Using the concept of “flow” with your exercise program (Reasons for falling off the wagon)

Posted on July 15, 2013

(Last Updated On: April 6, 2016)

I’m currently working through the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

From Wikipedia:

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

Or being “in the zone.”

One of the major tenets is being in the flow state is one of the best, if not the best, method to being happy. Of all the ways people try to achieve happiness: material goods, drugs, sex, alcohol, etc. nothing compares to achieving flow. For instance, achieving wealth beyond what is needed for basic survival does not improve one’s daily experience. However, achieving flow more regularly does.

There is a section in the book where Mihaly (author) merges the concept with movement / physical acts / exercise.

“Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are:

(a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as realistically feasible;

(b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of goals chosen;

(c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity;

(d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and

(e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Applying this to someone’s exercise routine:

(a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as realistically feasible;

Whether it’s lose a number of pounds, do a push-up, lift your bodyweight, play with your grandkids for an hour without getting tired, whatever. BUT, “Get stronger, get toned, feel better, lose weight, be in better shape” are not sufficient. They are too vague.

By having a specific goal you not only give yourself something concrete to reach for, you give yourself solid feedback as to where you are in the process. If your goal is “lose weight,” and after 5 months you’re down a pound, it’s unlikely you’ll feel any remorse for doing so poorly. After all, you technically met your goal.

(b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of goals chosen;

Track how much weight you lift on certain exercises, measure whether your joints are feeling better on a scale of 0-10, etc.

This is where you can make a very strong argument FOR using a weight scale. I know “don’t worry about the scale” is all the rage these days, but there aren’t too many ways you can measure weight loss. Amount of inches works, and is a good one, but that’s about all that’s out there. Finally, if you’re someone who is 50 pounds overweight, guess what? You need to see the scale go down. You’re not concurrently gaining 50 pounds of muscle and losing 50 pounds of fat to where you can not worry whether the scale goes down.

(c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity;

Start simple, then get fancier.

Start calorie counting. Get it down pat. Then start counting grams of protein. Get that down. Then worry about grams of carbs. Then how many servings of fruits and vegetables. Then grams of sodium. Then optimizing your supplements. You get the idea.

Start exercising. Anything. Go for a walk. Then add some stretching. Get the form down well. Then add some push-ups. Then some squats. Then add weight. You get the idea.

(d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and

Kind of open to interpretation here. I take this one primarily as practice regularly. If you’re starting with zero exercise skills, then get help so someone can develop your skills with you.

(e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

I believe this goes hand in hand with (c). By making finer and finer distinctions you should prevent boredom. However, if you find yourself getting bored, it’s time to challenge yourself more.

-Add sets / reps / weight.

-Do the circuit faster.

-Add another component. Balance exercise? Close your eyes or add some ball tossing

-Start carb cycling.

-Lose more weight.

Basically, make things a progressive process.

Why some fall of the wagon

Be careful where you start

It’s very common for those wanting to get in shape to be all or nothing. They go from 10 hours of television a day to twice a day in the gym, 1200 calories a day of salads, zero alcohol, etc.

To achieve flow one needs to challenge themselves. An extreme mentality is surely a challenge; it must be a good idea, right?

From the book:

Flow psychology chart

Quick breakdown of the chart:

  • Low level of skill and low level of challenge = Likely to achieve flow
  • Medium level of skill and medium level of challenge = Likely flow
  • High level of skill and high level of challenge = Likely flow
  • Great level of skill with low level of challenge = Bored and no flow
  • Great level of challenge with low level of skill = Anxiety and no flow

Where do most beginners embarking on a new health routine fit? Those who haven’t exercised in a while (if ever), yet are trying a NASA like health strategy?

  • Great level of challenge with low level of skill

Making them likely to have anxiety while exercising / dieting. I think the end result is pretty obvious here: Nobody likes anxiety, and we avoid things promoting it. Another reason this common approach fails. And yet another reason why trainers who beat the shit out of their brand new clients, throwing them on bosu balls when they can’t stand on regular ground, with 20 sets of biceps, changing their entire diet to paleo overnight, are doing something very, very ill advised.

More process; less results

This is an old mantra of the “It’s the journey; not the destination” type. I want to see if I can shed a little different light on it.

The reason it’s important to focus on the process is because it’s easier to make a process progressive and longstanding compared to a result. Once you hit a result, you’re there. As the book goes over very well, once we’re anywhere long enough, we get bored. This is why a materialistic result, or one in which you think will give external rewards (praise, fame, money), doesn’t give long lasting satisfaction. Whatever you have or attain becomes regular, and often pretty quickly. (The joy from buying an object doesn’t last long.) But what can consistently change and last? The process getting there.

For example, you want X car. You do what it takes to get X. Then, you want Y car, which is considerably more expensive. The act of purchasing Y and having it is unlikely more intricate, detailed, challenging, etc. Thus, it’s unlikely more satisfying than anything which can take you from point A to point B. But, the process of being able to purchase Y can be more intricate, challenging, detailed, etc. Perhaps you needed to expand your business, increase your work skills, or develop a new financial strategy.

The point is worry less about having the car, and what you think that will signify, and more on the process of becoming able to do so.

Worry less about weighing X amount of pounds and more on the process of losing weight.

It’s kind of confusing and paradoxical, but it seems to be what works best. I suppose another way of thinking about this is having a goal is very important, but once you have it, to get it, focus on the process of getting to the goal, rather than the goal itself. Less emphasis on “I want to lose 20 pounds” and more on “I need to this, this and this to follow my eating plan today.” Focusing on the process gets you to a result. Focusing on a result gets you nowhere.

Once you attain the desired result understand you need to challenge yourself to a greater degree. Because there is only so much weight one can lose, only so little body fat one can have, achieving goals of this orientation then necessitates changing directions.

Changing goals with time (maintenance is boring)

I haven’t thought about this before, but I think this may be a big reason why people gain their weight back.

A huge aspect of achieving flow is the element of a challenge. There has to be something to (realistically) shoot for. Many people hit their goal weight and go, “What now?” I wouldn’t be surprised if a reason these people gain their weight back is boredom. Of course, people likely do this unconsciously.

Something I do when someone hits their goal weight is to try and shift their mindset towards an exercise goal oriented mentality. Exercise goes from being a method to achieve their weight loss to the goal itself. Rather than using exercise to lose 20 pounds, we use exercise to be able to do a push-up, or squat 20 more pounds.

Really, exercise is helping to maintain. It’s maintaing their weight loss, it’s maintaing their strength (your everyday person really doesn’t need much), it’s maintaining their joint health, etc. However, telling people “We’re still exercising to maintain your weight loss” doesn’t connect with them. It doesn’t help them feel “flow” while exercising. Therefore, they no longer enjoy exercise like they used to.

This is something I’m going to consider more in how I train people. Many times after having a client for a year or more, with all their initial goals pretty much well behind them, is when they hit a funk. It’s when they get bored, lose sight of why they’re there, and start to fall off the wagon. I’m going to start having a greater focus on being able to do certain exercises, lift certain amounts of weight, whatever -and the process getting there- than I did before.

Achieving flow during exercise can help accomplish two big things.

  1. Make it more likely you enjoy exercise. The more likely you enjoy it, the more likely you’ll do it, the more likely you’ll be healthier, lose weight, keep your joints feeling good.
  2. A great business strategy. The better you can make your clients enjoy working with you and working out the more likely they’ll be retained. And what’s the optimal experience you can give them?


Let someone else take care of programming your exercise routine for you.

You can pick up the book here.

You can learn more about flow in this video:

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