How to Listen to Your Body's Cues
People say it all the time – “listen to your body”. Sounds like good advice, but what does it really mean? What exactly are we meant to be listening to?
The phrase can be confusing and even misleading for those who are not well attuned to their bodies and their signals. “Listen to your body” may mean “I’m really craving a large pizza. Maybe I’ll go look for some after work instead of going for a run,” or “The body is supposed to hurt after exercise – right?”
This is not right way to listen to your body – in fact these are perfect examples of how our modern day lifestyles have impacted our ability to pick up on the signals our bodies are giving us.
Our bodies and homeostasis
Image by BOGObiology
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent. Every day, hundreds of thousands of messages are sent to the cells, organs, systems, and metabolic processes in our bodies in order to keep things functioning properly and in a state of homeostasis – or in other words, a state of equilibrium.
Have a think about what happens when you have the brilliant idea of jumping into the ocean in the middle of winter. How do you know you are feeling cold? Easy – your body tells you. You shiver. You get goosebumps. You instantly regret it and contemplate getting the hell out to get warm, but you will only get warm if you take the appropriate action – and get the hell out.
Similarly, in all other aspects of our lives, our bodies are constantly sending us signals – but they are only useful if we pick up on them.
We have modern society to thank for having us believing that it is normal to perpetually feel kind of blah. Let's take food for example. We are taught to ignore our hunger pangs for the sake of vanity. We turn to food as a crutch and embark on emotional binges to avoid dealing with a bad breakup.
As a result, a lot of us live with chronic pain, poor digestion, anxiety, fatigue and low moods, not realising the body is trying to tell us something – something incredibly important!
So how do you know that what you think is hunger is truly hunger, or just eating because... why not? How do you know if what seems like procrastination to go for a run is laziness, or real and genuine tiredness?
How to listen to your body the right way
Well, you’ve got to listen. And to listen, you have to be still. Quiet, and mindful.
Below are three steps to learning how to listen to your body, correctly and effectively.
1. Start a mindfulness practice
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, and having a non-judgmental awareness of the thoughts, feelings and sensations in each moment.
You can use mindfulness throughout the day in any and all of your activities that can help you get out of your head and into your body. It simply involves engaging in an activity – whether walking, showering, eating or training – in an intentional way, tuning in fully to the sensory experience.
When you’re having a meal, chew slower. Or perhaps chew each mouthful 20 times instead of 10. At the end of the meal, consider if you are 80% full yet (yes, that’s best practice) or if you have eaten to a belt-loosening, track-pant wearing point. In the few hours after, scan your body from head to toe and notice how you feel. Do you feel energised and satiated? Or do you feel uncomfortable and bloated?
When you’re making the decision between stopping your workout early and completing that last set, you can engage the body scan to check in with yourself – are you genuinely tired, perhaps from a big workout yesterday, or are you simply trying to avoid the mental discomfort of pushing through?
2. Journal the process
Journalling is a great way to support your mindfulness practice – it’s such an easy to way to keep track of the day-to-day observations. It doesn’t need to be an entire "Dear Diary" essay. Just do what feels right – bulletpoints, doodles or even scrapbooking is perfectly fine.
Some examples of observations you can track in your journal are:
- How your old injury feels after heavy squats
- The thought process you have and the body scan you do when making a decision about whether to train, how much to eat, etc
- Your energy levels after eating certain foods
- Any bloating, gas or abdominal discomfort after meals or certain foods
- How you feel in the morning after 7 hours of sleep vs 9 hours
3. Establish patterns
After a period of journaling, you might start to see some patterns forming.
Is there a link between your emotions and your motivation to exercise? Do you find yourself overtraining or pushing too hard in the gym when you’re having a bad day? Or maybe you’re the opposite and let your mental state get in the way of your ability to work out.
You may also, for instance, notice a link between your gut and your brain or energy levels. Maybe you experience brain-fog (lack of mental clarify and inability to focus) after eating a large serve of pasta, or a significant dip in your energy and mood.
As you establish these patterns and links, it is also worth doing a little self-study to find out more about how certain types of training affect the body or how certain types of food affect the body. That way, you gain a better understanding of how the body works and why, furthering improving your ability to pick up on cues from your body in the future and in other contexts.
Listening to your body is not an easy task or process. It takes time, patience and lots of trial and error to intuitively pick up on the signals your body sends us. But with the practices above, you are sharpening your intuition and familiarising yourself with the inner workings of your body. Once you get it right, you’ll experience a whole new level of you – the innate, healthy and energised version.