Discovering Joy Through Embodied Exercise
An intentional path to cultivate intrinsic motivation
What words come to mind when you hear exercise? For many, it’s things like should, grind, and even hate or hurt. For others, it’s fun, play, and even love or pleasure. You’ve likely been told that you have to exercise. Maybe you’ve even been given a list of ten activities that you must do. Today, I’m here to give you permission to let go of all that external pressure. Instead, I invite you to reimagine how you think about exercise and rediscover your own body.
As a child, I was obsessed with playing sports. I loved being on a team, competing to win, and striving to get better. During these years, exercise felt easy. I thrived on external motivation, tangible goals, and consistent progress. Yet, within a year of graduating college and "retiring" from baseball, I felt stuck. My body hurt. I lacked the motivation to exercise. I could feel my strength and energy decreasing by the day.
I have a vivid memory of standing in the gym one evening with a gnawing sense of pointlessness. I looked at the weights and felt empty. I asked myself why I should lift them and got no answer. I felt weak, both physically and mentally. My strength was decaying. My willpower was nonexistent. My spirit seemed broken.
It may sound dramatic, but I’m willing to bet you've felt like this. Most people I chat with in my fitness coaching practice have encountered similar feelings about exercise at least once. Some people get stuck here and struggle to ever get out.
A common response is to fight through the malaise: set an exciting goal, make a public commitment, or hire a coach. These external motivators are intended to inspire action and create accountability. They sometimes work but far too often we find ourselves back where we started. We repeat the cycle assuming something is wrong with us and looking to the external world for an answer.
I think there’s a better way: intentionally cultivating intrinsic motivation for exercise. Take a quick look at these definitions:
Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in an activity because it leads to a tangible reward or avoids punishment.
Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it is both interesting and deeply satisfying for its own sake.
Now think of why and how most people exercise.
To lose a few pounds or gain muscle? To achieve a PR or complete a race? These are rewards we chase. Hitting the gym to not feel guilt or shame? Creating an accountability system to never miss a workout? These are punishments we try to avoid. Our society is built around extrinsic motivation and this defines the default path to exercise.
You hear it in how many people talk about exercise. A focus entirely on the benefits you get after doing it. Or, the strategies to “push through the pain” and “embrace the suck.” Ironically, people who say these things have often discovered their own intrinsic motivation. Many truly enjoy exercise during the activity itself.
I believe this happens naturally for most people who exercise regularly. There’s some truth in the expression “just do it and it will become enjoyable”. Yet, the sad reality is many people never get to this point. So I’ve spent years exploring how others could recreate this shift more quickly and reliably. I now believe everyone can intentionally design an approach to exercise that unlocks joy for the activity itself.
So, let’s get you out of your head and into your body where you can discover the intrinsic joy of exercise.
Introducing embodied exercise
Embodied exercise is moving your body while paying attention to everything you experience. Move and feel it. Cultivate presence to experience whatever emerges within. Your breathing, muscle contraction, heart rate, adrenaline, fatigue, and yes even joy.
Taking an embodied approach unlocks intrinsic motivation because it connects you to the actual experience of exercise within your body. This unlocks deep intrigue and satisfaction. Curiosity and enjoyment occur during the exercise itself not when you have completed it or when you’ve achieved an external goal.
You shift from the satisfaction of completing a workout to satisfaction of doing a workout. Instead of grinding through months of painful or unsatisfying exercise with blind faith, you can intentionally cultivate this approach from day one.
If you’re like me, you may be more familiar with the opposite approach. Instead of feeling what’s happening within our body, we disassociate from it. Instead of listening to what our body is saying, we force it to comply. Instead of letting our body naturally complete movements, we use our minds to control every move.
Now imagine you want to start running and let’s compare two different approaches:
“Default” Running: You set a goal to run a 10k and sign up for a race. You tell all your friends to create accountability. You start pushing yourself to run further and faster to quickly achieve your goal. The pace feels uncomfortable but you force your body through it. Time goes by faster if you disassociate so you lose yourself in your thoughts or a playlist. Sometimes you get a “runner’s high” but it’s a vague satisfaction you can’t describe. Your mileage increases. You complete the race. Your friends are proud. But you’re not sure what to do next. Sign up for a longer race? Take a break because you hit your goal? You’re stuck in a loop of extrinsic motivation.
“Embodied" Running: You set an intention to fully experience the activity of running within your body. You ask friends for tips on technique to cultivate enjoyment. You start slowly and listen to your body. You explore how different paces and distances feel in your lungs, heart, and legs. You find that if you bring your awareness deep into certain places in your body you experience a flood of interesting sensations. Sometimes you stop thinking altogether, lost in the meditative flow of each foot hitting the ground. You’re intrigued, so you start running more often. Your runs get longer. You realize your pace has increased without even trying. You aren’t worried about what’s next because you enjoy the experience so much. You’ve become someone who runs for the joy of it. You’re effortlessly powered by intrinsic motivation.
Call me crazy but the second version sounds less stressful and way more fun. And the beauty is you can take a similar approach with any type of exercise.
“Doing” embodied exercise
Here’s a secret. You don’t actually need me or anyone else to teach you how to “do” embodied exercise. It’s innate. A natural capacity we’re born with that so many of us lose. Just watch an infant learning to crawl or a group of kids playing during recess. You’ll see them fully immersed in their own experience of the activity and often radiating joy.
