Tuning into your own needs may seem like a straightforward task, but the truth is that many of us can experience a disconnect between our brains and bodies. That's why it can feel so challenging when a fitness instructor reminds you to “listen to your body.”
While learning (or relearning) how to listen to your body may sound daunting or even impossible, it’s a critical skill—especially when exercising. But in a world where we’re told to push ourselves in all areas of life, how can we get back in touch with our own unique goals and limitations? And what does it actually mean to let our bodies guide our actions?
What Does It Mean to Listen to Your Body?
There are a lot of ways to interpret the cue to “listen to your body,” but generally speaking, when a fitness instructor says those four words, they’re asking you to pay attention to how you feel and be willing to check your ego at the door.
Therapist and author Amanda White, LPC, executive director of Philadelphia’s Therapy for Women Center, says that listening to your body involves being on the lookout for signs of pain or discomfort and allowing yourself to modify moves or slow down the pace—regardless of what the teacher or your classmates are doing. “It means knowing what your baseline is and then working hard from that baseline point, not from someone else’s,” she says. “It is definitely tricky though, especially if someone is not in tune with their body or doesn’t know what their baseline is, or isn’t used to working out and therefore struggles to know what is pushing themselves within reason and what isn’t.”
Of course, our bodies are complicated, meaning it can be overwhelming to even know what to listen for (or where to find it). It helps to start by paying attention to the basics, like your breath and muscle movement, according to Michael L. Sachs, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the department of kinesiology at Temple University's College of Public Health. “We are rarely taught how to do this,” he says, noting that training in breathwork, mindfulness, or yoga can improve our ability to tune in. “During a class, it means being aware of and processing your body’s cues and going close to—or reaching—your limit, if that is your goal for the class. Or it could mean you process these cues and acknowledge that you’re giving 80 percent of your potential—and that's fine for today.”
Sachs is speaking to an essential aspect of the listening and learning process when it comes to body awareness. While many of us have been conditioned to believe that more exercise is always beneficial, that’s not exactly true. Overtraining (which is a condition characterized by declining performance, extreme fatigue, and overall burnout) is a very real consequence of going too hard, too fast, too often—and one of the best ways to avoid it is to pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you. “It’s not necessarily a great idea to go to your limit in every class,” Sachs says. “Rest, recuperation, and recovery are needed as well!”
Licensed therapist and author Jenn Mann, LMFT, understands how tough it can be to unlearn the “more is more” mentality around exercise. “People often struggle to find a balance between pushing themselves to be the strongest, best athletes they can be, and pushing themselves so hard that they get injured or their relationship with exercise becomes punitive,” she says. “We listen best to our bodies when we’re able to have a loving relationship with our bodies—that’s what allows us to make the best decisions.”
How to Listen to Your Body
Listening to your body is a learned skill, and that means it can take practice. But once you get comfortable tuning in, it can transform your relationship with exercise. Soon enough, you'll find listening to your body feels like second nature. Try these tried-and-true tips from experts for starting the practice of listening to your body right now:
1. Get Familiar with Your Body’s Basic Signals
Before even attempting to make sense of what your body is trying to tell you during a tough workout, you’ll want to understand its most basic, everyday functions. “It’s important to learn what your baseline is,” White says. “A lot of this takes practice, which is why I think it can be difficult for someone who does not have a lot of experience with exercise or taking classes to identify what feels like the right amount to push themselves.”
The process of understanding the sensations that are happening in your body—including your heart rate, breathing, hunger, fullness, temperature, and more—is called interoception. “Many people, especially those who chronically avoid how their emotions feel or may have a history of trauma and purposefully tune their body sensations out, struggle with this,” White says.
According to Mann, getting educated about your typical vital signs can be a big help in discovering what serves you. “Learn what your healthy heart rate range and blood pressure should be and regularly see your doctor and anyone you have access to so you can ask questions and have them help you come up with an appropriate fitness plan,” she suggests.
2. Start Slow (No, Seriously)
Another key step in learning to listen to your body is to go slow. Try exploring a variety of movement modalities, noting what kinds of activities make you feel good and what just doesn’t feel right.
One of the biggest mistakes Mann says she notices people make is to go too hard out of the gate with a brand-new goal, such as wanting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro rather than starting with a local hike or climb. “Then they overdo it and injure themselves. Then exercise becomes painful and awful and they drop it. The key to not doing that is to build slowly.”
Mann acknowledges that “go slow” isn’t typically the type of advice new exercisers want to receive, but it’s crucial in building body awareness, long-term strength, and commitment. “People don't tend to like that because it doesn't get quick results—it's not instant gratification,” Mann says. “But that's the way you become a long-term exerciser.”
