Do you ever have those days when things feel out of sync—you hit every red traffic light; you get stuck behind the one person who wants to count out every coin when paying the cashier; and when you go to work out, you just don’t seem to have that much energy, fumbling your way through without really breaking a sweat? Then there are those days when things are rocking—you hit every green light, you earned a free cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop, and you become so fully engaged in your workout that time flies by, and before you know it, you’re drenched in sweat and the workout is over.
You’ll be pleased to hear that when you’re having one of those down days, there is a way to break out of the doldrums so that you can have a positive and engaging experience during your workout—you just have to be able to tap into the flow state.
The flow state
When competing, athletes strive to achieve what they call “the zone,” which occurs when playing is effortless, actions happen automatically and time passes quickly. The zone is not a mythical space; it is more properly known as the “flow state.” The good news is that you don’t have to play competitive sports to achieve it. Knowing the characteristics of the flow state and the conditions necessary to achieve it can help you create a positive experience every time you hit the gym.
The flow state, identified by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., occurs when individuals become fully immersed in the actions of the present moment. Csikszentmihalyi has identified specific qualities and conditions of the flow state, which can be described as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
“Stealing Fire,” by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, provides an in-depth review of how the pursuit of the flow state is creating what they identify as the “altered states economy,” which is exactly where the fitness industry lies because vigorous movement, powerful music, well-defined goals and direct feedback all create the conditions to achieve the flow state (Kotler & Wheal, 2017).
The flow state is where peak performance intersects with peak experience to create a situation of intense focus, making it uniquely suited for working out because to achieve it, you need to function at the highest level of your existing abilities. Think of those workouts when you have been challenged to lift a certain amount of weight, perform a certain number of repetitions or travel a certain distance—you may have become so immersed in what you were doing that you didn’t notice as time flew by, which becomes the perfect application of the flow state to the fitness environment. Achieving flow removes distracting thought. The world outside the gym stays outside the gym, so the focus is specifically on performing the workout, creating a complete immersion in the experience.
Five characteristics of the flow state
Movement is a positive experience, and a properly challenging workout can meet all the following characteristics of the flow state. The essential ingredient for achieving a flow state is a high level of intrinsic motivation and that performing an activity is an autotelic experience, meaning it is performed simply because the activity is rewarding in itself (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).
Concentration on task at hand: A workout is one time out of the day when you should be able to focus with no distractions. It’s one thing to use a phone to listen to music or a podcast, but the best way to get the most out of your workout is to stay off social media and silence the texting so you can focus on each move in your workout. Think of it this way: This is your one time in the day you can be totally selfish, so take it.
Action and awareness emerging: This is the state of total absorption, a feeling of “being one” with the activity. This is the power of group fitness—many different people are working, often vigorously, together to achieve a task. Moving as a group, especially to rhythmic music, provides a powerful stimulus for achieving flow.
Loss of self-consciousness: The focus on reaching a well-defined outcome creates strong inner clarity; an individual knows what needs to be done and receives immediate feedback on performance. Set a specific, tangible goal at the start of a workout, like performing a specific number of sets, hitting all the movements in your routine or maintaining a certain heart rate—these are all ways to redirect focus.
Sense of control over performance and outcome: The feeling that one’s actions have a direct impact on the outcome of a performance. It can be hard for people who work for a demanding boss or take care of a busy home to have a sense of control over their lives. A workout is one time when you can have complete control over performance and outcome; working hard can lead to a sense of accomplishment.
Transformation of time: An intense focus on the activity leads to a loss of awareness of the passing of time.
Being in flow isn’t just about feelings. There are chemical changes happening in the body, as well. Movement produces specific neurotransmitters, which are characteristic of the flow experience, too. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that stimulate or inhibit actions of the nervous system. They send the signals to either do more or less of a certain activity.
During movement, the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine are used to help provide energy to fuel muscle activity, but they also help the brain focus specifically on the task at hand. Dopamine promotes feelings of well-being while also playing a role helping neurons to function in pattern recognition—one benefit being a “rush” of positive feelings when specific patterns are repeated. In this sense, dopamine performs “double duty.” If it is produced as the nervous system works to learn and repeat movement patterns, it is creating a pleasurable learning experience. Anandamide dilates blood vessels to improve oxygen flow, reduces pain and amplifies lateral thinking, making it an important component of helping the brain learn new movements. In addition, anandamide is an endogenous cannabinoid, so it plays an important role in promoting the positive feelings and good mood as the result of a strenuous workout (Kotler, 2014).
Three conditions for reaching the flow state
Thanks to research, it is possible to identify the components of what leads to a flow state, which you can use to achieve flow during your workouts. When the proper conditions for flow exist, a shift happens in the brain in which it transitions from a state of thinking to one of perceiving (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Going through the motions of a workout won’t cut it. Challenging yourself to work harder than you’re currently able to is an important prerequisite for achieving a flow state.
- Challenge skills balance: The activity challenges existing skill levels, causing an individual to work above an existing capacity. The benefit is that performing at a higher level leads to the development of new skills. Movements should be challenging but not too difficult. For example, switching from machines to dumbbells or from barbell exercises to body-weight movements would provide the opportunity to challenge yourself with developing new skills by using a different piece of equipment (or no equipment). Taking a new group fitness class would be another way to challenge your existing skills while developing new ones because learning a new routine requires intense concentration on the task at hand.
- Set clear goals: The pursuit of a specific, well-defined goal brings attentional focus and awareness, causing one to momentarily forget everything else. Establish clear goals at the start of each workout such as a specific number of repetitions, an exact amount of weight to be lifted, the amount of time at a target heart rate, performing a certain number of intervals or traveling a set distance. These all can provide clear, easy-to-quantify goals.
- Unambiguous feedback: Specific feedback on performance is important for achieving flow, and working out provides immediate feedback—you either successfully complete the movement or you don’t. Setting a goal for the workout and tracking progress provides unambiguous feedback that could help trigger flow.
Creating flow in your workout programs
Mind-body connections don’t just happen in a yoga studio—any form of movement requires a specific mindset and focus on the task being performed. When you are focused on a challenging workout, you tend to stop thinking about outside issues whether at home or at work. The result is that workout becomes the escape from the norm. Combine this with the powerful neurotransmitters that produce positive feelings and we have the ability to make fitness a pleasurable experience. Challenging yet achievable workouts, focusing your attention on the movements that you are doing, creating a sense of being “in the moment” and using powerful, energetic music are all steps that can help remove outside distractions and create an optimal workout experience thanks to the flow state.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s observations about the flow state, “Experiencing flow encourages a person to persist at and return to an activity because of the experiential rewards it promises, and thereby fosters the growth of skills over time” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). The more you are able to reach the flow state when you work out, the better the motivation you will have for future workouts.
To hear author Pete McCall interview Jamie Wheal—the executive director of the Flow Genome Project and co-author of “Stealing Fire”—on the “All About Fitness” podcast, click here.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow. New York, NY. Harper Collins.
Kotler, S. ( 2014) The Rise of Superman. Seattle, WA. Amazon.
Kotler, S. and Wheal, J. (2017) Stealing Fire. New York, NY. Harper Collins.
Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009) “The Concept of Flow.” In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Ed.). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. 89-105. (Dey Street Books – Reprint Edition, 2018)
Photo credit: Drazen_, Getty Images