Why “Listen to Your Body” and “Do What Works for You” Rarely Work, and What to Do Instead

Not everyone’s body is the same, nor are our goals, our lives or our idea of what “health” is. Nor should they be. While we may have many commonalities, each human being is a little bit different, and fitness and nutrition advice should account for those unique differences.

It can be reassuring to hear messages like: “Listen to your body.” “Do what works for you.” “Eat intuitively.” “Follow your hunger cues.” Generally, these messages are a nice antidote to the more prescriptive things we hear from the health and fitness types—the “eat this, not that” stuff. However, while they sound nice, they’re not actually that effective.

Here’s what I know from observing the more than 100,000 clients who have gone through our Precision Nutrition Coaching program: Unless you provide a detailed framework to help people learn how to “listen to their bodies” and “do what works for them,” this advice does more harm than good.

Most folks lost touch with their bodies’ signals a long time ago. After years (or decades) of dieting, hunger and fullness cues have long since been overruled by strict calorie rations and drowned out by the highs and lows of emotion-driven binges. They don’t know what “works for them” or how to begin to figure that out. They feel confused, overwhelmed. They feel lost. So tossing them some general instructions about “doing what works” tends to backfire.

What people need, instead, is a detailed blueprint to help tune in their bodies’ signals and discover what works for them.

Body awareness is crucial to improved nutrition and exercise habits. Being deeply aware of your body and able to understand things like your hunger cues, how your emotions drive your movement and eating decisions, and how stress manifests in your body is highly valuable.

In fact, it’s one of the differences between people who struggle with diet and exercise their whole life and people who develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, food and fitness. The successful folks have built the skills, through practice, that allow them to be mindful, pay attention to their emotions and tune into their bodies’ signals.

Fortunately, the skill of accumulating self-knowledge—what we might call listening to your body and learning what works for you—is just that, a skill. And like other skills, it can be developed with a series of strategies and practices.

Four strategies to build your self-knowledge superpowers

One thing that’s important to remember: Like any other skill building, this stuff takes time. And, for some, self-knowledge can be a particularly challenging undertaking. (As Benjamin Franklin said, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”)

That’s why this type of skill development is most effective when done with a coach. A coach can provide you with a solid step-by-step plan (or curriculum) that’ll help you build these skills—much like a music or language teacher has a preset plan for helping you develop music or conversation skills. Even more important, a good coach can provide objective feedback and help you identify your blind spots. (We’re all human beings, and it’s normal to fool ourselves—in fact, it’s extremely difficult not to.)

But there’s a lot you can do on your own, too. Here are the skills we help Precision Nutrition Coaching clients develop and teach to our certification students so they can use them with their own clients.

Strategy #1: “Food and feelings” assessments

The concept:

Assessments—or worksheets, diaries, journals—can be used to help you objectively observe and evaluate your eating and movement choices, and how those choices make you feel. An assessment allows you to capture information so you have an actual record of what’s going on. In other words, it allows you to collect data for you to interpret and make sense of.

This is a good first step toward accumulating self-knowledge because it helps you get the facts rather than just going by general feelings or concerns.

How to implement this strategy:

These assessments are most effective when they’re used from the very beginning of a nutrition plan (or coaching program) you’re using to improve your eating habits and work toward body composition or health goals.

Sample assessment tools

  1. Eating Behaviors Journal – By tracking what you eat and what you’re thinking when you eat it, you may uncover reasons for eating (and the resulting feelings, too) that have nothing to do with hunger and fullness. The idea here is to observe and record—without judgment—to learn about your own motives. Over time, you may discover patterns that you want to break.
  2. Behavior Awareness Worksheet – Use this assessment to understand emotional eating or bingeing episodes. Research shows that while our behaviors may seem “spur of the moment” when it comes to overeating, the groundwork is laid several hours in advance (by our daily rituals, habits, mindset and automatic thinking).

Overeating is simply the last link in a long chain. If you can break the first link, you have a much better chance of never getting to the last link. This exercise will help you build an awareness of what your overeating episodes have in common. Maybe it’s a time of day, or a situation, or a type of food, or another person (or being alone), or a feeling—or all of these.

