You’ve heard of “proprioception” – the 6th sense – which is the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body. As personal trainers, we learn about this in relation to helping clients develop skills required to keep track of where their body parts are in space. In other words, we teach them how to feel they are doing it right for themselves.
Do you know what the 7th sense is? This is the “vestibular” system provides the sense of balance and the information about body position that allows rapid compensatory movements in response to both self-induced and externally generated forces. I did not know this until recently!
This article, though, is about the 8th sense – “interoception”. A close cousin of our other senses. Interoception is the perception or awareness of how the body feels inside and the sensations of these feelings being able to automatically drive us to do something. Using interoception during exercise as an example, this means a person can feel something like their heart rate is beating faster. And the perception of this automatically telling them that this means that their heart will get strong as a result. Feeling this sensation directly motivates them to want to do the exercise because they want a stronger heart for various reasons. Using interoceptive skills with exercise may well be how personal trainers themselves are motivated so strongly and consistently to exercise. Do they literally feel what the exercise is doing and they use that as direct evidence that the exercise is delivering you the benefits they seek? They only have to feel the exercise happening to know the benefits are being achieved. I won’t be talking more about exercise interoception today but I will definitely come back to this at a later date.
But for now, I want to speak about the use of interoception with eating. This means being able to sense how the body feels which makes the person only want to eat exactly what they need at the time they need it. When under the full control of interoception, the person only wants to eat when energy is required, only the nutrients the body needs at that time and only the amount required at that time.
Some people naturally have retained 100% of this skill of eating interoception from birth and as a result are never driven to overeat (or under-eat). They are totally protected from the external by their internal system’s ability to feel and automatically cause eating to happen a certain way.
Other people have lost some, or all, of their eating interoception. As a result, they have a failed or failing eating off-switch and can be made to eat for many reasons other than their interoception sensing their hunger. When people don’t have a fully functioning eating interoception system we need to be very careful with how we approach them because taking them even more into their head about eating and exercise will take them further from interoceptive control of their eating.
At HFI, like with all training providers, our learner’s study for their CIMSPA Practitioner (Personal Trainer) Diploma or ACSM Certified Personal Trainer they learn about goal setting for motivation. They even use “SMART” goals where the goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed. You’d think this was a sure-fire way to really get into a person’s head and help them motivate themselves to reach their goals. But, again, getting a person who doesn’t have 100% interoceptive control of eating to think about their eating and exercise in this way is the last thing we want to do.
Simple goals and motivational techniques can work fine for people who are 100% interoceptive eaters because they don’t have to restrict their eating or associate exercise with “burning food off” because they don’t eat in excess to their physical needs. When they eat they are doing it from a drive within and when they exercise they don’t do it for reasons of weight control. Their physical demands are automatically met by an equal and opposite drive to eat. Their interoception is working perfectly.
But those people who have dodgy eating off-switches are forced into the habit of restricting their eating and using exercise to burn up the excess food. They already have a drive to eat more than they need, but thinking about and making ‘behaviour changes’ will increase this even more.
As a personal trainer you are in a difficult position because offering the same goals setting and behaviour change approach to ‘weight loss’ clients is setting them up for further physical and psychological damage and failure in the long term.
If your client had a broken leg, you’d call them an ambulance. If they had a less serious acute injury – e.g. a sprained ankle – you’d refer them out to a physiotherapist until they signed them off to work with you. The same applies if someone has an “appetite injury” – someone who has a damaged internal eating interoception. You can’t ignore this fact. The cause of their enlarged appetite has to be cured. In other words, they have been taught to use their interoception to control their eating from within so that when they come back to you they don’t have a larger appetite than normal and they don’t relate their exercise or food to weight because they don’t need to. (They most likely won’t need any help to eat healthier because when someone has 100% interoceptive control of their eating are only driven to eat what their body needs for nutrition.)
An Intuitive Eating (IE) Counsellor is the appropriate the professional to refer out your ‘appetite injury’ clients to. IE Counsellors are usually also trained in emotional counselling because people who has been living with trying to use the normal methods of motivation against an uncontrollable appetite are likely to be very anxious, depressed and ashamed of themselves too. It’s a complicated business getting rid of psychological drivers behind eating and replacing them with just the physical. But is can be achieved if Intuitive Eating counselling is available.
Next time, I’ll look more at what you can do to make your clients are more interoceptively skilled with exercise. Meantime consider how you feel your own exercise and how this makes you just want to do it. Do you think you could teach this to your clients? And, after that, I’ll talk more about how to prevent your 100% physical eaters from losing this ability through taking them into their head and away from their sensing body.
By Alison Hall
For a free consultation and discussion about how it is for you or your client, always without obligation, contact Alison Hall at Try Freedom.
Alison Hall is an Intuitive Eating counsellor and owner and founder of Try Freedom
There are now over 150 studies on Intuitive Eating showing benefit.
There is also a plethora of evidence of the wider topics of Interoceptive Awareness, Food Restriction/Dieting/Binge Eating/Inefficacy Harm from Weight Loss / Reactance Theory. Click below to see the science: