Ugh, another day in the gym.
Your muscles are sore, the weight is heavy, you’re sweaty, out of breath, and feel like crap. You’ve been at it for a month, and although the scale is moving, you’re still struggling.
Ugh, another run.
Your shins hurt. Your calves hurt. Your chest hurts from the heavy breathing. Your throat hurts from wheezing. You start to question what the heck you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.
Ugh, another home workout.
You’re lying on the floor of your living room while your dog licks your face. Your legs feel like jelly. Your arms like toothpicks. Your kids are wondering “why is Mommy playing dead on the floor?” You quietly swear at yourself while thinking “is it worth it?”
I have two truths, one you want to hear, and one you won’t:
1) YES, it is absolutely worth it.
2) NO, it doesn’t really get any easier.
Don’t worry though, I’m going to tell you why this is freaking great.
When you get started with any type of physical activity, it seems like EVERYTHING hurts.
(To which Batman would reply: “Not everything, not yet.”)
You are using your muscles in a way that is unusual to your body. They are broken down, beaten up, and forced to adapt to this new type of stress you put on them.
Then they rebuild and recover, a tiny bit tougher and stronger than before.
As time goes on, your body becomes more and more used to this level of stress, learns to recover faster, acts more efficient. It gets beat up less and requires less energy in order to complete the tasks you demand of it:
If going for a mile walk was excruciating in the past, with each additional mile walk, your body builds up an immunity/strength for that particular activity and it DOES become easier.
If doing 10 push ups was impossible in the past, continuing to work on it will eventually build up the right muscles in your body so that 10 push ups can become your warm up.
Think of it like when playing a game like World of Warcraft or Everquest (ahhh, Everquest…). At Level 1, killing rats and spiders (who are level 2) is incredibly challenging. However, by the time you get to level 5, killing those same rats and spiders is no longer a challenge.
Killing them is almost too easy.
When you are Level 5, killing those spiders and rats no longer provides you with the ability to level up to the next level. You could kill those rats and spiders all day every day, and you’ll never make it to level 6. In order for growth to occur, you need to attack more difficult bad guys.
Your body is no different. We are designed to be as efficient as possible. If you pick something that is very challenging for you, and then over the course of a year get REALLY good at that thing, you won’t continue to get the same boost to your STR or STA (strength or stamina). In fact, our body can actually become more efficient elsewhere!
Allow me to explain: A group of scientists recently measured daily energy expenditure among the Hadza people of Tanzania, one of the few remaining populations of traditional hunter-gatherers.
The men in this tribe set out alone most days to collect honey or hunt for game using handmade bows and poison-tipped arrows, often covering 15 to 20 miles.
This is what they found:
“We found that despite all this physical activity, the number of calories that the Hadza burned per day was indistinguishable from that of typical adults in Europe and the United States. We ran a number of statistical tests, accounting for body mass, lean body mass, age, sex and fat mass, and still found no difference in daily energy expenditure between the Hadza and their Western counterparts.
How can the Hadza be more active than we are without burning more calories? It’s not that their bodies are more efficient, allowing them to do more with less: separate measurements showed that the Hadza burn just as many calories while walking or resting as Westerners do.
We think that the Hadzas’ bodies have adjusted to the higher activity levels required for hunting and gathering by spending less energy elsewhere. Even for very active people, physical activity accounts for only a small portion of daily energy expenditure; most energy is spent behind the scenes on the myriad unseen tasks that keep our cells humming and our support systems working.”
So what gives? How can we use this information to our advantage? In order to progress, in order to level up, in order to get stronger…we need to constantly up the difficulty.
Increase the difficulty, become a hero
This was a difficult change for me, and it’s a change that a lot of people have yet to make, but it’s crucial:
Stop looking at your workouts like something to merely suffer through until you can go back to that comfy spot on the couch.
You need to stop thinking “ugh how much longer until I’m done” or “I can’t wait until this is over.”
Instead, start thinking of it in terms of a challenge:
- “What am I capable of today that I wasn’t capable of yesterday?”
- “What can I pick up this week that I couldn’t pick up last week?”
- “What can I complete this month that I couldn’t complete last month?”
Yup, every time you exercise it’s gonna hurt a bit. You’re going to be out of breath. You’re going to sweat. But every time you do those things, you are slowly adjusting what your “baseline” of comfortable is.
While you’re squatting just the bar and feeling miserable, that guy next to you squatting 300 pounds is as just as uncomfortable as you are. His eyes are bugging out of his head, he’s drenched in sweat, his legs are shaking, and he’s beat up. And so are you. He’s just spent years building up his baseline level of strength, and thus has to squat 300 pounds to feel that same level of discomfort you feel.
