We often hear the advice that listening to your body is important. But it’s often left there. While this is a practice that isn't difficult (and we'll get to that), it isn't so obvious either.
Here, we’re going to focus in on the fundamentals of listening to your body. Because tuning in to your body’s needs will go a long way in helping you make the health and fitness choices that are right for you.
Your Body Is Like No Other
Bodies the world over are alike in many, many ways, but the particulars of what works best for your wellness are specific to you. (Side note: this is one of the many reasons why diet fads do not work as healthy, sustainable practices.)
Each body differs in many ways; here are just a few:
The type and amount of movement that feel best
The type and amount of nourishment that fuels it best
The amount of rest it needs to function well
Its own tolerance for stress
Its disease and injury history
The number of years its been on the planet
So if your aim is to feel great and move well, you need to start down the path of figuring out what works best for you. Here’s something else to consider: those needs will change over time.
This is especially true for women: the changes associated with each menstrual cycle, pregnancy and postpartum, and menopause usher in changing needs. Men’s bodies also change over time, but the arc of change tends to be longer.
What to Listen to and What Not to Listen To
A big question hanging over this concept of listening to your body is, What should I listen to? There are often things that I really want, like to drink countless cups of coffee or eat all the chips and salsa before dinner comes.
But there is another part of me that fully understands excessive amounts of coffee will only make my stomach unhappy and leave me feeling frazzled. And filling up on snacks isn’t what I really need.
Another common situation is when you’re feeling tired and sluggish mid-day or at the end of the day, and you haven’t been moving much. Likely the issue is that you need to get out and move. But it may feel like your body is saying, Just sit on the couch and relax.
The key then is to understand what messages are the ones you really need to be listening to. To differentiate, I like what Strala Yoga co-founder Michael Taylor had to say: “There are two layers of feeling at work here. One is feeling in your body, your core, your nature. The other is your surface psychology, imprinted on top of it all.”
What he’s getting at here is that there are your brain thoughts, and then there’s something deeper: it’s what we often also refer to as your gut instinct or your intuition.
The best way I can describe it is that this is what exists below all the chatter in your head. And while this concept can feel subtle and difficult to grasp and implement, it really isn’t.
An Easy Approach to Listening to Your Body
There is a very simple question to ask yourself if you’re getting hung up on trying to figure out which instinct to follow:
Is this choice going to provide short-term relief or long-term wellness?
I know that drinking lots of coffee is fun right now, but I will regret it when I can’t sleep later and my digestive system is a mess. I know eating another basket of chips is what I really, really want to do this very second, but I will feel so much better if I eat a complete meal. I also know that if I am sluggish in the afternoon, if I get out for a run, I will feel worlds better.
I know all of this because of experience. And this drives home another key factor about this listening to your body situation: tuning in to your helpful internal messages, like just about every body–mind interaction, is a practice. The more you do it, the better you get.
The more you pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work, the easier it’ll be for you to differentiate between something you just want and something that’s actually going to contribute to sustained health. And by sustained health, this means at once maintaining vibrancy and energy, as well as helping to prevent injury and keeping your immune system healthy, to best fight off illnesses.
A little caveat here: sometimes it’s totally OK to just do what you want. There are times when I do eat all the chips, and I totally enjoy myself. I just don’t do it every day. Sometimes, I drink way too much coffee, knowing full well it’s going to catch up with me. But about 90% of the time. I don’t do those things, which makes them so much more enjoyable when I do.
Better Experiences Reinforce Healthier Choices
At this point you may be thinking, This all sounds great, but it’s so hard to follow what your body is telling you. The alternatives my chattering mind is suggesting are so much easier and sound so much more fun! Argghh, the struggle! I can’t keep it up, so why bother?
To this I say, here’s something else I know from experience: when you start making healthier choices and you experience how those choices make you feel better, those healthier choices start to become what you want to do. And that's the sweet spot: when your wants and needs align.
Give it a try for yourself. It may take some time, and it will take some effort, but the benefits are so great. Your future self will thank you profusely for learning the great skill to listening to your body.