“Listen to your body.” This is a phrase I’ve heard many times over the past few months as I recover from Achilles surgery. Heck, it’s even a phrase I’ve caught myself saying to clients. But what does that phrase even mean? Because if I’m honest, every time I hear “Listen to your body,” I’m kind of like, “yeah, right.”
If I listened to my body, I would have never pushed myself or found my limits. I’d never finish a race or hard workout. I’m pretty sure my body has begged and pleaded with me to stop running during a 100-mile race. Do I listen? Not a chance.
But, listening to you body is more than that. It’s about learning what pain actually means. I mean, some pain is good pain. And other pain, like my chronic Achilles soreness, was not good. The key is learning how to identify the pain and take action. In the case of the 100-mile race, the decision is often to put your head down and push through it. In the case of acute inflammation or muscle/bone/joint pain, the decision might be to stop.
The best way to learn to listen to your body is to observe. Observe, observe, observe. And take mental notes. Or journal. This is how we start to recognize patterns. And if we listen, we learn that our bodies are trying to tell us a great deal.
These same principles of listening to your body can also be applied to eating. Our body has many internal regulators that drive our appetite. Hormones, neurotransmitters, and peptides are released to signal hunger or fullness, and keep us within energy balance. But we often override these signals and end up not listening to what our body really needs. How many times have you been full after a meal, only to be enticed by the sight and smell of ice cream? Or you’ve ordered buttery popcorn at the movie theater, despite not feeling hungry. It happens almost on a daily basis. Most of us don’t listen to our bodies when it comes to eating, which can make nutrition seem complicated.
In an attempt to correct our inability to listen and eat intuitively, we often will turn to numbers or data from external sources. But if you stop to think about it for a moment, why would an external source know more about your body than you? Answer: it doesn’t. We know best about what our bodies need. It’s just a matter of tuning in and actually listening to those needs.
So how do you begin to listen to your body? Well, for starters you just think more about what you are doing. No mindless eating in front of the TV. No snacking “just because.” Each time you eat, think about it. Savor the flavor on your taste buds, feel the texture of the food on your tongue, and enjoy every bite. Then notice how you feel. Are you full? Are you still hungry? Do you feel satisfied? Each time you are able to really think about and enjoy the food you eat, you are starting to become a more intuitive eater. And suddenly, you will start to notice those internal cues. When your body is hungry, it will tell you. And when you are full, it will tell you that, too. Once you really tune in, your body can even tell you what types of foods it needs. Food cravings are a real thing (NOTE: I do not mean listen to the external desire to eat ice cream and French fries every day. That is not an internal craving).
This sounds simple, but it takes time. And it’s not perfect every day. Some days I do a great job fueling to my needs, but other times like today, I’m sitting here eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream because it’s really warm outside and I wanted a treat. But I’m enjoying it, none the less. Sometimes listening to your body also means giving yourself permission to indulge. And enjoy it.
About the Author
Stephanie Howe, Ph.D., is a nordic skier turned trail runner, and enjoys racing distances from 50K up to 100 miles. Stephanie splits her time between racing as an elite runner on The North Face team, and working as a coach and sports nutritionist. She recently completed a doctoral program in Nutrition & Exercise Physiology at Oregon State University. You can learn more about Stephanie on her blog at www.stephaniemariehowe.blogspot.com and about her coaching and nutrition at www.endurancebystephanie.com.