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Shifting Your Relationship With Exercise

Think back to the ways you used to move as a kid. Did you play a sport? Jump rope on the playground? Run around in the backyard? Personally, I was a pro on monkey bars and you could catch me cartwheeling anywhere there was room for me to. I can’t say I’ve totally outgrown that habit. Can you remember what it felt like to move in the ways you did–the forms of movement that brought you joy, leaving you immersed in the moment?

When we’re kids, movement is innate. We move freely, without the self-consciousness that develops as we grow up. We’re simply moving our bodies. And then, we learn to exercise. As a 90’s baby, my media consumption was bombarded with narratives around achieving flat abs, losing five pounds, and being thin. The positive mental and physical benefits of exercise are overpowered by the promise of exercise as a pathway to a “perfect body.” And so, I followed suit. In the gym as early as they’d let me, working out, pining to be thin, and dieting along the way.

From the elliptical and machines to free weights, strength training, and even bodybuilding, my original intention of exercise for weight loss eventually turned to knowledge, physical strength, and confidence. And yet, I held a lingering anxiety around exercise for a long time. A belief that “I had to workout,” met with feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, or frustration if I missed a workout that day. Self-inflicted rules like, “I have to do at least 45 minutes of cardio,” leaving anything less than that as “not enough.”

Like many of us, my wellness journey has been a long and windy road. Dieting, disordered eating, binging & exercise obsession eventually led me to intuitive eating, free movement, and self-love. I’ve shared my journey and learnings along the way during my last ten years as a wellness entrepreneur, writer, speaker, and teaching movement around the world. My overall message has been consistent: fitness isn’t about what it looks like, how you feel is what matters.

Now, I question the ways Western society has perpetuated harmful beliefs about fitness and exercise, leading us to participate in behaviors that are ironically, unwell. Now, I understand that moving my body is a way to move energy–which is why it is critical for mental, emotional, and physical well-being! Now, I don’t “have to work out today” (and I don’t). Rather, I know that movement keeps me feeling clear and well and when I’m feeling stuck, frustrated, anxious, or [fill in the blank with emotion of the moment], moving my body helps shift my state of being. It’s what T. Swift was singing about when she wrote “Shake It Off.” Now, that’s what I do. I teach folks how to shake. How to shake and breathe, bounce and move freely. To return to that childlike, innate joy of movement. To move softly and listen to the needs of their body. Some days that might be a high-energy workout, other days that might be lying on the ground.

The somatic skill of letting your internal cues guide your movement takes time and practice to develop. Personally, it has not only changed my relationship with exercise but positively reshaped the way I engage with the world. I now understand that my body is my greatest guide to this one precious life I have and the more I listen to its whispers of wisdom, the more I am supported and guided where I am meant to go.

Here are three simple somatic tools to connect with your body here and now:

  1. To Ground & Connect To Your Heart: Rub your palms together (like you were trying to warm your hands on a chilly day). Deepen your breath as you do this. Begin to listen to the sound of your palms moving with one another. Feel the temperature and texture of your hands. When they reach a temperature that feels good to you, place your hands on your heart. Pause here and take 3 deep breaths.

  2. To Release Stress & Re-Center: Shake it off (as promised!). Shaking is one of the most powerful tools we have in our internal tool kit–it helps to relieve stress and tension. Start by shaking the right hand, left hand, right arm, left arm. Right foot, left foot, right leg, left leg. Then the whole body. Big deep breaths here, with optional sighs and/or release of any kind of noise (let it out!!). Do this for 30 seconds per minute or more. Then, come to stillness. Pause, breathe slow and steady, and notice what you feel. You can place one or both hands on your body to the ground.

  3. To Feel Free & Embrace Joy: You’ve been doing this one your whole life. Put on a song you love and dance. That’s it. Let yourself play, get silly, get sexy, get funky, whatever it is. Don’t think, just move.

Want more free movement? I created joyflow® for just that! Join me at joyflow® NYC for weekly classes to connect with your body and move freely. Your first class is free with the code NYCSOCIETY! Plus, I’d love to hear how this topic resonates with you! What is your relationship with exercise and movement? Has it shifted over the years? Have you tried intuitive movement? Send me a message on Instagram @sarahjgaines, and let me know!


Sarah Joy Gaines is the founder of joyflow®, a creative, mindful movement class to connect with your body and feel free. With 10+ years in the wellness industry and a Master's in Women, Gender, Spirituality & Social Justice, Sarah aims to create an equitable world of well-being where folks feel connected to themselves, their community, and the world around them.

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