Many people want to start exercising, but find it too boring or too difficult.
They just don’t enjoy exercise.
Why don’t people enjoy exercise? Psychology has an answer and it might surprise you.
As a fitness professional and someone who has found ways to consistently exercise and even enjoy myself a lot of the time while exercising, it has always been a little bit confusing when people tell me how much they hate exercise.
Even though I am often surrounded by people who exercise, personal experience and statistics show that I am in the minority.
According to the National Health Statistics Report published by the Center for Disease Control only about 23% of Americans between ages 18-64 meet the federally published guidelines for the minimum amount of exercise needed.(1)
While we can all agree about the major health benefits of exercise, we can only get those in the future if we can figure out how to exercise consistently for an extended period of time.
By an extended period of time I mean years.
If you don’t enjoy exercise the idea of using your willpower to force yourself to do something for a few hours every week for years is just not going to happen. No matter how much we tell you about the endless benefits of exercise.
Why don’t people enjoy exercise? Usually because they find it boring or anxiety producing. Or they are worried about doing exercise right or are just apathetic.
Why do we get in these mental states? One answer to this question is the relationship of the challenge of a task to our skill level in performing it. This is best represented by the Eight Channel Model developed from Flow theory, published in 1987 by Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli.(2)
While you are probably familiar with most of the terms on the graph, one isn’t as commonly used. That is the one in the upper right corner known as flow.
What is Flow?
Flow is more widely known as being in “the zone.” It is a mental state when a person is fully immersed in a task with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity.
I want to highlight “process” because the enjoyment in flow comes from the task itself, not the end result or goal of completing the task.
Finding a way to enjoy exercise is the easiest way to want to exercise instead of just feeling like you need to exercise.
According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the researcher who coined the term flow back in 1975 (2) there are 8 components of a flow state(3):
1: Clear, not conflicting, not confusing goals
2: Immediate feedback
3: Challenges matching skill
4: Feeling of focus
5: Everyday frustrations removed
6: Feeling in control (not competently but on edge)
7: Loss of self-consciousness
8: Sense of time transformed
There is an important division in these 8 components. The first 3 you can create, and if you create them and keep working at the tasks the final 5 will naturally occur.
Because of this division we will focus on the first three as the factors that create a flow state or, instead, are lacking thereby leaving us in a less desirable state.
Clear, Not conflicting, Not Confusing Goals
The first step is where a lot of people fall off track. When we think of exercise goals we think of our desired long-term outcomes, such as losing weight or getting into shape.
But for flow to occur you need goals for what you are doing WHILE exercising, not on what you want to happen later. This is a major reason why Flow is easier to find in sports than in general exercise. For example, while playing a game of basketball there is always a specific short-term goal that you are trying to achieve. Such as get the ball to the other end of the court, get open to receive a pass, find someone to pass the ball to, keep control of the ball while dribbling, and of course the obvious, make a basket. All sports have an infinite amount of “small wins” that you are trying to achieve towards the larger goal of winning. These goals help you get into Flow.
Often when people set out to exercise they fail to build small goals into an exercise session. Instead, they focus on a larger goal that they cannot achieve in one exercise session even if they tried, such as lose 20 pounds. You simply can’t succeed at losing 20 pounds in one visit to the gym and not succeeding doesn’t help keep you engaged. Even one manageable goal doesn’t keep you engaged like multiple smaller goals. To illustrate, running for 30 minutes may be achievable but you only get one success per running session when you need MANY successes to find Flow.
Additionally, focusing on the long-term goal doesn’t help you find enjoyment in the process. If you focus on the long-term (such as lose 20 lbs) whether you can enjoy yourself is wrapped up in one thing far out of your control. Now if you don’t lose weight every day you keep failing. It would be like athletes getting a feeling of failure every time they played a game and didn’t win a championship. They need to focus on the game right now even if it is only a regular season game, and more than that they need to focus on the play that they are executing right in the moment or they won’t perform at a level required to stand a chance of winning.
And focusing on one goal like “finish the workout” means the entire time you are focusing on things like “How much longer?” or “When is it over?”. This will keep you focused on the future which will make it impossible to enjoy the present.
People who enjoy exercise set many more small goals. For example, instead of running for 30 minutes if you are running a 10 minute mile pace you can succeed 3 times. Or a 6 minute mile 5 times. A great runner might just be focusing on maintaining 180 steps per minute. Now they have 5,400 goals to achieve to keep them focused on what they are doing.
In every workout you should set many goals for yourself. You can start with things like pace and reps per set and weight, but the ultimate place it needs to be is the individual technique on every repetition performed that gives you something to focus your energy on every moment of your workout.
