Entering ‘Flow’ Can Make Hard Exercise More Enjoyable
How to get into the zone
Think back to the last time you felt utterly absorbed in an activity: a sport, hobby, book, task, or conversation. Colloquially, it’s known as being in the zone. Psychologists call the phenomenon “flow.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, named the concept in 1975. Flow is a mindset people can enter when they are fully immersed in and enjoying an activity. Psychologists and sports scientists have postulated that when people enter into flow, they are working at their optimal performance level.
In his book Bone Games, the journalist and occasional mountain climber Rob Schultheis described how entering flow helped him complete one of the hardest physical feats of his life. In the winter of 1964 he climbed a mountain called Neva in the Colorado Rockies. The journey to the summit was relatively straightforward, but disaster struck during the descent. Schultheis became stuck on an ice-covered rock face, powerless to either climb back up or descend to safety.
Unable to maintain his grip, he fell, landing on a narrow ledge inches away from a 200-foot drop and certain death. By the time he struggled to his feet, he was injured and it was past 3 in the afternoon; the light was beginning to fade, and he still needed to cross Neva’s western face. Entering a state of flow is what he credits with his ultimate return to safety: “I know my limitations, and I was climbing way, way beyond them,” he writes. “The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life.”
The sensation of flow requires a change in mindset.
Csikszentmihalyi and his research team have spent the past three decades interviewing thousands of people about their own flow experiences. Based on these interviews, they’ve concluded that flow is “a harmonious and intrinsically rewarding state characterized by intense focus and absorption in a specific activity, to the exclusion of irrelevant thoughts and emotions, and a sense of everything coming together or clicking into place, even in challenging situations.”
Flow is usually transient: found in times of activity rather than in passive moments of ease and relaxation. It’s often experienced when bodies and minds are pushed to their limits — but, Csikszentmihalyi says, “the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
The sensation of flow requires a change in mindset rather than environment. Flow is the perception of an experience, rather than the activity itself. When exercisers feel fully immersed, they have more fun. It may not make the tough challenges any easier, but it makes the workout a more positive experience.
Sports and exercise psychologist Sue Jackson has shown through research that flow is also associated with better physical performance. In studies of cross-country runners and cyclists, she’s found that when athletic skills are being challenged in a competitive environment, those who enter flow are more likely to perform better. Another study by Nektarios Stavrou, a sports psychologist at the University of Athens, Greece, assessed 220 athletes from seven sports and found that when athletes’ skills matched the challenge at hand, they felt a sense of control and reported more experiences of flow and better performance.
There are no recommendations from researchers about how to enter flow through exercise. Entering flow is unique to each person. A new runner may reach this heightened state after a few miles of effort, while an ultra-marathoner may be moving for many hours in the mindspace.
One thing is clear, at least according to Csikszentmihalyi: It’s during moments of the greatest exertion that an athlete or exerciser is most likely to get into a flow state. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile,” he says.
To increase the likelihood of experiencing this optimal state, it can help to get into the right mindset. Recent research from Christy Teranishi Martinez, a professor of psychology at California State University, Channel Islands, suggests that engaging in positive thinking and identifying clear and measurable goals are some ways people can mentally prepare.
Other experts suggest that striking the right balance of challenge to skill set is crucial. Exercisers should aim for fitness goals that are hard to reach but also within the realm of possibility. Part of entering flow can be developing the skills to push limits.
Entering flow is possible for anyone. Sure, it can be challenging to get there, but the challenge can make moving more enjoyable. The ability to master physical challenges and find them fulfilling benefits both the body and mind. Looking for the zone — and getting in it — seems worth the pursuit.