Freedom from Emotional Eating, Food & Weight Obsession

A Body Positive Column

I remember the first time it struck me that if cats embodied the joy of relaxing, dogs must embody the joy of moving. It was spring in Cambridge and along the banks of the Charles River, people and dogs were delighting in the long-overdue escape from winter’s inert darkness. The dogs were irrepressible, exuberant, dashing around and smiling big grins, with their faces and their bodies.

This scene is repeated every morning with my little dog Cody, who somehow senses when I begin thinking about whether it is time to go for a walk. He looks me in the eye for a moment as if he is searching my mind for the whiff of the walking thought, and then launches into the routine of cajoling and herding me toward the door, and when he sees me reach for the leash his little body can’t contain his excitement. He finally stops wiggling and running around enough for me to snap on the leash, and off we go.

If we miss our walk for a couple days, Cody will bug me more often to play fetch. He will spontaneously run around the house like a spooked cat. He gets hungry to move.

When I see the hunger to move in Cody, I can recognize it in myself. Cody is like my seeing-eye dog, helping me with my blindness toward my own body’s signals about what I need. Cody makes me realize I have an inner dog who needs walking.

Why it is that we have no words for the hunger to move? Maybe we needed to move to survive for so long that we didn’t feel the need for such words. The lack of purposeful movement in our lives now might be the reason we can even notice a hunger to move. There should be several words, since the feeling of being cooped up in a plane seat (“crimpy”?) is different from the feeling of not being able to go outside yet because it is still raining (“glugged”?), and they are both different from the feeling when you are dancing or walking or running or swimming and you have that surge of power to go even faster and harder; exhilarating!

The Hunger to Move

Our bodies give us cues about the need to move, just as they cue us about hunger, thirst, being too cold or hot, and so on. The hunger to move can be worked with in the same way as we work with hunger and satiety cues. I have found this sort of model very useful with patients who have emotional associations to exercise, whether they treat it as a punishment they inflict on themselves or a punishment inflicted on them by society. Moving is to exercise as savoring is to dieting. As with food, movement needs to be divorced from the pursuit of weight loss. I want to reclaim moving in the same way that we reclaim eating: as a joyful and nurturing activity that every human has as their birthright.

The “Hunger to Move” Meditation (located at the bottom of this article) was originally part of a chapter I wrote for Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. [Lyons, Pat, and Burgard, Deb. Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. New York: Morrow, 1988.] Subsequently I have used it as a guided meditation to help people home in on their own movement preferences, and discover a different way of experiencing the idea of physical activity.

Once someone has identified a couple possible directions for their movement preferences, I suggest that instead of spending big bucks on a gym membership, people spend that money over the next year deliberately trying out all sorts of different physical activities and seeing what they like. Try a yoga class, rollerblading, tandem biking, snowshoeing. Try horseback riding, kayaking, belly dancing. Try a walk at dawn and a hike at sunset. Get together, get outside, get in water, get sweaty, turn on music. Archery, badminton, croquet, volleyball. Why not? Take your money and a good friend and your dog (inner or actual) and try some new movement adventure every week. You won’t like everything you do, but you will learn what you like, and want more of it.

The goal is to have so many things you like to do, and are logistically set up to do, that there is usually something that will fit for any given day. What if it’s raining? What if you don’t have time to get your hair wet swimming? What if you felt your knee complaining yesterday? What if your buddy isn’t able to accompany you today? People who integrate physical activity into their lives for life usually don’t stick with just one activity. They get injured, or they can’t train because of stress at work, or they get bored after mastering a skill, and they move on to something else. We spend so much attention on getting started and so little on coming back. What are the skills and motivation for returning again and again to movement? It begins with being in touch with your inner dog, who will keep pestering you to go out and play.

Exercise as a Foreign Language

Our culture teaches us we should “get fit.” We walk around with “before” and “after” pictures in our heads, as if “fit” was a destination (probably in California). Presumably, people who are “there” have made it and can finally relax! Most of us start off our efforts with a bang in January and by spring are feeling like failures, reinforcing our identities as “couch potatoes.” But “getting fit” is more like “becoming fluent.” Just like dogs, our impulse to move comes naturally. Our impulse to speak comes naturally. But living the way we do makes it hard to carve out the easy accessibility of moving. It takes a long time to integrate physical activity and have it feel natural. Especially for those of us with larger bodies, it takes a long time to see ourselves as rightful speakers of the language, and for other people to see us that way. We have to locate clothing and equipment to fit; we have to negotiate with other exercisers whose pacing or intensity needs might be different; we have to manage the implied purpose of why we are moving (because the assumption is usually that it is to lose weight). The good news is that anyone who loved recess has physical activity as their native language!

