What "Listen to Your Body Really Means"
It’s not just a woo-woo phrase. It’s a legit way to train and recover smarter — and a learnable skill you can tap into today.
You’re wondering how much weight to put on the barbell. Whether today’s the day to finally try that headstand. When your achy knee will be ready for a run. You look to your trainer, yoga instructor or physical therapist for the answer. They simply respond, “Listen to your body.”
That phrase can seem vague — unless you know what it actually means. According to Nike trainer and yoga instructor Alex Silver-Fagan, listening to your body is all about tuning into the mind-body connection to guide your movement in a way that delivers what you need on both a physical and emotional level.
Sound a little out there? There’s some science to it. Your brain keeps track of the internal signals from your body — like sensory information from a speeding heart rate, muscle tightness, the need for food or water — and uses them to guess its state. These guesses are called interoception. “Enhanced interoception allows a person to be more in tune with their bodies as they can become more consciously aware of those signals,” says Jonathan Gibson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. People with better interoception tend to experience greater mental, emotional and social well-being, likely because this consciousness makes them more equipped to give their mind and body what they need on a regular basis, says Gibson. For the same reason, studies have also linked this ability with better athletic performance.
Tapping into this awareness, you may be thinking, is easier said than done. And it’s true, the odds are against you. “We’re not as intuitive as we used to be,” says Silver-Fagan. These days, there are so many sources telling you what to do and how to feel that your inner voice, the one that communicates your mind-body connection, can have a hard time being heard, she says. Social media is one culprit, and your friends, family, partner, and even the news can interfere with your inner voice too.
“Enhanced interoception allows a person to be more in tune with their bodies as they can become more consciously aware of those signals.”
PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology
But listening to your body, or, as a researcher might say, “improving your interoception,” is a skill you can work on, starting with these tips.
- Ground yourself right away.
For your mind to hear what your body is saying, you have to quiet your brain. That requires being mindful, or living in the moment, which is much easier to do throughout the day if you start the moment you wake up, says Silver-Fagan. Before you even get out of bed, she recommends sitting on the edge of it with your feet flat on the floor. Imagine you’re pushing through the floor to a lower floor and then another until you reach the Earth, she says. (If you’re on the ground floor, pretend there are a couple of floors below you.) This meditative grounding exercise, she says, helps you “drop in” to yourself so you can drown out the noise around you and become truly present and thus more attentive to your needs in any given moment.
- Then breathe.
After grounding or whenever you can make time, sit on your bed or in a chair for five to 10 minutes and control your breath, focusing your attention on your chest or belly, says Gibson. This “strengthens and rewires your brain to bring interoceptive signals into greater conscious awareness,” and the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
To boost your mindfulness while you do this, repeat a mantra in your head. “I’ve been working with, ‘I’m right where I need to be,’” says Silver-Fagan. “It could be, ‘I’m here for myself in my body,’ or expressing gratitude for another day,” she adds. This process can help you stay present as those mental and physical feelings (anxiety, tight hip flexors) pop up, giving you the opportunity to investigate. You may determine you need a glass of water instead of your usual cup of coffee to feel more balanced and less jittery, or you may decide to abandon the HIIT workout you’d planned in favor of a stretching session or long walk.
- Go with your gut.
Your mind can tempt you into either overdoing things (a common problem for the get-after-it type) or selling yourself short (particularly when you’re tense or tired), says Sue Falsone, a clinical specialist in sports physical therapy and Nike Performance Council member who specializes in recovery. To hit your just-right point, Falsone and Silver-Fagan recommend starting with what intuitively comes to you first, checking in with how it feels, then adjusting from there.
Let’s say you’re doing a workout and the trainer cues a set of push-ups, with an option to do a modified version on your knees, a strict push-up, or an advanced decline push-up. If the strict push-up feels right in that moment, start there, says Silver-Fagan. But if it doesn’t immediately feel like the good kind of challenge (as in, you notice shoulder pain or a breakdown in your form), drop to your knees. On the flip side, if you start with a strict push-up and feel you could use an even greater challenge, try propping up your feet. Or stay right where you are if you’re experiencing that perfect “this is hard, but I got it” feeling.
- Follow your heart. And lungs, and muscles…
If you spotlight your attention on your heart rate every time it feels like your heart is slamming against your chest (say, mid-burpee), you might start to really develop body awareness, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University who has led studies on the mind-body connection. Researchers think that zeroing in on bodily cues, including your breath and sensations in your muscles and joints, during vigorous exercise might make you more conscious of them when they’re less intense, she explains.
If you need help getting started, use a heart rate monitor. Knowing how hard your heart is working during exercise can help you figure out if you should, for example, cut some miles off your run or add a fourth set to your strength circuit, says Falsone. This can get you in the habit of using your heart rate to determine whether you need to pull back or push yourself until it becomes intuitive and you can tune into what your body needs without the technological assist, she says.
- Keep a written record.
As you get better at listening to your body in real time, you can start recording how you feel after, say, your first cardio workout in weeks or several days of getting out of your desk chair and moving every hour. That way you can begin to not just listen to your body, but also learn from it, says Silver-Fagan. For example, perhaps you realize that when you run three days in a row, you move slower through a Vinyasa yoga session, so you commit to a restorative class on those days instead. Or maybe you find that you’re really sore when you spend the day after a tough workout on the couch, so you vow to start doing some type of movement on your recovery days. You’re not just listening anymore, you’re having a full-on conversation, says Silver-Fagan, and a productive one at that.
Now the next time someone says, “listen to your body,” instead of being confused or annoyed, you can smile and proudly tell them, “Already am.”
Words: Caitlin Carlson
Illustration: Gracia Lam