs.

When recovering from years of chronic dieting and compensatory behaviours, exercise can be seen as needing to "count." This gives a person a narrow view of all the wonderful ways that we can move our bodies (examples below). Moreover, they end up engaging in exercise they do not enjoy or that is not self-care for their bodies. When you focus on joy, you’re more likely to move your body regularly and find a sustainable way to do so.

Being undernourished

The body needs sufficient energy to support all its physiological processes in order to maintain optimal health. When your caloric intake doesn’t match the intensity of your exercise, the body will use a range of protective adaptations. These include slowing down metabolic rate, down regulating digestive and reproductive functions and immune system suppression. Insufficient energy is considered a threat to life and can therefore activate our fight-or-flight survival mode. This often exacerbates mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Past experiences

In my conversation with fat liberationist Nicola Haggett, we talked about body stories. Our bodies have a story, and for many, their current relationship with movement has been influenced by that story. For this reason, it’s important to give yourself permission to take your time with this journey. Rushing ahead to where you feel you "should" be is unlikely to make you feel joyful or safe. It might even be helpful to make some space to reflect on the role exercise has played for you in the past.

How to Practice Joyful Movement

Being aware of your autonomic nervous system state

Our sympathetic nervous system activates our fight-or-flight mode. Chemical messengers in our bodies prepare us for action. Our breath becomes shallow, the blood in our bodies is directed towards our arms and legs, and our mouth dries up as our digestive system is downregulated and our heart rate increases. When we are working to regulate our nervous system, it’s best to let our bodies know that there isn’t a threat present and that we are safe.

We can do this by activating the part of the nervous system that tells us we're safe.

This is the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has two modes: parasympathetic, which is activated when we’re safe, connected to ourselves and to everything and everyone in our surroundings. We feel relaxed yet alert.

The second mode is dorsal parasympathetic; this is a survival mode often known as freeze and fawn. In this autonomic nervous system state, a person might feel numb, find it difficult to move, and be apathetic.

I often use the warm bath analogy to help my clients remember this. "Fight-or-flight" is our hot tap, and "freeze-or-fawn" is our cold tap. Our aim is to run a nice, warm bath. Some exercises will make our bath too hot, and some will make it too cold.

Cooling the bath down activities:

  • Laying down on the floor or doing floor-based exercises (e.g., Pilates and yoga)

  • Plank exercises

  • Exercises that you do barefoot and that allow you to feel textures under the feet

  • Exercises that you do with someone you feel safe with

Heating up the bath activities:

  • Balancing and standing exercises

  • Shaking out hands and feet

  • Bouncing or balancing exercises on a Swiss ball

  • Exercise that is instructed by someone you feel safe with (some gentle guidance can be helpful when you’re unable to connect)

These are just a few suggestions to try out.

The best practise is to check in with yourself throughout to see if you’re feeling dysregulated or alert and relaxed. This links back to mindful exercise principle number two, supporting the self.

Focus on how it feels

Pilates Mentor and Instructor Joanne Cobb mentioned the importance of bringing awareness sensations that you feel in your body during exercise during our interview. That stretch that feels just like what your body needs. Understanding whether you are challenging your body in a way that will build strength and mobility. Knowing what your comfortable range of movement is for a particular move.

The more attuned you become to these sensations, the more you will be able to move from a place of self-care as opposed to self-punishment or self-harm.

Journal prompt: What are the thoughts and feelings that you experience when movement comes form a self-caring place as opposed to when it’s coming from a punitive place? Track how that feels before, during, and after movement.

Dress comfortably

Social media will have you believe that you have to dress like a model on a fitness magazine cover to move. You can. But it’s definitely not a prerequisite. Especially if you feel uncomfortable. Clothes can feel uncomfortable for a so many reasons. Body dissatisfaction, personal preference, sensory processing disorders, and body changes. Wear the clothes you feel comfortable in. Textures, support, the cut, the fit and even the colours. All of these can make the difference between moving with joy or feeling uncomfortable.

Affirmation: My body deserves to feel comfortable.

Find joy in regular daily activities

Bringing your attention to the movements that you already do can be one way to start to introduce some joy to movement. Perhaps instead of rushing to the train station each morning, you play your favourite playlist or take some time to take in your surroundings.

Taking time to play a game on the way to or from the school run, dancing around the house as you clean or cook I realise this might mean that these activities may take longer (and I definitely don’t know much about school runs), so it might help to plan joyful movement so it fits with your schedule.

Journal prompt: At what parts of the day do I feel safe to tap the breaks and slow down?

Include rest days

Rest days are important in order to reap both the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Not feeling able to take a rest day can be one sign that your relationship with exercise needs some attention. I recommend at least 2 days of rest each week.

This gives your muscles time to build and repair. It also gives us time to replenish our glycogen stores, which will help us fuel and recover for the next time we move. This takes us back to mindful movement principle number three: strengthening the self.

Lean body mass is important for a number of reasons, including maintaining blood glucose balance, maintaining bone density, and maintaining muscle strength. This is particularly important as we age because not only are we trying to slow down age-related muscle loss, but we are also more at risk for falls and fractures.

If we want our movement practise to be sustainable and to promote health, we need rest.

Journal prompt: What are the signs that my body needs more rest?

Joyful Movement Ideas (you may not have thought of)

  • Dancing (learn a routine, freestyle, Zumba class, alone, with your family etc)

  • Dancing in a chair—clapping your hands, tapping your feet, wiggling those shoulders, and bopping your head.

  • Skipping

  • Gardening

  • Horse riding

  • Going for a walk

  • Walking the dog

  • Scenic bike ride

  • Playing with your kids or grandchildren

  • Join a local sports team or club (netball, volley

  • Skating (roller skating, skate boarding, ice skating, inline skating)

  • Swimming

  • Skipping

  • Trampolining/mini trampolining

  • Bowling

  • Pole dancing

  • Archery

  • Martial arts or self-defense classes

  • Charity walks or runs

  • My pilates classes online (I like Pilates to be fun!)

  • Boxing (look out for my review on…

  • Rock climbing

  • Paddle boarding

  • Clay pigeon shooting

  • Badminton

  • Active video games (Wii fit, Just dance etc)

  • Paint balling

Journal prompt: What activities feel doable for this phase of my journey?

Go at your own pace

I mentioned in the section on barriers to joyful movement that our relationship to exercise has often been shaped by our past experiences. Some of those experiences go back to childhood. Not being picked for sports teams in physical education at school, punitive disciplinary exercise methods, and overexercising for weight loss or as a maladaptive coping mechanism.

For some, our bodies hold memories that our nervous system is trying to protect us from in the here and now. Slowly returning to your body so that you can connect to, acknowledge, and honour its needs will set the pace for your joyful movement practice.

All movement "counts" when it is truly coming from a place of self-care. Give yourself the time you need to reconnect with yourself.

Your body will be thankful you did.

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