Take on a Challenge!
Search for fitness challenges in Google and you’ll turn up more than 800,000,000 results. 30-Day Fitness Challenge. 10-Minute Muscle Challenge. Summer Fitness Challenge. Whole Life Challenge. 30-Day Bodyweight Challenge. Couch to 5K. 30 Days of Yoga Challenge.
People like challenges (well, at least I know that I do!). Taking on a challenge makes us feel good; we reach for goals that we might not otherwise pursue. When we join a challenge with other people we have the added benefit of social support that increases our chances of success.
Positive Psychology and Flow
To understand why we like challenges let’s turn to the field of positive psychology. With a focus on happiness, positivity and well-being, positive psychology was founded by Martin Seligman “… on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” (https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu). One of the more intriguing (to me) concepts of positive psychology is the idea of flow, introduced by positive psychology co-founder Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Flow is the point we reach when we are so absorbed or engaged in what we’re doing that we don’t notice anything else. We are “in the zone” and nothing else matters. Getting to a state of flow is a matter of aligning our skills with challenges. Here’s a sketch of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow diagram:
The flow model presents a way to visualize how aligning challenges and skill level may contribute to happiness and well-being. Be cautious, though, about reaching for a challenge beyond your current capability. A good challenge is one that pushes you mentally and physically, but not beyond your capabilities. You’re goal is to improve, not injure yourself or get discouraged. Use the guidelines for creating SoSMART goals to set healthy, safe challenges that will provide you the opportunity for success while also rising above apathy, boredom, worry and anxiety. Here are a few examples:
Apathetic? Think about something that can help you build skills in a safe manner. For example, if you’re new to walking, rather than taking on a 10,000 step-a-day challenge look for a challenge that motivates you to gradually build the number of steps you take each day.
Bored? Look at your current skills and find a challenge that will push them at a safe level. For example, if you’ve never done resistance training, it’s not a good idea to start with a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program. If you have back issues, choose a back-safe challenge rather a 30-day sit-up challenge. Get ideas from a physical therapist, personal trainer, health coach or other professional.
Worried or anxious about a challenge you’ve joined? It’s not unusual to get caught up in the excitement of accepting a challenge that reaches beyond current capabilities (it’s called the “False Hope Syndrome”). Channel your feelings of anxiety into an honest assessment of your skills and determine if you can safely participate in the challenge. There’s no shame in modifying or dropping out of a challenge and finding one that builds your skills while reaching for a challenge you can safely achieve.
While a healthy challenge can motivate us to achieve something that we might not normally do, coupling the challenge with social support from family, friends, or groups (online or face-to-face) can increase the fun and maximize your chances for success.
I asked members in the Runner’s World Run Streak group to share their thoughts about why they join challenges. Here are some of their responses.
Ka Judice joined the 40 day Runner’s World Run Streak challenge on Thanksgiving Day, 2017. She says,
When I started this 40 day challenge (now at over 300+ days) I didn’t think I’d ever be racing or running races again, and this group has filled my feed with so many amazing weekly races, I decided to sign up for one, then [other runners in the group] signed me up for another, and now I’m thinking maybe I will do more, and maybe I’ll train for them too. It’s been an amazing journey seeing everyone’s challenges, successes, set backs, and lots of PRs. Love this group!
Liz Butler Bosworth says,
I love the ‘community’ in running. When I first started running, I did it alone. I assumed it was a solitary sport. I was not (am not) athletic and was embarrassed to be around ‘runners’ because they were beautiful, graceful athletes and I was none of that. Started doing 5ks and actually wept at the finish of the first one because I never thought I could do anything like that. Started (reluctantly) running with a group when I was trying to do my first half [marathon]. I couldn’t get past 8 miles and didn’t know why. I LOVED the support and friendship. Not what I expected at all! Ran my first full marathon 3 months later because I just liked being with them and they were training for Chicago [the marathon]. I LOVE seeing what my body can do as I continue to age (I’m 53).
Rick Larson, who will celebrate his 400th day of streaking in October 2018, says,
“I joined this group because I thought it would be fun. I was not wrong. Definitely keeps me accountable and the motivating things that each of us in this group post to each other is incredible. I feel like we have gotten to know each other and feel the ups and downs with each other. It’s not all serious either. A good deal of kidding around goes on as well.”
