How can you make exercising addictive?
How flow can turn your exercise regime into a super positive mental experience.
We all know that physical training should be an essential part of everyday life. Not only does hitting the gym or pounding the pavement improve your general health by keeping your weight down and your heart and lungs in tip top shape, but it is also proven to have amazing psychological benefits. According to The Black Dog Institute of Australia recent research has shown that committing to 16 weeks of regular exercise can be just as effective as taking antidepressants, (www.blackdoginstitute.org.au), while reports of runners high have been super consistent for years.
But none of this is new. We are all very aware of the great things that come with exerting ourselves.
So why don't we all do it? If it is so amazing why aren't will all walking around looking like contestants on Love Island?
I will tell you why..... it's because training sucks. There is nothing appealing about dragging yourself out of bed at 6 am to do an army boot camp in the pouring rain. There is nothing romantic about being so sore that you can't climb the stairs when you get home.
However, what if I were to tell you that this negative idea of exercise can change? What if I were to tell you that exercise can actually become very addictive by simply harnessing the psychological effect known as flow?
We have all heard of the term flow or the athletic cliché of being in the zone and whether you realise it or not, we have all had some experience of it. Whether it's in conversation that lasted hours and felt like minutes or in work where your focus has been so intense that your performance was at its very best and seemingly effortless. In these instances everything flowed, the perfect words and actions just appeared or happened. But most people don't realise that this state of mind is very real, very measurable and, very attainable.
Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, was the first person to study this phenomenon by interviewing people from all walks of life and from all over the world about the times when they felt their best and performed their best. He found that no matter what activity people were undertaking they would still describe the same feelings and sensations. With things such as time passing quicker, clarity of thought, speed of decision making, accuracy, ease of actions, and an addictive feeling of well being all being reported by surgeons and sports stars as well as farmers and factory workers. This research was then picked up by the author Steven Kotler whose book, The Rise of Superman, looked at flow within the action sports scene. While his company, The Flow Research Collective, has managed to map the brain on flow and even pinpointed the triggers that kick flow and its addictive neurochemicals into gear and allow us to perform at our very peak on a more consistent basis.
So how can we harness this information and use it to make our exercise regime addictive?
All in all, there are thought to be around 14 different triggers for flow, but only a few of them are relevant to your workout.
1. Set Clear goals
Be clear about what you want to achieve. It's great to rock up at a gym and just start, but you will get more out of it if you have a clear objective. Wandering around and doing a little here and a little there without really knowing what you want can leave you feeling very frustrated and bored. Do you want this session to be about toning muscle? Just do so weights. Cardio? Hit the treadmill or cross trainer. What this does is reduce cognitive load and gives you a sense of achievement, thanks to a nice dopamine hit, once that goal has been hit.
2. Think about the talent/skill ratio
A lot of people start with the best of intentions. They book a personal trainer or step into a dreaded boot camp with the mindset of pure intensity and passion only to wake up the next day sore and lacking the drive to go again. There's a simple reason that this happens. Your body and your mind are not at the level needed to jump into exercising this hard. To get into flow, and the magical state that goes with it, the challenge in front of you needs to be just out of reach. Not so far that the end goal seems impossible, but just far enough that you know you can get there by stepping slightly out of your comfort zone.
It is thought that pushing yourself just 4% beyond your current skill level is the magic number to getting the talent to skill ratio correct. Although, motivational speaker and ultra-marathon runner, David Goggins, says we should all be pushing for 10%. This percentage can be hard to measure in some walks of life but when it comes to exercise it's easy. To start with your 10% may be as easy as getting off your couch to go for a walk. Then you simply increase this effort by 10% each week. Did you walk for 1km? Then do 1.1 next time. Did you do ten push ups? Do 11.
3. Instant feedback
Flow can also be achieved by simply knowing how well you are going in a partucular task. By following the two previous steps this can be easy to accomplish. You will know simply by the numbers involved if you are improving or not and this can be enough to flood your body with a host of addictive neurochemicals, get you into flow, and have you wanting to go back to the gym again and again.
4. Deep Embodiment
We have all heard of runners high and how the simple sound of your shoes pounding on the road can put you into a state of pure bliss. Well, that is a perfect example of how deep embodiment in a task can lead to flow. This can also be achieved in the gym by not giving yourself a particular end goal on occasions. Try sitting on a stationary bike or hitting a treadmill and covering the screen with a towel so that you have no idea how long you are going for. Then put some headphones on with a nice meditation or some relaxing music and start exercising. Without having the wasted focus of the perceived end of the session you will be able to lose yourself in the moment.
So take it slow. Don't feel forced to smash yourself early on. Pain and suffering are essential for long term growth but there is no point in pushing yourself to exhaustion early and losing all the drive to be better and healthier. Simply start by sticking to these four principles and you will soon find that you can't live without your daily hit an exercise induced flow state.