Embracing the Discomfort

Already at 99% Fit, we’ve covered the many psychological benefits of physical activity. Today, we’re delving into a specific mental payoff that is increasingly getting traction: resiliency. It turns out that regular, vigorous exercise has the power to make us more comfortable with the things in life that routinely make us uncomfortable.

In a recent piece in New York Magazine’s The Science of Us, Bradley Stulberg examines the mounting evidence that “those who habitually push their bodies tend to confront daily stressors with a stoic demeanor.” For instance, a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that college students who adopted an exercise program – even a fairly basic one – not only developed more healthful habits, they showed better self-control and emotional regulation.

As Bradley says at the beginning of the piece, “When I first started training for marathons a little over ten years ago, my coach told me something I’ve never forgotten: that I would need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I didn’t know it at the time, but that skill, cultivated through running, would help me as much, if not more, off the road as it would on it.” This is something I’ve experienced in my own life, particularly as I’ve trained for more long distance races. Pushing my body to its physical limits *does* feel uncomfortable – but it’s a discomfort that, with time and persistence, I’ve learned to recognize and accept. Instead of dreading the feeling, I almost look forward to it and welcome it. It’s a sign that my body is getting stronger and faster. And, it’s improved my mental focus, acuity, and determination.  I can more easily reframe situations and obstacles that might have once seemed impossibly daunting, and I don’t procrastinate (as much) with tasks that are boring, tedious, or otherwise un-fun.

Discomfort is an inevitable part of any physical activity, especially if you’re new to exercise. Your body balk at the unfamiliarity of the movements, the rise in body temperature, the rise in heart rate. But as Free-soloist Alex Honnold explains in the Science of Us piece, “The only way to deal with [pain] is practice. [I] get used to it during training so that when it happens on big climbs, it feels normal.”

So don’t be afraid to lean into the discomfort. Certainly listen to your body and don’t hurt yourself – but also remember that doing anything new is going to be unpleasant at first. But with time, that disagreeable feeling will become more familiar, and conquerable – making difficulties in every arena of your life, bit by bit, easier to manage.