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How To Pick A Workout Based On What Your Body *Actually* Needs

Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor By Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor
Abby Moore is an assistant managing editor at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
woman sitting on the living room floor with phone about to workout
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I've learned from experience that when scheduling exercise, it's best to keep it vague. Adding make time for movement to my list of responsibilities is a friendly reminder to myself that fitness should be a priority, but it doesn't have to be rigid. 

The truth is, "working out can be a good time," says NASM-certified personal trainer Kristie Larson. Her take? The key to making movement enjoyable is as simple as listening to your body. This is also known as intuitive exercise, or the concept of cuing into your body's needs, and picking a workout based on how you want to feel (rather than look).

If you're not sure exactly how to listen to your body, Larson suggests focusing on three key factors: sleep quality, stress levels, and your cycle phase. "Not every workout is right for every day," she says, particularly if you're working out for general well-being (rather than a specific fitness goal). Depending on where you land in those three categories, Larson recommends specific workouts that will actually feel good.

How to exercise based on your sleep quality. 

Under 6 hours of sleep: Stick with smaller, gentler movements, like yoga, walking, cycling, barre, or mobility classes. 

6 or more hours of sleep: Try a higher-energy workout, like weightlifting, running, HIIT, boxing, or a kettlebell flow. 

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How to exercise based on your stress levels. 

High: High-intensity exercises can increase cortisol levels, which isn't always a bad thing. But when your cortisol (aka stress) is already super high, it's best to avoid spiking it even more. To help relax your mind and your body, Larson suggests keeping your intensity level at less than 70%. This could include walking, swimming, or a yoga flow. 

Average: We all have those days when a few things will set us off here and there, but we don't feel entirely weighed down by them. If that's you, Larson recommends getting in your cardio and HIIT. Play a little heavy metal and sweat it out, baby. 

Low: If you're feeling pretty chilled-out already, "push it with strength," says Larson. Here's a great four-step guide for a solid strength-training workout

How to exercise based on your menstrual cycle phase. 

Follicular: This cycle phase generally brings rising energy levels, so Larson says to "try something new and creative, like cardio dance or animal flow." 

Ovulation: You may be feeling a bit more social during this phase. If you're trying to get pregnant, this is a good time to make sex your movement of choice. Otherwise, Larson recommends working out with friends. Whether it's in a masked-up class, outside, or via Zoom. 

Luteal: Since your hormones are seriously fluctuating during this phase (testosterone and estrogen levels drop while progesterone levels rise), it's common to experience some mood changes here. "Use the first few days to go hard and then ease into your period," she says. 

Menstrual: Look, everyone experiences their period (and their whole cycle, for that matter) differently. "Anything goes this week," Larson says. If that means a long, slow workout, then so be it. If it means a five-minute HIIT, that's great, too. "Leave plans behind, and do what feels good." 

Bottom line. 

"If you're not on a customized plan working toward a specific goal, then every workout you do is up to you," Larson says. Not in the mood for the cardio class you planned on taking? Instead of skipping your workout altogether, tune into your body and opt for a gentler flow, a nature walk, or an energetic dance class—whatever feels right in the moment.

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