Recapturing this magic is a process of unlearning and unwinding. I’ll provide a few entry points and intentions for you to experiment with but the ultimate shift is to begin to listen less to others like me and more to your own sensations, desires, and evolving experiences.
Experiencing Embodiment in a Single Exercise
Pick a specific exercise that you are already familiar with. Perhaps a push-up or a bodyweight squat.
Do a few reps without thinking. Now slow it way down.
Can you feel how different muscles activate at different points? Can you notice where it’s smooth and where it feels sticky?
Bring attention to sensations of fatigue as you do these slow reps. Notice how much harder the slow reps are than normal reps. Take a rest and bring your awareness to how your entire body feels.
What do you feel in your body?
Now let’s flip the tempo and speed it up. Do the same exercise but even faster than normal.
What shifts do you notice? Can you feel your heart rate increase?
Bring attention to whatever sensations are most present in your body. Now rest again and bring your awareness back to how your body feels.
Congrats, you’ve just done embodied exercise.
You can extend this approach of going super slow or increasing the tempo to jogging, dancing, swimming, and any other movement. Shifting the pace and intensity is a way of intentionally heightening our internal experience so we can more easily experience it.
Bringing Embodiment to any Physical Activity
The power of an embodied approach is that we can introduce it into any movement and bring it to the physical activity we already do. One way to do this is through somatic cues. Short questions to nudge our awareness into the sensations with our body. Some of my favorites are:
What muscles can I feel contract during this exercise?
How is my breath changing throughout this activity?
Can I feel my heart rate go up as the intensity increases?
At what rep do I first feel subtle burning (lactic acid) in my muscles?
Where am I holding tension in my body during this movement?
What does my contact with the ground feel like?
How do I feel when I invite this movement to be 10% more fluid?
Another counterintuitive portal into the body is fatigue questioning. It occurs in the moment during a run, a ride, or a set of reps where you start to hear that familiar voice saying “stop” or “I’m tired”. Instead of shouting back or trying to push it down, you can get curious.
Oh, my body is telling me something. Can I experience it fully?
Where is the fatigue? Is it in my muscles? My lungs?
What part of my body can’t actually do this anymore?
This curiosity and somatic exploration often soften the feeling of discomfort. You realize that the voice saying “stop” wasn’t coming from a place of danger or failure but a place of discovery or newness. You’re on the edge of your comfort zone. This is a place where magic can happen. An opportunity to open to new sensations, new feelings, and new capacities.
The more you lean into your body at this moment, the less scary it becomes. Not only are you discovering a new terrain of sensory experiences but you have contact with your body to know when it actually needs to stop. Experiencing this edge of our comfort zone fully within your body is a transformative moment on the path to experiencing the full joy of exercise. For many, this becomes one of the experiences they love most about exercise.
Unlocking intrinsic motivation and joy
Now that you’ve experienced embodied exercise let’s return to how it can shift our motivation and cultivate joy within the activity. We’re not here just to add more exercises that you should do. We’re here to become people who truly enjoy exercise.
Embodied exercise nudges us to intentionally focus on how it feels to move our body. By bringing our awareness to the various physical sensations that arise we more deeply connect with the immediate experiences of exercise. We develop a relationship with exercise that is grounded in the present moment. It is only here that we can fully experience joy during exercise
As we cultivate deeper awareness and understanding of our body, we uncover previously hidden connections between mental, emotional, and physical states. Through these connections, we further connect to our inner desires, preferences, and patterns. This growing field of awareness unlocks more of our intrinsic motivation, for exercise and life more broadly.
From this space, we can build a deeply intuitive approach to exercise. Instead of looking to experts to tell us what we should do, we can listen to our bodies to hear what we want to do. Instead of forcing ourselves to rigidly follow a predefined schedule, we can cultivate space within our daily life that makes exercise inevitable. We can let go of grinding and discover flow. Exercise can feel effortless.
Embracing embodied exercise is taking the courageous step to welcome the full breadth of our experiences and unlock the full power of our bodies. The way we approach activities like exercise is often how we live our lives. We can grind through it chasing external accomplishments and rushing to the next milestone. Or, we can deeply connect to our own experiences and discover the joy within the journey.
UPDATE: I’ve started a new publication to explore the topic of embodied exercise and intuitive fitness in depth. You can check it out and subscribe here.
Thank you for reading! Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any thoughts or questions. You can explore more of my philosophy around exercise at intuitivefitness.co. Here is the dedicated newsletter to explore enjoyable exercise and intuitive fitness in more depth:
Great, great piece.
It reminds me of what Andrew Huberman says in his episode about dopamine, something along the lines of "learn to enjoy the effort."
This means we can actually get satisfaction and reward from doing the thing itself, rather than some reward (a protein shake!) afterwards. It means our motivation and reward pathways get trained to fire during the thing itself, which makes it more sustainable over time.
After 10+ years of consistent exercise, I feel like I'm 80% in the embodied/intrinsic zone, but still 20% of me lives in the extrinsic. I mainly exercise because I love it, but a part of me still wants to get jacked, look great, etc. which I'm fine with as I feel it motivates me but isn't primary.
I really like this! For the past few months I've been exploring this intuitively, specifically for gaining flexibility and strength (and also self-massaging). I intend on writing posts about these topics myself eventually, but I might just have to link here now lol.
Have you experimented with those three areas? flexibility/strength/massage