What does it look like to be “fluent” in physical activity? You have an athletic identity. You see yourself as the “sort of person” who can’t sit inside and let a beautiful day go by, who notices when she feels a “hunger to move,” and who exhilarates in the feeling of her body’s muscles carrying her along like a beloved horse. That sort of person can come in any physical package at all, contrary to our cultural images of “athletes.”

So do you have to spend hours of boring practice to become “fluent”? Language lab, dialogue sentences, endless reps of “la plume de ma tante”? You might think so if you only looked at the mindless drudgery taking place in many gyms and PE classes. But what if movement was more like traveling to a foreign country? What if you were set down to explore this new territory, its colors and smells and sounds and your own body’s reactions to it? What if you could bring your dog along?

You and your pup might feel overwhelmed at first, but probably not bored! You’d make all kinds of mistakes, and have to really concentrate sometimes. You could not have perfection as a goal. And yet really being in the experience would be like being carried along in a river current. You would keep coming back to the challenges, because it is as natural as learning to walk. Just watch a toddler: Our drive to get from point A to point B is strong, as is our drive to master a skill. We are thrilled to make our bodies move the way we want. You don’t have to hire a trainer to teach your toddler to walk. Becoming fluent in walking is a reward in and of itself.

It is this inherent pleasure that brings a person back, over and over, to the project of moving; and because it is inevitable that the project will get interrupted by injuries, illness, busy schedules, distractions, frustrations, etc., it is this intrinsic motivation that must be the centerpiece. When I have gone too long without moving, my body gets an achy, itchy feeling. But I can be so good at living above the chin that my “seeing eye dog” Cody sometimes has to redirect my attention to my memory of the pleasures of moving – his demands are like an amplified signal from my own body.

No dog would want to be limited to a gym membership and 400 square feet of weight machines. Dogs are all about getting out to smell, taste, pee on the world. Our human bodies are no more happy than caged dogs being confined to our cubicles, cars, and computers, or being crammed into our seats in coach. Let your inner dog teach you to love the thrill of having a body that can move!

(Copyright Deb Burgard, Reprinted with Permission. *See “Hunger to Move” Meditation below)

Deb Burgard, Ph.D., a San Francisco Bay Area psychologist, runs and is one of the founders of the Health at Every Size approach to eating/weight concerns, Copyright Deb Burgard, reprinted with permission, all rights reserved. To read the rest in this Body Positive Series, consider joining the A Weigh Out Membership Circle. All of Dr. Burgard’s Body Positive Columns will appear there in the upcoming next year.

“Hunger to Move” Meditation

There is no “right” way to reflect. You might want to simply read through the following, or you might want to print off this page and have someone read it to you, or you can make a tape of yourself reading the words. You can do a relaxation first, or not. You might want to have a journal ready to write down what you feel as you finish the meditation.
If you feel like you need to stop at any time, please do so. You may experience powerful feelings from doing meditation, or no feelings, or anything in between. If you have painful emotions emerge, please treat yourself gently. Doing an exercise that puts you in touch with your body may put you in touch with emotions you have “lived above the chin” to avoid. Treat yourself with compassion. You might like some comforting – a hug or a soothing bath or a talk with a trusted friend. Consider writing down what you are feeling.

The following meditation is excerpted from
Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Women:

[Lyons, Pat, and Burgard, Deb. Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. New York: Morrow, 1988.]

This is a relaxation and visualization exercise designed to help you get to know your desire to move. It is easier to do if you either have someone you trust read slowly to you while you close your eyes, or tape-record yourself reading slowly and replay it with your eyes closed.

You can do this exercise more than once; in fact, it can be a daily practice to help you identify what sort of movement you want.

First, lie down on a comfortable surface and loosen any constricting clothing so you can relax and breathe. Gently close your eyes and let your attention come to rest on your breathing. You are not trying to change your breathing, you are just noticing it, trusting that after all this time your breathing can take care of itself. In and out, in and out, let the rhythm lull you.

