Finding Your Flow: Making Fitness Fun

Achieving the Natural High may be the secret ingredient to weight loss

Copyright Max Wettstein, 2006

    There really are no secrets to making weight loss any easier or quicker.  There are a few supplements out there that can really help out, but nothing that performs miracles.  

     One of the best things you can do to help yourself out besides the obvious necessities of proper eating and exercise, is to join a group or at least find a partner, for moral support in your common goals.   A work-out partner or trainer could hold you to a schedule and be there for you to offer motivation during times of self-doubt or discouragement.  It is important to set goals for you, and not necessarily try to impress anybody else but sometimes we all need others to hold us accountable and bear witness to our progress.  Sometimes deadlines and commitments to others are the only things that will light a fire under our butts!  A personal trainer can serve this same purpose and even educate you about fitness and health, but this can cost a lot of money. 

     Competition is actually a very effective psychological tool to get in shape.  How so?  Do you remember your high school days, or when you were a kid and you played sports?  Back then your weight probably wasn’t an issue, but what I’m getting at is that intense drive of competition and pride that you may have experienced.  During the heat of competition one tends to forget about things like fatigue, pain, and calories.  Hours of play may go by without ever giving a second thought to fatigue or hunger.  What about now?  Have you ever considered joining a local softball team, soccer league, running club, tennis league, or master’s swimming to name just a few possibilities?  Maybe racing for a worthy, charitable cause is more your style, like ‘Team-in-Training’ or the breast cancer ‘3-Day’.

     Even if you’re not the competitive type, are not into team sports, or just aren’t very athletic, you can still make fitness fun.  And it is not fun until you become so engaged in the activity mentally that you are distracted from how much you are exerting yourself – the activity has to make the transition from exercise to fun.  Sure, there are some folks out there that actually enjoy exercise or are obsessed with pushing themselves physically.  Folks like these seem to enter into that ‘zone’ state of mind that you may have heard about: A Zen-like, almost spiritual place where they lose self-consciousness during the exercise and experience a natural high from opiates produced by the body known as endorphins and experience a pleasant and heightened state of mind from higher dopamine levels, (a brain neurotransmitter released during rewarding experiences).  These types of folks are often considered obsessed with fitness and they very well may be, but it is not just vanity driving them, and is more of a mental addiction to dopamine.  I can think of worse addictions:  Cocaine for instance, stimulates dopamine.  ‘Ecstasy’ increases serotonin levels.  Both drugs run the risk of brain damage, not to mention are illegal.

     There is another psychological name for this state of mind where one becomes so engaged in an enjoyable but challenging activity (usually physical) that they almost lose self-consciousness and enter into a Zen-like, almost spiritual place - A clear state of mind beyond and more engaging than the commonly known ‘runners’ high’ or ‘zone’.  This mental state is known in psychological lingo as flow’, and once experienced is very addictive.  The term flow was coined by a psychologist and psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he defines it as the psychology of optimal experience.  Usually flow is associated with the energized focus found in challenging but enjoyable activities that combine mental and physical demands.  When you are in the flow, you enter a greatly heightened state of awareness in the present moment, and experience pleasure and continued satisfaction as you meet and master constant challenges presented in the process itself of the activity.  Pleasurable and rewarding neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, and even some adrenalin are released at higher rates.  It usually involves a physical activity you are good at, but not bored with.  You’re focused completely on the present moment/challenge and have clarity of mind on the immediate objective.  Examples range all over the spectrum of activity from a technical down hill ride on a mountain bike, to a good tennis volley, to snow skiing in the trees, to yoga, to dancing the night away.  The 3 keys to finding your personal ‘flow’ are that the activity has to be continuous, challenging and mentally engaging, such as negotiating obstacles.  Although adrenalin levels may be stimulated also contributing to the mental ‘rush’ you may feel, the idea here is to challenge yourself within your realm of safety – fear is not required!

     So why all of this borderline psycho-babble talk about flow?  Because finding a physical activity that allows you to experience this state of mind could be the real secret or perhaps the missing ingredient to finally losing those unwanted pounds you haven’t been able to get rid of yet.  Imagine being so immersed in something both mentally and physically – something enjoyable – that you can’t wait until you can do it again and the only reason you look at your watch is because you don’t want to stop.  You’re breathing hard, you’re sweating, you feel your muscles working, but you are having a blast and you’re in your groove, a Zen-like state – you’re having fun and playing.  Is there an activity out there that does this for you?  An activity or sport that you love?  What is it and why aren’t you doing it yet?  Perhaps it is just a matter of rediscovering an old sport.  When you do, the time and the calories blow by, and you’re on a natural high, and you’ll clear your mind out so you’re not your usual ADD-self rushing through your chaotic day unable to enjoy the present moment.  You’ll be buzzing for the rest of the day already planning your next session.  Not only all that, but you’ll finally work up a real appetite and your depleted body will suck up every last calorie you consume for recovery and repair.  And you’ll sleep deep and hard, especially if your chosen ‘flow’ activity is outdoors in plenty of sunshine, further boosting serotonin levels.

     There is one caveat to all of this.  We’re not our youthful, resilient selves we used be and are a lot more susceptible to injury and don’t bounce back between work-outs like we used to.  So perhaps you can’t just step onto the court or climb onto the mountain bike and go for it for fear of pulling a muscle or tearing an ACL.  Don’t let fear hold you back.  Just start slowly and cross train to avoid developing chronic, over-use injuries.  Listen to your body: A little pain is okay, but must of us know the difference now between good, work-out pain, and injury pain.  And of course ALWAYS warm-up, stretch and cool down and you may even need to ice a new ache or pain, or wear a small brace or wrap a joint!  This is all part of being an athlete who trains regularly.

     Whether it is a team or solo sport, something new or an old passion, find your sport and go for it.  Be intense and have fun, and watch the time and calories fly by.  Be an athlete again – a middle-aged athlete.  Playing is not just for kids, but maybe you should play with your kids more often.  I recently started skateboarding bowls again and I’m not the only ‘old-man’ out there carving it up and taking diggers.  What a workout and I can’t seem to get enough of it for the time being.

     If you’ve been very successful and passionate at something enjoyable in your life/career then you’ve already experienced the extreme focus factor, mental clarity, and passion of flow.  Now if you can just find a way to apply it to a physical activity…You may not think you have time for such fun and games, but you’re wrong.  There is always time for your health and if you don’t have time, then you need to make the time, before your body atrophies away to nothing!

Sources:  Time Magazine “The Science of Happiness” issue, January 17th 2005, Vol. 165, No.3;  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi;  - (The effects of drugs on the nervous system)

Links: Back to Max Wettstein's Training Library   Back to Max's Home Page!