One of Mann’s favorite ways to get started slowly, by the way? “I absolutely love Emma Lovewell’s Crush Your Core program [on the Peloton App] and I often advise people to start with that because it starts small and gentle with five to 15 minutes a day and it’s not every day.” Trying approachable, manageable programs like these can help you understand what feels right versus what it means to push yourself too far, she adds.
3. Figure Out When It’s Appropriate to Push Through Discomfort, and When It’s Just Not Worth It
Exercise isn’t always going to be comfortable. In fact, some of the biggest physical and mental gains are born from some deeply challenging—and mercifully temporary—scenarios, like the last sprint in an interval workout or the final rep in a strength class. But that doesn’t mean you have to push yourself through all challenges at all costs; in fact, doing so could set you up for injury or burnout.
“Pushing yourself in a positive framework is key,” Sachs says. “The detrimental piece comes when you continue to push when injured, overly fatigued, or overly distracted. You have to learn to recognize these detrimental states and then dial it back or stop.”
If, for example, you know that a morning jog boosts your mood for the day, but your cozy bed is making the treadmill seem less appealing, gently nudging yourself to get moving may be a good idea (as long as you’re feeling healthy). But if the thought of logging miles in the morning makes you dread waking up, or you’re painfully sore from yesterday’s workout, sit with those feelings and decide whether pushing through is really going to serve you. “There’s always tomorrow,” Sachs says. “You can still succeed (whatever your goals are) by listening to your body and scaling it back a bit, even if it takes a bit longer.”
4. Take a Break—Even When You Don’t Think You Need One
“You can learn a lot about whether you need or want to take a break or do a modification when you actually do it and then see how it feels,” White says. “If you never let yourself take a modification or a break during a class, you won’t know that maybe you needed that [yoga] block for some added height and now this pose feels better. Or, you may realize you recover better if you take a pause to drink some water in the middle of the class.”
White says that by allowing yourself to take the break or modification—even when you don’t feel desperate for it—you can begin to build body awareness and trust so you know what to do in the future as you gain experience. “If you take a break and feel bored or restless, or your mind starts to wander during it, this is typically a sign that maybe the break isn’t needed,” she says.
5. Develop a Mindfulness Practice
You’ve probably heard the term “mindfulness” before, but the concept doesn’t need to be explored through a formal meditation practice. At its core, mindfulness is about staying present in the moment with your surroundings. “Bringing awareness to what you’re doing—when you’re cleaning, taking a shower, cooking, eating, or going for a walk—can be a great way to teach you to tune into yourself,” White says.
6. Find What Moves You to Move with Consistency
Learning to listen to your body means taking the time to discover the types of exercise that feel best and not necessarily forcing activities you think you “should” be doing. For instance, if everyone you know is a runner, but that form of movement invariably leaves you feeling depleted or even in pain, then it’s time to reevaluate. The last thing you want to do is dread your workouts, so it’s important to find activities that you look forward to doing on a consistent basis.
“If you push yourself to do something you hate, it is unlikely you will continue,” White says. “It’s important to remember with habit building that it is far better to pick a smaller goal you will actually stick to, compared to a bigger goal that is more hit or miss. Walking consistently is much better than running occasionally.” White notes that the exception to this specific instance would be if you absolutely adore running and your goal is to get back into your passion. “In this case, you know you like running but are pushing through temporary negative feelings to get to the part that you enjoy.” Learning to discern the difference means first committing a lot of time and patience to figure out what truly brings you joy.
© Dylan Leeder / Stocksy United
Are There Any Signals You Should Especially “Listen” For?
While learning to truly listen to your body’s unique needs can be a lengthy (even life-long) practice, understanding the major red flags of overexertion is critical in the process.
According to Sachs, the biggest clues to stop what you’re doing and step away from an activity are pain or injury (“definitely stop”), extreme fatigue (“some fatigue is part of the process, but too much is not”), or extremely negative thoughts, like “I hate this” while you’re engaged in the activity. After stopping and stepping away, “it’s best to just take a break, re-evaluate whether this is the best approach for you, or whether it’s the right activity."
In addition to obvious signs of pain or injury, also be on the lookout for signs of dizziness or nausea. If either sensation strikes, stop what you’re doing immediately.
While learning to “listen to your body” may sound simple, it’s a honed skill that can take a lot of practice and even more patience. Taking the time to get to know your baseline sensations, finding activities that spark joy, and showing yourself compassion along the way can all help lead you to a place of better body awareness. “The key is choosing something you like or love to do, something that brings you joy and that’s fun,” Sachs says. “This is critical to lifelong adherence to physical activity and exercise. Exercise can be fun if you find the right activity for you!”
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.