Imagine the path of your breath as it comes into your body, warming your insides. It flows through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs. You can imagine that it keeps flowing down, warming your stomach, your pelvis, and radiating into your arms and legs, all the way to the tips of your fingers and toes.

Your breath washes through the blocked places in your body, and as you breathe out, it takes with it any tension. Like an ocean wave, it brings in warmth and nourishment, and takes out waste and tension. Feel the waves flowing in and out for a few moments.

Now begin at your feet and check each part of your body. What would your feet like? Do your toes need to curl and stretch? Experiment with curling your toes tightly and then stretching them out and away from one another, then let them relax.

Move up to your ankles. Flex, then point your feet and circle them one way and then the other. What do your calves need? Do they feel itchy, wanting to be warmed in movement? Tense and hold them, then release. Move up to your knees and thighs. Often the big muscles in your thighs hunger to be moved. Make them hard and tight for a moment. Squeeze them and feel the pleasure of that warmth, then release.

Move to your buttocks. Tense one cheek, then the other, then both. Squeeze hard and hold, then release. Draw your attention to your abdominal muscles. Press your lower back down onto the surface you’re lying on so there’s no gap. Push down, down, then release. Feel the flow of relaxation moving up your body. Continue upward, squeezing your shoulder blades together tightly, and feel the pleasure of stretching, then release. Notice the feeling in your hands. Squeeze your fingers into tight fists, hold them for a moment, then relax and let your hands uncurl gently.

Finally, screw your face up tightly, pursing your lips, squeezing your eyes, and wrinkling your nose and forehead. Hold tightly, then release.

Your body is now warm and relaxed. What sort of movement do you see in your mind at this time? Try on a few ideas. Imagine how your muscles would feel doing something. Slow and easy? Or do you need something stronger, something to pump heat? Smooth, fluid motion? Or harder, tighter movements? Where in your body do you feel a readiness for hard work? Take a few moments to localize your desire.

Do you want this activity to be in water or on land? Do you want to move to music? Do you want fast or slow pacing? Steady or a variety? Do you want to be alone or with friends? Let your imagination call on every sense to paint a picture for you.

What do you see? What do you hear? What fragrance is in the air? Who is there?
Give yourself a few minutes to really embellish the scene.

When you feel ready, let your attention return to your breath. Then slowly open your eyes.

The purpose is to take the time to check in with your physical self and get to know your feelings about movement. The exercise is only one method of doing this and will be more helpful to some people than others. If you try the same exercise again, you may have a different experience. But if nothing much happens for you after several attempts, you might simply ask yourself direct questions about what sort of movement appeals to you.

If you did come up with some images of the kind of movement you wanted, it might have surprised you, given what you thought about yourself up to now. How can you use this information?

Location of the hunger: If you felt the “itch to move” in your thigh muscles, you need something that will work those muscles. Brisk walking, cycling, jogging, non-impact aerobics, or resistance work with leg presses will work your thighs. Lifting weights, racquet sports, and swimming can work your arms.

Type of movement: Slow, easy movements are the norm in t’ai chi, yoga, and some kinds of ethnic dance. Harder, tighter movements are required for the martial arts or aerobics. What appealed to you at this time?

Environment: Land or water sports? Alone or with companions? Individual or team? Do you want to hear an underwater stillness? The noisy commotion of a squash court? The pulsating rhythms of a dance class? Do you want the privacy of your own thoughts? The companionship of a close friend? The heat of full-out competition? Use this information to help you choose among the endless variety of ways to move.

You may have a better idea about what sort of movement you’d like, but it’s equally important to get an idea about your resistances to movement – the fears, concerns, distaste, and turnoffs you experience when you think about it. And don’t assume that such resistances prove you’re a born couch potato. Everyone has them, just as everyone has the counter-urge to move. The important thing is to find out what your negative feelings are and then figure out which of them are realistic and what you can do to make things easier on yourself.

Now you may want to write about the feelings that came up for you during the meditation. Remember, you may have had powerful feelings or no feelings, or anything in between. There is no “right” set of feelings or images. Try to encourage an attitude of curiosity and respect for whatever your experience is.

Copyright Dr. Deb Burgard, reprinted with permission