  1. How Food Feels Journal – Use this exercise to get a better sense of how your body reacts to certain foods. Tracking physical sensations—especially unpleasant ones—can help you uncover trigger foods and even sensitivities or intolerances that are getting in the way of your health goals.
  2. The Hunger Game Worksheet – This worksheet helps you get in the habit of finding and tuning into hunger and fullness cues. Through this exercise, you develop the ability to:

Strategy #2: Awareness-building practices

The concept:

These are regular activities (you also might call them practices or habits) that can help you develop the skill of tuning into and understanding your body’s signals. With all areas of health and fitness, the ability to focus and tune into your own body is incredibly useful. And it’s particularly important for people who want to improve their eating habits.

Many of us have lost the ability to be present and aware while we eat and have long since stopped paying attention to our own hunger and fullness cues. Fortunately, being aware and present—what you might also call mindfulness—is a skill like any other: It can be developed with practice.

How to implement this strategy:

Use these practices daily, ideally after you’ve completed an assessment or two to give yourself a baseline. Commit to using a given practice every day for two to four weeks. After that, you can fall back on the practice any time you notice yourself feeling disconnected from your body.

Important note: The point is NOT to aim for perfection here. All you have to do is practice daily and the skill will build on itself naturally. You’ll be amazed.

Sample practices

Try these three practices from Precision Nutrition Coaching to help you learn how to better listen to your body. Again, this should feel easy. If a practice is too challenging, make it simpler. (For example, instead of a five-minute mind-body scan, try for two or three minutes at first). And don’t tackle all three at once. Choose one to work on for a few weeks and put in the reps. Then you can move on to the next.

Practice #1: Eat slowly

At each meal today, take a few extra minutes to simply pause. Put your utensils down after each bite. Take a breath. When you take a bite, notice—and enjoy—the taste and texture of the food. Take another breath or a sip of water. Relax. Wait a few more moments. If you still feel hungry, take another bite. Repeat. That’s it.

If you’re struggling to slow down, try a timer. When you’re done eating, see how many minutes have gone by. Now you have a baseline for improvement! And if you add only one minute of meal time per day, by the end of two weeks, you’ll have slowed the pace of your eating by nearly 15 minutes.

Practice #2: Eat to 80 percent full

You probably know what “stuffed” feels like. That’s the post-holiday meal feeling when you have to loosen your belt and breathe in little huffs after your fourth helping of dessert. Let’s call that 150 percent full—waaay beyond capacity.

You might know what “really hungry” feels like. Let’s call that 0 percent full. Somewhere in between is 80 percent full. Eighty percent full is when you’re just satisfied, no longer hungry (or just a teeny-tiny bit hungry, which passes after a few minutes). But not full. And definitely not stuffed.

At each meal, try to find that 80 percent point on the spectrum. (That first practice, eating slowly, really comes in handy here.) You won’t know what 80 percent full feels like right away, but you don’t have to get this “perfect” or do any complicated math. Just eat a little bit slower and a little bit less at each meal until you recognize (and can reliably target) that 80 percent mark.

Practice #3: Mind-body scan

Step 1: Find a quiet place

Every day, take five minutes and find a quiet place without interruptions. This could be just before bed or just after waking up, in your office, sitting on a bench after your workout, sitting in your parked car, walking, doing yoga, stretching or foam rolling. All you need is five minutes of quiet, distraction-free time.

Step 2: Notice physical sensations

Start at the top of your head and go all the way down to your toes, piece by piece. See what you notice yourself feeling physically. What are you feeling in your eyes? Your ears? Your nose? Are you clenching your jaw? Are your facial muscles tight or loose? How are you holding your head? Straight? Pushed forward like a turtle? Tilted to one side like a curious dog? Is your chest tight or open? How are you breathing—deeply or shallowly? Where are your shoulders? Up around your ears? Hunched forward? Hanging loosely? Is one higher than the other? Do you feel a breeze on your face? Is it warm or cool in the room? Are you sweating? Shivering? Are you wearing a scratchy sweater? Can you feel the label in your shirt?

You get the idea. Work your way down to your toenails with this step-by-step “scan.” Don’t judge or rush to change anything. Just observe, like a scientist. Write down your observations, if you like. Over two weeks, you may notice patterns.

