How to Listen (and Respond) to What Your Body is Telling You
People say it all the time—“listen to your body.” Some people feel really in tune with their bodies, others feel like they’re completely disconnected. Sometimes the phrase feels like it’s lost its meaning altogether.
Maybe we’ve overcomplicated the concept of tuning into our bodies’ signals. “Listening to your body” isn’t about intuitively knowing which nutrient you’re deficient in or which essential oil you need for whatever ailment you’re having. To listen to your body means that when your body is feeling something, anything, you should actually consider that a signal for something.
So often we feel aches, pains, stiffness or soreness and think it’s totally arbitrary. “It’s just aging,” “I’m meant to feel this way,” “It’s my genetics.” Even days when we feel great, beaming with energy, we think “today is just a lucky day.” Like luck has anything to do with it. Hint: It doesn’t.
Consider that the human race is the only species that exerts energy when it doesn’t need to.
Humans are also the only species that deprives itself of sleep on purpose. We’re tired but we still wait a few extra hours before going to sleep because it’s too early, we have work to do, we want to finish watching a movie or we have plans to go out with friends.
Have you ever stopped to think about what these signals of fatigue, restlessness and aches and pains actually mean? Or on the other side, the meaning of having extra energy, a skip in your step? Everything you feel and do is a signal that you can use to make decisions about your self-care.
Let’s talk about “ignoring the pain” and “pushing through.”
There is 100% a time and place for pushing through and testing your limits, but it is not 100% of the time.
I can relate to having a drive to perform competitively. As the saying goes, “Do today what the competition won’t,” and that attitude has helped me go far.
It’s also ground me to a halt. Going hard every day caused sickness, exhaustion, and injury all at once. I even became anxious over small things like missing a single workout. I lost my period. My skin was dry and my hair and nails were breaking constantly. My body composition was puffy and swollen. I stopped caring about what my body was trying to say to me and just felt angry that it wasn’t keeping up with the program.
Being able to push through challenging workouts, relationships or financial stressors can make for a very resilient person—but you can’t live in that space.
Being able to stop, rest, scale back and perform self-care more often than you push through hard times will make you an even more resilient person.
One more quick thing, I want to address the athletes in the house directly:
Being an athlete is a hard position to be in. I consider myself one too so I hear you. Competitive sport comes with pain, stress and pushing your mind and body to the limit.
We’re living in a world now where more and more people are living the athlete life and that is the most amazing thing. However, we need to always question ourselves: are we training smart or just training hard?
It’s easy to get trapped in the “more is better” mindset and to tell ourselves that this athletic endeavor is worth any potential risks to health and wellbeing—but is that really true? Or do you want to be able to prioritize your training while giving equal attention to your self-care?
Just a question to ask yourself.
Are you ignoring your body’s signals?
The first step is to promise yourself that you’ll be brutally honest and not sugarcoat your signals. Remember that signals of fatigue have absolutely nothing to do with your “worth” as a fit person.
For example, two people of the same height, weight, gender, background, strength and overall potential are both trying to achieve a 200-lb. back squat (or maybe run a record marathon time—you can use any example). Although they are similar athletes, they are still both completely different people.
Person A responds best to high reps and sets at a lighter weight. They also recover a lot faster.
Person B responds best to low reps and sets at heavier weights. They also recover slower.
Neither is better than the other, they just both require different training and recovery protocols to get where they are going.
So if you experiment and find yourself performing a lot better with lesser training, then keep doing that. If you experiment and find that you perform better and feel just as good with a higher training volume, then you know it’s safe for you to do so.
Okay, let’s get into the signs and the responses.
Do you work out regardless of how you feel because you think you’re meant to feel tired? Think deeply about this when you’re getting ready for the gym and feel a little worn down.
What do you think the benefits are of not resting or scaling your workout? What do you think are the benefits of resting more and scaling back?
Could you trade one day off for three or more good days of training? No harm will come from a short period of experimentation.
Also, fun fact, it’s common to see results after a plateau from reducing training volume and prioritizing rest. If you’re hitting a plateau but are unsure that reducing training load is the way to go for you, ask yourself, “Why wouldn’t it work for me?”.
Do you sleep easily through the night? Is it hard to stay awake and you can’t wait for bed? Do you struggle to get up in the morning?
Sleep quality is a MAJOR sign of stress and fatigue. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night and you’ve looked at all the possible issues like blue light exposure and room darkness, it’s time to take a look at your daily schedule.
Are you working too much? Trying to fit in hard workouts in between? Are you seeing an increase in aches or have a slow-healing injury? If your sleep is suffering you need to step back to be able to move forward and avoid injury.
A very easy signal is how many hours you’ve slept. If you’ve had six or fewer hours of sleep, scale your workout down to light movement, such as a walk. Then prioritize an early night.
How consistently good is your training?
Digging deep in workouts is where the gains are made, whether you’re a competitive athlete or simply working toward general strength and body composition improvements.
But if you’re having to drag yourself to the gym multiple times a week because you’re exhausted, then this is a sign that your body is asking for something. One off-session in a week is okay, but multiple days of tiredness and soreness is definitely worth investigating.
Patterns and signals to look for in TRAINING:
- Dreading training
- Lighter workouts feel like maximum workouts
- Taking a really long time to get warmed up at the gym
- Achieving fewer reps than usual with things like push-ups or pull-ups
- Achieving slower times on runs
- Scoring low on a grip test
- Crying in workouts
- Injuries feeling aggravated
Patterns and signals to look for in GENERAL:
- Waking up drowsy
- Feeling anxious
- Feeling tired or foggy
- Dreading work or social commitments
- Sore or swollen joints
- Missed periods (ladies)
- Puffy or swollen body composition
- Dry skin and brittle hair and nails
- Lots of sleep in eyes
Listening to your body is not all doom and gloom!