L. O. lives in the Canadian Arctic and runs on a treadmill most of the year. She says she joins challenges “for the sense of community and to receive encouragement and advice from a large and varied group of people.” Although she gets to run with friends sometimes, she mostly runs alone, and finds that,
being part of a structured or not-so-structured group running challenge when I do most of my workouts solo really helps. And running is physical but you need mental strength too (for motivation, discipline, endurance) and this group helps me with a lot of that.
Fiona Spence says she is also fascinated about why people join challenges. She explains,
I do challenges because I like and need the consistency they demand. Left to my own devices I am erratic. I’m also motivated by the end goal, it’s something to work towards and it would be unusual if it didn’t require and show progression.
Tracy Smith Sparks created her own challenge that she calls #HALFx45. Tracy tells us,
“I turn 45 on November 3, and have signed up for my first 13.1 on November 4 at Disneyworld. Running is my therapy, and having a goal keeps me out there daily working towards better mental health, and in this case some awesome bling. I wanted to prove that I could pick up a sport over the age of 40 and succeed at it. So far success!”
Brent Kahler Jr. is well-known in the running group for creating fun “extra curricular” challenges. Seeing a few posts from people who were bored or unmotivated to get out the door, and looking to reinvigorate his own running streak, Brent looked to the silly holidays calendar and challenged group members to the Taco Mile Challenge, the Corn on the Cob Relay Challenge, and the Donut Mile Challenge, just to name a few. Brent also challenged himself and the group to eat more veggies with the 80-Day Veggie Challenge. He says, “hopefully over these 80 days, I have made veggies a normal part of my daily routine, just like running my mile.”
Brent’s favorite challenge was the Day of the Cowboy/Cowgirl Challenge. He challenged us all to honor someone special to us — someone in our lives who represents the spirit of the cowboy/cowgirl. Brent’s inspiration for this challenge was personal. He explains,
“My family joined me on a local trail to do a Cowboy/Cowgirl Mile to remember my Grandma, who had just passed away. We made medals for everyone, and had a great time together after the emotional day you expect from a memorial service of a loved one. I can look on my wall at my homemade saddle medal, and remember I ran my Day 248 streaking mile to celebrate the adventurous spirit of my Gram, with the Cowgirl Spirit Challenge!
“These events have been so rewarding!,” Brent continues,
I have my family involved in healthy activities, showing my children that exercise is fun. I approach some of these with as much immaturity as possible, and have a great time acting like a kid again. The efforts have brought me closer to friends in here that I will most likely never meet in person. We get the opportunity to spend some time celebrating and supporting each other through the experiences!”
Robert Carpenter’s favorite challenge so far is the Borneo International Marathon Series, and he says he is “challenged to constantly improve his time and pace in all his running, be it training or racing.” Health is a major motivator for Robert. He wrote,
My father had his first heart attack at a young age and died at 65, so for me training for a marathon is hopefully better for my health.
Becky Greene, who started running a mile a day on Thanksgiving Day 2017, wrote,
“I honestly do not remember why I joined the challenge last November. I guess I just wanted to see if I could do it. And did I do it! When Jan 1 came, I was hooked and couldn't stop. The satisfaction of reaching a goal, the pride I feel when I post my streak day, the wonderful runner's euphoria keep me going.”
Becky Greene’s last sentence, “the wonderful runner’s euphoria keeps me going,” is a perfect expression of flow. She accepted a challenge not knowing if she could succeed (high challenge). She trusted her skills and met the challenge. She increased the challenge level by setting additional goals, and in September she celebrated 1000 miles of running and 1018 miles of walking in 12 months! At one point she had to reevaluate and modify her goals in order to care for an injury, but she didn’t give up. Every time she goes out for a run or walk she is rewarded with a sense of pride and the feeling of euphoria - flow - that motivates her to keep going and to continue to set new challenges.
Embrace the Change
When you embrace a challenge and join a group you never know where it might take you: The January 2018 Ragnar 30-day Challenge turned into a year-long challenge. The group formed for the Runner’s World 40 Days of Awesome (run a mile a day from Thanksgiving 2017 to New Year’s Day 2018) is still going, and has spawned several smaller break-out groups for special interests.
Embrace the change! Find or create a challenge and share the fun with like-minded folks. You have only apathy and boredom to lose and flow to gain!