Life gets mighty boring without different difficulty levels.
Ever played Tetris? Imagine if the pieces never fell any faster. You could slowly place them and get rid of each line, one by one. After about four minutes you’d start building sculptures with the pieces because clearing lines would bore you out of your mind. Luckily, Tetris consistently gets more difficult; the pieces fall faster and your brain is forced to adapt faster in order to continue succeeding.
This is how your muscles work too. They need to be constantly challenged, as they are constantly trying to get more efficient and provide you with less results.
You need to up the difficulty.
A quick note on life difficulty: Some people get to start the Game of Life on Easy Mode, while others have to start on Legendary. Complaining about it doesn’t make the difficulty any easier, so we all might as well play the hand we’ve been dealt to the best of our ability.
Be okay with uncomfortable
As my friend Leo from Zen Habits says, without discomfort there can be no growth:
Without physical discomfort, your muscles will never be forced to adapt.
Without mental discomfort, you will never do things that scare you.
Long story short: if you ever want to get anywhere in life, you need to accept the fact that the things that will help you grow are going to make you uncomfortable.
And here’s the tough part: As soon as the uncomfortable part becomes comfortable, you’re no longer getting the same benefits out of it anymore. The “weird” has become “the norm,” and thus you must, once again, reach for another challenge that ups the uncomfortableness.
The couch is comfy. TV is comfy. Getting good at something and then just doing that thing is comfy.
Learning new things can be hard.
Eating new foods can be hard.
Meeting new people can be hard.
Trying a new routine can be hard.
Building new habits can be hard.
Pushing your muscles to lift heavier weights can hard.
Running faster can be hard.
Your body, your mind, and your taste buds might hate you when you are doing these things. That’s good.
If doing new things fills you with anxiety, you’re not alone. Here’s how you can minimize the discomfort:
- Baby steps! If the thought of running a marathon is terrifying, start with just walking a mile, then two…
- Do one more. Keep track of your workouts. Do ONE more rep this time. Add 1 pound to the bar. Do the workout ONE second faster. Do that often enough, and it adds up.
- Give yourself small wins. If you need to talk in front of 100 people, start by talking in front of 5 people, and prove to yourself that you can do it. Slowly up the ante and keep reminding yourself “I can do this.”
- Accept it and relax. If you’re nervous about something, everybody else probably is too. Smile, joke with yourself on the inside, and tell yourself to have some fun. It’s only life, after all.
- Don’t give yourself a chance to back out. Tie your fate to somebody else and follow their lead. When you go skydiving, the guy you’re attached to makes the decision to jump. Say yes to opportunities that scare you before you get a chance to say no. You can figure out the rest later.
- Turn on Beast Mode. I’ve used this trick to force myself to do scary stuff. Muster up just 20 seconds of courage and then you can freak out after.
Seek out a challenge
I challenge you today to accept the fact that the stuff worth doing doesn’t get any easier. Every time you find yourself getting too comfortable, or things are getting too easy, reach for something that produces discomfort.
You should always be pushing for a greater challenge, and you will be rewarded subtly. As you progress, other aspects of life DO get easier:
- Walking up the stairs will no longer feel like a workout.
- Giving your kids a piggy back ride will no longer make you want to give up.
- Going for a hike with your loved one becomes an enjoyable activity rather than torture.
- Eating vegetables is now the best part of the meal and not the part you have to endure.
A remember this quote from Tim Ferriss (who I interviewed here): “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
The same is true for your wellness: A person’s health can be measured by the number of uncomfortable decisions he or she is willing to make.
I feel very fortunate to be where I am today. It’s not because I’m better or smarter than anybody else, it’s just that I began to accept the fact that I would have to spend a lot of time in discomfort if I was going to grow:
- I hated vegetables, until I picked one to try and ate it regularly. Now, a bowl of broccoli has become a snack.
- I was the skinny weak kid, until I got over being self-conscious in the gym and learned to get stronger. Now I walk into any gym with my head high, full of confidence.
- I hated public speaking, until I forced myself to say yes to Google. And TEDx. Now, I still get nervous as hell, but I say yes to every opportunity.
- The thought of traveling scared me, until I booked a ticket. Now, I feel comfortable anywhere in the world.
- Running my own company scared the bajeezus out of me, until I gave myself no option but to succeed with Nerd Fitness. I can’t imagine doing anything else now.
If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend you check out “The Iron and the Soul” by Henry Rollins. It encapsulates everything amazing about strength training, dealing with adversity, and how you can grow as a person as a result of it.
Let’s get uncomfortable, your growth as a Nerd Fitness Rebel depends on it.
So, I’d love to hear from you: What’s the most uncomfortable thing you’ve done lately?