Step 3: Notice emotions and thoughts

Once you’ve done your “body scan,” do the same thing for your emotions and thoughts. Again, don’t judge or try to make sense of it. Just observe and document, if you like.

Step 4: Ask yourself three questions

Now, ask yourself: What am I feeling physically? What am I feeling emotionally? What am I thinking?

It’s OK if you can’t put words to everything you’re feeling and experiencing. Just observe. That’s all.

Strategy #3: Daily observations

The concept:

As you continue to work on building awareness, take a couple of minutes each day to record your observations. This helps you turn your experiences into feedback about your body, health and life that you can build on. This doesn’t have to be time-consuming and arduous; just practice becoming more aware of what you’re learning and make a point of recording it.

How to implement this strategy:

Use this strategy daily, accompanying the above awareness-building practices. (By the way, in Precision Nutrition Coaching, these types of questions come at the end of daily lessons so you can reflect on what you’ve learned. This practice of questioning works best as part of a coaching curriculum, but it’s still worth trying on your own.)

Sample questions

Use these questions as a starting point. When doing your assessments and daily practices, you might think of questions to add (or get rid of), depending on which topics are most resonant to you.

When practicing eating slowly, you might consider:

When practicing eating to 80 percent full, you might consider:

When practicing a mind-body scan, you might consider:

As you continue the mind-body scan practice, you also might make notes about the following:

Strategy #4: Reflective journaling

The concept:

Use specific, “Socratic” (critical thinking–type) questions as a launchpad for reflective writing—an exercise that helps you build and solidify your physical and emotional self-awareness.

This type of practice may get you thinking about things like:

In Precision Nutrition Coaching, we ask clients Socratic questions every few weeks, inviting them to reflect and write down their answers. Through this exercise, they figure out how to apply what they learn through assessments and practices, to make progress toward their goals. You can do the same.

How to implement this strategy:

Use reflective journaling about once a month. If you’re not working with a coach/curriculum, create a monthly reminder on your calendar so you don’t forget.

Sample questions

The following are examples of Socratic questions that are likely to help you accumulate and solidify your awareness and self-knowledge, and make progress toward a specific goal.

Questions to ask yourself after you’ve been working on your goal for several weeks:

Questions to help yourself when you’re a little farther along on your plan/journey:

Actually learning what works for you and tuning into your body’s needs and cues is an ongoing practice. One of the most important success factors is consistency. So to help you keep going and learn along the way, try answering these questions:

Questions when you feel like you’re getting stuck:

In the end, remember that while journaling and responding to thought questions is an interesting activity on its own, the goal of these activities is really twofold:

  1. To gather data about yourself you’re unlikely to discover any other way.
  2. To use deliberate practice to build the skill of “paying attention” or “listening” to your body.

What to do next

  1. Consider what “listening to your body” means to you. If you’re trying to “listen to your body,” or “figure out what works for you,” or follow some similar advice, take a second and think about why. What are you hoping to achieve? Is there a specific goal you want to reach, such as a healthier relationship with food or better stress-reduction habits? Why is this important to you? Any journey is most successful when grounded in real meaning and purpose.
  2. Pick one of the above strategies. Then give one of the practices a shot. Approach the process with curiosity, as much as you can. Try not to judge yourself, or the practice, too much. See how it goes. Make observations.
  3. Build your owner’s manual. Try out the “owner’s manual” concept on yourself. Make it an ongoing practice to collect information about yourself. Write down what you learn. Think of the owner’s manual as an ongoing, evolving thing that allows for you to continue to change, grow and get to know yourself better. Start now: What do you already know about yourself? What can you already put in your owner’s manual?
  4. Find your support system. This stuff gets easier with the help of someone else, whether that’s a coach or trainer, a therapist, a mentor, even an “awareness partner” like a spouse or friend. They can help you overcome your own blind spots and stay strong through the challenging work of getting to know yourself better. If you don’t have anyone on hand, why not ask us—that’s what we’re here for.

This post originally appeared on PrecisionNutrition.com. Precision Nutrition is the largest private nutrition coaching company in the world, helping more than 100,000 clients transform their lives and more than 50,000 fitness professionals revolutionize their businesses over the past 15 years. If you’re a coach, or you want to be, learn more about the Precision Nutrition Certification.

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