On the flip side, are you not pushing a little more when you could be? When you’re feeling great, you should go for it. Feeling great is a sign that today’s a good day to test yourself and your body is ready to rock!
Really, how hard you should push versus how you feel regardless of your goals looks like a pretty simple visual.
Tips to respond to what your body is saying.
Once you listen, you must respond! Some simple responses are:
- Sleeping more
- Taking a day off work or the gym
- Doing a few days of scaled workouts
- Adding in gentle, nourishing movement like walks or easy swimming
- Assessing your nutrition and focusing on high-quality food
- Getting tested for vitamin deficiencies and supplementing
- Getting a massage or acupuncture
- Reading or doing meditative practices to rest your mind
Rather than trying to check off the box and do all the best, sexiest recovery practices, try just asking yourself, “What do I truly feel like doing right now?” If the answer is to hang out on the couch with “Game of Thrones” for an evening, then do that, and do it without guilt. You are doing it because your body calls for it. This ties nicely into a common concern that people face:
Skipping workouts/work/housework, etc., makes me anxious—how can I combat this?
Do you see the common thread with that heading? The word “work” is in literally every example of something that causes people discomfort, stress and/or anxiety if they have to miss it.
Oh yeah, I feel this. Let’s work go through that: what are the reasons you’re feeling anxious?
Here are some fun thoughts that I’ve had before:
- I am not worthy or good enough to rest yet.
- I don’t work out hard enough to need rest.
- I need to work out to earn my food.
- If I don’t work out, I will lose all my gains or gain all the weight back.
- Taking time off work is lazy.
- Vacations are just more stressful to come back from, why bother at all?
- I will never be good enough at [x] if I take time away from it.
So now that we’ve said them out loud, I can ask myself why would these be true? What evidence do I have for any of this? Asking yourself this question can really help show you that your concerns don’t hold a lot of merit.
Working through the mental struggles of listening to your body and acting on its signals is a bag far bigger than we have time to unpack, but here is my actionable strategy for switching out the physical and mental activities that might be draining you day to day, which will help you keep your head on straight and reap all the benefits:
Replace the workout with something restorative, and call it a workout. This is a simple reframe of the situation at hand. Reframes can take a few tries, but it won’t be long before you’ve convinced yourself that a massage is just as beneficial, if not more so, than an intense workout:
- Do gentle hatha or restorative yoga instead of HIIT. This is the really chill kind of yoga. You get to put your workout clothes on and go somewhere for an hour—just like the gym, but it’s all relaxation, stretching, gentle movement and feeling good. It’s a great way to replace the workout slot in your schedule from time to time.
- Stretch sessions! I mean, you should be doing it anyway, right? Include a few deep stretches as one of the workouts you’ve done this week.
- Have a massage. This is something you can do to better and improve your body’s circulation and mobility when your body is telling you it’s too tired and sore to train or to rest your mind when you’re feeling too mentally drained. Totally counts.
- Sleep/nap. If you can convince me that sleeping isn’t going to improve your well-being, fitness, and mental performance, then I will take this suggestion down. In the meantime, it’s on my list of productive things to do instead of working out when I’m feeling drained and my body is calling for sleep. Shift your thinking to “I’m taking a nap because my body and organs perform millions of functions a day and today they need to focus more energy on that.”
- Water/beach activities. Not swimming intense laps, literally just floating around. Walk up and down the pool with the elderly folk and enjoy the support and cooling sensation of the water around your knees. It’s my go-to when my knees are telling me they need some love. Oh, and if you live near the beach in winter you can dive in for some free cryotherapy. It’s horrifying, but it feels so good.
Just filling in the time slot that you would normally work out with something else is a great step in the direction of listening to your body and giving it what it asks for.
Are you struggling to stick to your nutrition plan?
Being tired, run-down, sleep-deprived and stressed can be a factor in why you’re having a hard time with adherence. Perhaps your mind and body are searching for more calories to help with the level of stress and exertion you’re facing? Maybe you’re just stress eating or bored? If you’re tired but can’t sleep (a sign of overtraining), your brain may compensate by searching for more energy from food. Maybe it’s the opposite and the exhaustion (and coffee) has your appetite suppressed.
The solution could be to temporarily back off the training intensity.
Okay, next. Ladies, are you getting your period?
The great thing about being a woman is that we have a very unbiased signal for our current stress and health levels—our cycle. If you’re not getting it, investigate that because it can be caused by overexertion and chronic stress. Having a healthy cycle is like a monthly report card for your body. If you’re not very versed on the effects of a missing cycle and what this means, I recommend you start learning about tracking your cycle!
Some places that you can get great info:
- Fertility Friday - both the podcast and program
- Daysy App - A great way to track with technology
- DivaCup - A great brand with lots of information on period health and tracking cycles.
Being better at paying attention.
The purpose of this article is just to plant the seed of awareness that your body is talking to you every day. It takes time, but awareness and experimentation are the first steps to understanding what your body is asking for.
I’m terrible at observing patterns in my thoughts and behaviors, so I’ve found that journaling is a great tool. When I write about how my mind and body feel, how my nutrition, workouts, and work are going as well as what kinds of thoughts I’ve been having, I see more clearly where there are areas of self-care that I should be visiting.
Don’t overthink it, be curious and trust your instincts instead of trying to shut them up. Listening to your body and learning about the signs it’s giving you takes time and constant feedback. One of the best ways to fast track your learning is to find someone to talk it out with.
Not sure where to start? Check out what it means to work with one of our nutrition coaches today. Not only can they get you started on a nutrition plan that’s individualized, but they will guide your journey to help you form a healthy relationship with food and your body.
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