Most people equate exercise with words like “chore,” “boring” and “necessary evil.” But sometimes—in yoga class, on a nature walk or during a dance lesson—it’s as if the stars align and those negative perceptions melt away. Rather than dreading working out, you begin to associate sweat with a sense of purpose, something that drives you towards your goals and makes you feel invincible.
“Athletes call this ‘getting in the zone,’ which is really just their version of psychological flow,” explains Harvard psychologist Jeffrey Brown, author of The Competitive Edge: How to Win Every Time You Compete.
Brown says that just about any kind of exercise can put you into a flow state as long as it meets three criteria: First, your fitness activity needs to have a clear objective. For example, you’re less likely to get in the zone by slogging on a treadmill to lose an unspecified number of pounds than you would following a running program designed to help you beat your personal best 5K time.
Second, the workout should get you to rise to a challenge without sending you over the edge. Focus and attention—the essential psychological ingredients of flow state—kick in during activities in which you strive towards an accomplishment you view as both worthwhile and achievable.
Finally, it’s important to stay in the moment. Tuning into what you’re doing enables you to tune out everything else. With cardio-type workouts, the rhythm of your breathing, the sound of your footfalls and other physical feedback can help you stay focused on the subtleties of your workout and achieve a state of flow.
Activities best suited to your personality are the likeliest to induce flow, notes Brown. Also, the fitter and more seasoned you become, the easier it is to switch into that blissful, effortless autopilot.
Check out these six activities, which help some of our readers find their flow. One of them may inspire you to find yours.
When a band of cyclists spin together in a darkened room and the tunes are cranking, it’s possible to achieve group flow. That’s what Christina Sfakianos, an avid studio cyclist who rides regularly at New York City’s Soul Cycle, loves about her workouts. “Riding in a class has an element of being on a team, as you ride with the pack,” she says. “The music helps with focus and the instructor adds to the experience of training. Plus, it's nice to clip in and check out on the issues of the day and check in for a competitive and fun hour of exercise.”
Pure joy of movement is how Debbie Hanoka describes salsa dancing. She says the energy of both the crowd and her partner help her stop thinking about what happened five minutes ago and get her to focus on what’s happening on the dance floor. “It feels like a rollercoaster where you don’t know what’s coming next so you just let it happen and go with it,” she says.
For those who can’t lose themselves in the pumping and pounding of cardio and weights, yoga offers the ultimate opportunity to experience a “be here now”-type mind-body connection. For Pip Coburn, a marathoner who’s recently turned to yoga for some balance in his workout routine, the flow in yoga is truly about being present in the moment. “There are times when I forget that there is anyone else in the class and all I hear is the instructor’s voice guiding me and encouraging me,” he says. “There is just this moment. And all’s right with the world.”
It makes sense that swimming and flow go together for so many people. You’re cushioned, soundproofed and soothed by the water. There’s no crowded fitness class to contend with—it’s just you slicing through the water. Cait Drap, a triathlete who trains with Full Throttle, the elite triathlon team at New York City’s Chelsea Pier’s Sports Center, says flow didn’t always come easily, but now she relishes her time in the pool. “Usually it takes a little warm up to get that feeling of flow,” she says. But when I reach it, I can stay there forever. Then it’s just kick, pull and go.”
Running is often referred to as a moving meditation. For people like Tina Gowin, an avid half marathoner, it’s almost hypnotic. “When I first started running, I was always very aware of every move my body made,” she remembers. “I worked on my form and at a certain point, my body learned a specific rhythm. I didn’t have to think about every move anymore. Now some of my runs feel more like a daydream, and I finish up thinking, ‘Wow, did I just do all that?’”
Placing one foot in front of the other is an easy way for just about anyone to achieve flow. While it’s possible to do this walking on flat pavement, Kathy Aleoba takes it one step further (so to speak) by hiking up steep mountain trails. Her flow comes from what she calls a “freedom of the hills.” She says: “There’s a moment where you let go and start to trust your feet. I stop overthinking everything and just feel the movement.”
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