Joyful Movement

Two older women walking in a park.Aug 30, 2023

By: Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT

Have you ever felt like you must do a certain workout for a certain amount of time, in a specific way, and it’s literally the last thing in the world you want to do?

If so, you are not alone in that sense of dread. Exercise can feel like a chore, a burden and even like a punishment if it’s devoid of pleasure and wrapped up in a rigid outlook on physical activity.

Fortunately, there is another way we can move our bodies, so we feel joyful, uplifted and rejuvenated!

What is joyful movement?

It’s a principle included within the framework of Intuitive Eating, a way of eating, moving and relating to our bodies that fosters connection to our individuals needs and preferences. Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, registered dietitians who created Intuitive Eating, sum up joyful movement like this:

“Forget militant exercise. Just get active and feel the difference. Shift your focus to how it feels to move your body, rather than the calorie-burning effect of exercise. If you focus on how you feel from working out, such as energized, it can make the difference between rolling out of bed for a brisk morning walk or hitting the snooze alarm.”

Joyful movement is about focusing on how we feel, versus how we look. It’s about allowing movement to be one source of pleasure and stress-relief, instead of a source of agony and stress itself.

Instead of viewing movement as a black-and-white concept, joyful movement embraces flexibility and enjoyment. In other words, it encourages us to find a movement routine that we enjoy and makes sense for our lives.

And joyful movement emphasizes non-weight-related health benefits to physical activity, both in the long and short term, including but not limited to heart health, bone density, strength, balance, mood and sleep quality [1].

When I share this good news with my clients, they often respond with a look of simultaneous disbelief and relief – on the one hand, it sounds too good to be true, right? On the other hand, learning this is the start to a harmonious relationship to exercise.

How much is enough?

First off, there is no perfect amount of movement. Based on the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, there are researched-backed rules of thumb to guide appropriate amounts of movement for adults looking to reap the health benefits. These guidelines can be a lose guiding post for development of a joyful movement routine that feels healthy for your life:

  • Partake in two hours and 30 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like walking or recreational swimming), one hour and 15 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (like running or kickboxing) or an equivalent combination of both moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Spread aerobic activity throughout the week.
  • Practice muscle-strengthening (like yoga or weightlifting) activities involving all major muscle groups twice per week.

However, the same guidelines also share that some movement is typically better than none (unless rest would be the healthier choice, in the instances of illness, injury, etc.), and there are health benefits from doing any amount (yep, that 5-minute dog walk counts!). If you’re starting from scratch with your movement routine, sitting less is a great place to start [2].

On the flip side, over-doing it with movement can backfire and cause adverse effects, like insomnia, increased depression, decreased bone health and amenorrhea (loss of period) [3].

What about nutrition?

Joyful movement includes fueling our bodies properly around our physical activity. Ever exercised on an empty tank? If so, chances are you didn’t feel great and the activity ended sooner than if you were nourished.

For a snack 30 minutes to 2 hours before movement, the nutrient keys are simple, low fiber carbohydrates (like a slice of white toast or banana) for easily digestible energy and protein for sustainment (spoonful of peanut butter or an egg).

For a snack within 45 minutes of the activity ending, any type of carbohydrate (such as pretzels or chocolate) for energy replenishment, paired with a protein source (like a handful of peanuts or a glass of milk) for muscle recovery and repair. If you’re ready for a meal instead after movement, shoot for a balance of food groups, including grains (like rice in a stir fry or bread in a sandwich), protein (like chicken or peanut butter), fat (like a peanut butter-based sauce or butter), veggies (like sauteed peppers or baby carrots) or fruit (like an apple or berries), and a source of dairy (like yogurt or cheese) [4].

Can this approach apply to everyone?

People of all body size and athletic capabilities have a place within the world of joyful movement. It is a concept that embraces body diversity in fitness and focusing on the functions our bodies and what they allow us to do, which feeds into the joy factor.

For example, one of my clients used to spend her time exercising on an elliptical in a gym with mirrors in front her, where she found herself entirely focused on the way her body looked during her experience. It left her feeling low in all aspects – mood, energy and confidence. When she shifted into activities she enjoyed more, like going on walks through her neighborhood, she was able to focus on how her body felt and how far her strong legs could carry her. Her movement now leaves her feeling refreshed, uplifted and energized.

And for those who are injured, disabled and/or have physical limitations, adaptive joyful movement activities, like chair yoga or dancing and wheelchair sports are a few of several options to choose from [5].

How do I get started?

As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RND) and yoga teacher who helps my clients develop joyful movement routines, here are the steps I recommend you consider in either creating or adjusting your routine:

Start with asking yourself some questions.

  • What are the benefits of a movement routine that really matter to me? What’s my why?
  • What do I truly enjoy doing?
  • Which forms of movement uplift me, feel pleasurable, are fun?

If you don’t know, think back to childhood, explore, and/or try journaling about it:

  • How would pursuing joyful movement for pleasure & enjoyment affect…
    ... my desire to be active?
    ... the type of activity?
    ... the type of environment & community I am in?
  • How would a pleasant activity feel before and after to me?
  • How would placing an emphasis on invigorating activities vs. exhausting ones affect my frequency or choice of movement?

Meet yourself where you are with your abilities.

  • Respect where you and your body are now.
  • Take the guidelines mentioned above into consideration and remember there is no perfect amount of movement.

Practice flexible scheduling.

  • Try scanning the week before it starts and see where there are bits or chunks of time to make that time for yourself to move (and making sure to include rest days).
  • Let your routine be flexible and intuitive, depending on how you are feeling and what’s going on in your life.

Fuel yourself around your movement.

  • Experiment & Notice.
  • Start with rules of thumb mentioned above and consult with a RDN for personalized recommendations.

Consider journaling your experience.

  • Try tracking how you’re feeling before, during and after movement, and rate your joy on a scale from one to 10.
  • Let yourself play and experiment with what feels right and not right.

It can take some time to find your sweet spot in joyful movement and it’s worth practicing patience with yourself in the process – it means excitement instead of dread, energy instead of depletion and body respect instead of punishment. Here’s to a spring filled with more fueled and fun movement!

Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT, is a nutrition coach, yoga teacher and freelance journalist. Caroline is owner and founder of Whole Self Nutrition (WSN), LLC, which provides online nutrition therapy and coaching for people struggling with disordered eating, eating disorders, or chronic dieting, and people who want to develop healthier relationships to food, body and exercise. Within WSN, Caroline provides online public and private online yoga groups, and media services including writing and webinars. WSN's mission is to help people feel at ease in their skin and empowered around food, and live in alignment with their values.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018. Pages 28-32.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018. Page 56.
  3. “Are You Getting Too Much Exercise?: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Aug. 2022,
  4. MyPlate, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Accessed 8 Feb. 2024.
  5. “Physical Activity for People with Disability.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Jan. 2022,

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