Woman meditating in yoga finding flow state

How to beat loneliness: the “flow state” of challenging, meaningful exercise can make you feel less alone

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Loneliness has reached almost epidemic levels since the start of the pandemic. But fighting off feelings of loneliness doesn’t always have to involve socialising. A new study shows how getting into a “flow” during a workout can have the same effect as a coffee date with the girls. 

The crushing weight of feeling lonely can be difficult to bear. While we can all feel a little lonely from time to time, loneliness has become a serious problem for young people over the past few years. During the pandemic, our social lives were put on hold as we were thrown into indefinite isolation. And even now, young people are still experiencing frequent loneliness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), almost 1 in 14 people over 16 in the UK are feeling lonely right now.

While you may assume that the “cure” to loneliness is a simple matter of going out for a drink with a friend or chatting on the phone with your mum, it’s becoming clear that the answer to the nation’s loneliness epidemic isn’t quite so straightforward.

According to a recent study from Penn State University published in Leisure Sciences, loneliness can also be improved when you’re alone, too. The study suggested that finding a state of “flow” while completing challenging and meaningful activities during free time could help to improve loneliness for people in any situation. And what is more challenging or meaningful than exercise? 

    What is a “state of flow”

    While “state of flow” may sound like a vague concept you’d come across on a new-age wellness retreat, it’s actually a fairly concrete mental state that anyone can reach under the right circumstances – namely, during a challenging, engaging activity.

    “When people become engrossed in what they are doing, they enter a state that is called ‘flow’,” researcher John Dattilo explained in the study. “Flow can be achieved by engaging in mental or physical activities that we value and that require us to concentrate fully to use our skills.”

    The belief is that having activities that engross you put thoughts away from what you’re missing and onto the task at hand. If you’ve ever been deep in a gym session or run, you might have felt this flow state – maybe you glanced at the clock and were shocked to find that hours have passed. That same flow state doesn’t come from activities like watching TV, which while relaxing, don’t offer the same stimulation. 

    How to use exercise flows to reduce loneliness

    Everyone has different things that help them flow. According to Dattilo, we all find different activities meaningful and enjoyable, but “people tend to thrive on healthy engagement and challenge”. 

    Don’t know where to start? These workouts might help you find your flow. 

    Woman meditating in yoga
    Doing a vinyasa class can connect your mind and body and help your find a flow

    Vinyasa yoga

    Yoga is a wonderful way to engage the body and the mind simultaneously. In a vinyasa flow class, you’ll go through a series of postures while linking your movement to the breath to encourage what your teacher might call a meditative state

    By linking the body, the breath and the mind, you may find that the chatter in your brain shuts off, time begins to fly by and you enter the flow state.

    Woman running on the stairs
    Go for a jog to find your flow and ward off loneliness

    Endurance running 

    Going for a run can also help you reach a flow state. Put on a playlist with a steady beat and get in the groove.

    Lots of runners talk about reaching a flow state while running – a state where everything from the outside world seems to fall away and all that exists is the present moment. If you find that running helps you reach this almost meditative state, it could be a great way to shake off some of your loneliness.

    Woman swimming to reach a state of flow
    Find your rhythm and and your flow on a swim

    Swimming 

    Swimming is another wonderful way to get the body and the mind in sync and wholly focused on the task at hand. Focus on the repetition and the rhythmic flow of your strokes to help your mind reach a state of heightened focus. When you’re finished your swim, you may find that you feel just a little less lonely. 

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    Images: Getty

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