Goals don’t keep you engaged unless you know how you are doing. This is another problem with vague far off goals.
Going back to the basketball game - if you aren’t controlling the ball while dribbling it bounces away from you, if you don’t get open the ball won’t be passed to you, if you don’t shoot just right the ball won’t go through the hoop.
If the only thing you can focus on during your workout is losing 20 pounds or running a marathon, it is hard to know that you are doing the right things in the moment. It is hard to make adjustments.
The need to make adjustments, however small, keeps your mind in the exercise session.
This is one reason why a key factor for finding Flow in exercise is knowing what you are supposed to be doing. If you know what a good squat feels like or a good stride feels like then you can get the feedback, if you don’t then it won’t keep you engaged.
At the very least everyone should pay attention to the big feedback mechanisms available in exercise such as “did the weight go up?” or “did I hold my pace?”.
Challenge Matches Skill
This is the key one to balance if you want to find Flow when you exercise. Goals and Immediate Feedback are mostly a matter of paying attention and being creative.
Challenge Matching Skill is where you have to adjust the actual situation. This is why the 8 Channel Model of Flow only focuses on these two factors.
If we look at the diagram again we see Flow, the optimal state, occurs when both the skill and the challenge are high.
But while Flow may be considered the optimal state it is not the only positive state. Half the chart is positive. Those states being Arousal, Flow, Control, and Relaxation.
The first thing to notice about these 4 is that none of them occur at a low skill level. You need at least medium skill to get to any of them.
Said another way, you have to spend time developing skills. This is where most people go wrong in their exercise programs. You can’t just “work out” and figure out how to have fun. You need to develop the skills for the type of workout that you want to do to enjoy it.
Notice that once your skill level gets high enough, you are most likely in a positive state. The reason why it is not always true is simply that challenge is something that can be increased indefinitely and skill has at least theoretical limits.
If I tell Usain Bolt that he needs to run a 3 second 100 m dash to save his life he is going to get anxious.
But once you get to a high enough skill level if the challenge is low you can use exercise to relax.
You know that person who goes for 10 miles runs to relax and clear their head, without headphones? (gasp louder) It is because they have put in the time developing the skill of running so that now they can be in relaxation or control.
Therefore, the secret to getting into one of these positive states is taking the time and mental energy to develop a high enough skill level at a certain type of exercise that this is possible.
Most of us have likely never hit it, in regards to exercise. And when we have, usually it’s been in team sports which require a lot of people to play properly.
If you enjoyed exercise when you were on the high school basketball team, the difficulty of finding regular pick up games now that fit your schedule with people of the right skill level often makes it impossible to get the same feeling as an adult.
However, with individual exercise such as running, swimming, weight lifting, yoga etc., these obstacles can disappear.
Unfortunately our school system didn’t teach you these. But luckily with the internet you can buy great books, watch YouTube videos, take courses etc. to develop your skills.
Or my favorite (and unquestionably the most effective way) is to get a coach to guide you.
[It is worth noting that many people achieve this skill level in other aspects of their lives. An in-depth look at which parts is beyond the scope of this article.]
Now let's look at the negative emotions anxiety, worry, apathy, boredom.
In a low skill level you are guaranteed to be in one of these. With medium skill, unless the challenge is high (when you are in arousal, which although a positive state is not suitable for a long period of time) you are bored.
Things that are boring, give you anxiety, make you worry or feel apathetic are all things that you would rather not do. You might be able to push through them for a short time. But maintaining them for a lifetime will only occur if someone forces you to do them.
That is why you hate exercise. Because you don’t have the skill level and the challenge is either too low or too high.
A Final Note: Arousal.
Many of you reading this said to yourself that Arousal is not a positive state. If you said that you are probably confusing arousal with anxiety.
We would expect that if you have a low skill level.
The reason for that is arousal is where you develop new skills.
When you are taking a challenge that is too high for you, but barely manageable, you are in arousal. You are outside of your comfort zone. When you are here you are learning.
So it might not feel positive, as in nice, warm and fuzzy, but it is positive because you are building your skill level.
It can’t be too, too high because then you cross over to anxiety. It is a tricky balance and it takes practice to get there.
You also can’t spend too much time in Arousal because then you get burnt out. It is a difficult place to be. You then need to spend time in relaxation so your body can adapt to the challenges that you are placing upon it.
To be more accurate, arousal is where you give your body the stimulus to build skill; relaxation is where the growth actually occurs.
When the challenge is not so high that you are aroused you slip into flow, which is the most enjoyable state.
3 Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities