On the Road to the Discomfort Zone

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My first personal training client of the day came in this morning and said, “I almost called and cancelled. Couldn’t sleep last night; I’m so tired!

Oh guys. If I had a dollar for every time a client said that they “almost called and cancelled.” In fact I think if you took a poll with personal trainers everywhere, it would probably come in as most-common-thing-trainees-tell-their-trainers-as they-walk-in-to-a-session.

Since I have that conversation so often, my response usually goes along these lines; “If we wait to feel good to workout, we’d never workout,” followed by praise for sucking it up and dragging herself in.

And honestly, that praise is well-deserved. There was clearly a mental struggle happening before showing up. Two choices battling in a mental mind game pitting a) The Comfortable Choice against b) The Uncomfortable Choice. This time, she chose b. That can be a pretty tough thing to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this very topic lately…the role discomfort plays in living our best lives. Exercise is an obvious example, in both the mental sense that we already touched on and also the physical.

How To Get Uncomfortable

James after returning from an 80 mile bike ride. “Did you enjoy your discomfort, hon?”

We all know to build muscle we’ve got to work hard enough to break down our current muscle tissue. That’s really the only way muscles will adapt and grow. So if an exercise doesn’t feel “hard” or “uncomfortable,” chances are you aren’t working with enough intensity to trigger any adaptations or reap any health benefits. If I see a client looking pretty comfortable with an exercise, and wanting to do more reps than I assigned, I know it’s time to up the intensity. Comfort and exercise should not be bedfellows.

But discomfort plays a much bigger role in living well than just through exercise. We can apply it to other parts of our lives.

Take our eating choices. If you’ve ever denied yourself something you really WANTED to eat, you know that eating well can get quite uncomfortable in its own way. Unlike the physical discomfort caused by intense exercise, choosing nutrition over tastiness is more of a mental discomfort, along the lines of my client’s mental battle about showing up to workout. So there are always two choices with your eating, one that will give you comfort, and one that will give you discomfort. You can use your willpower and avoid eating that “bad” thing, which would be uncomfortable. Or. You could take the easy choice and give in to your craving. The comfortable choice.  I don’t have to spell it out for you but I will. Getting uncomfortable when it comes to your nutrition is the only way to a healthy and fit life. There’s no way around it. If you’re willing to accept that discomfort, you’re much more likely to be able to stay on the healthy living wagon.

But why stop with eating and exercise? Discomfort, for the sake of a better life, is everywhere.

Discomfort & Your Fears:

I hate it, but I’m afraid of heights. I know it’s stupid and irrational. I can be standing on solid, safe ground on a ledge, and for some reason, I start to internally panic. And if you’ve read any of my trip reports, you know I am even prone to full-blown blubbering.

How To Allow Discomfort

Me on a ledge. But since this ledge was wide enough to land a small plane on, I’m good.

I could avoid ledges and stay in my comfort zone. But what is that really doing for me? It’s teaching me to be comfortable staying in comfort, which really only feeds the fear. So how do I handle this fear of mine? I allow myself to get a little uncomfortable. I push myself as much as I can with heights. Sometimes it isn’t much, but at least I try. Because if I didn’t allow myself this discomfort, I’d miss out. James and I have seen some amazing things standing off high ledges. And I’m happy to report I haven’t fallen yet.

Discomfort & Having Adventures:

It’s easy to stay at home. You’re safe there, keeps things simple, and besides, planning trips takes work and effort. Setting off on adventures and being faced with the unknown takes you out of your comfort zone in a big way. Yet we know that travel and new experiences are actually healthy, stimulating, and enrich our lives. So again, the skill of being willing to be uncomfortable comes into play.

Have To Get Uncomfortable To Be Healthy

My lil “Punky” tearing it up at Lazydays in Tucson. Adventures with the family make me love life!

As you think about it more, do you see how discomfort runs through everything meaningful in our lives? And why is it that some people are better at getting uncomfortable than others? It’s a “skill” if you think about it. That’s good news, because skills can be learned once you set your mind to it. You’re now aware you need to allow discomfort in your life, so maybe having that awareness will help you next time you need to make the uncomfortable choice.

And now that I’m done here, I’m due for a run. I’d rather lie on the couch and watch Netflix, but I won’t. It would be easier, but it wouldn’t be my best me. So, off I go. To the Discomfort Zone or bust.

Perhaps I’ll meet you there.

After 15 years as an educator in both the public K-12 setting and the University level in Special Physical Education, Stef made the leap to her true passion… the fitness world. She’s currently a personal trainer and wellness coach specializing in seniors, medical conditions, and injuries. Stef loves running, cycling, and being “Mugga” to her two favorite mini-humans — Punky and Marshmallow. ❤️

    22 thoughts on “On the Road to the Discomfort Zone

    1. leia

      I need to start out each and every day reading this blog entry because this is so true: “If we wait to feel good to workout, we’d never workout.”

      I’m procrastinating on getting in my exercise as I write this, i.e. (a) too many tumbleweeds blowing (yes, I’m an artful procrastinator!) (b) the barometric pressure is falling – I have a headache (wah wah wah) (c) too dusty (we had dust storm weather here yesterday). Time to close the laptop lid and move 🙂

      Very good advice, Stefany. Too often I find myself waiting for the stars to align just perfectly before anything can happen and that’s not the way to live.

      1. Stefany - Post author

        Well, Leia, you most definitely aren’t alone. It’s an easy mindset to fall into…that whole waiting for the “stars align” thing. And if this article resonated enough to get you to get moving today, I’m thrilled. Rooting for you, Leia!

    2. Mark Cathey

      It’s taken most of my life to master this idea. Once I learned that there are rewards that come with discomfort it all became easier. I am a cyclist, retired now, but when I was working I had to find/make time to ride. If it meant getting up at 4:30 AM to get in 25-30 miles before work that’s what I did because the reward was I felt great for the rest of the day. If the weather or some other event got in the way I felt crummy all day and once I was able to tie the two together it became much easier to get er done so to speak. It really comes down to motivation and what motivates you. I must add that I think social media has helped to keep me motivated as well. Following certain people that are out getting it done will push me to get out as well. I also like to be the one that my peers look to for motivation. Recently I decided to challenge myself to a 21 day cycling program…ride 21 days in a row, no excuses for weather etc. Luckily we were wintering in So Cal so rain was not too much of an issue, but wanting a day off was an issue around the 2 week mark.Because I posted on Facebook that I was going to do this I had put my integrity on the line so to speak and was pushed a little everyday by that. I did 21 days and covered 607 miles in the process. Bottom line for me is to stay motivated and the discomfort is just what you deal with to get to the euphoria of good health and fitness.

      1. Stefany - Post author

        Mark, I really appreciate this comment. You verbalized it perfectly, and brought up the most important part: the rewards. Rewards and discomfort are inevitably linked, and once we accept that, we’re more likely to be successful. Looks like you’ve found strategies to do just that! Congrats on your 21 day challenge…607 miles, that’s fantastic!!!

    3. Joni

      Just what I need to read today. Thanks. Your article reminded me of the old saying “Feel the Fear and do it anyway”. Have a good day.

      1. Stefany - Post author

        It’s funny how that works sometimes, isn’t it, Joni? You were lacking something today, and found what you needed in someone else’s words. Today it was mine. So glad you took something away. And I love that old saying, too!

    4. Betsy Calkins, BS CPDT-KA

      Interesting article, thanks for sharing! I can relate, because I teach people to train their dogs. Two species at once, and one of them has no choice about whether to show up. It can also be frustrating. But I am continually amazed at my clients who continue to show up and learn….because they love their dogs and my lessons are mostly fun.

      If you haven’t already, you may enjoy reading up on Applied Behavior Analysis practices to help you with your clients’ progress. It’s easy to say “just do it” or “just say no”, but all species are wired to repeat things that work or pay off in some way. Not everyone can learn to enjoy pushing into discomfort, but it can be shaped with small steps and rewards that are meaningful. And it helps me stay sane and less frustrated.

      And I also enjoy my dog trainer groups where we gather and complain together—then we laugh it off and say to ourselves “time to go out and motivate!”

      Here is a good website to begin, put together by the amazing Dr. Susan Friedman of Utah State University: http://behaviorworks.org/

      I so enjoy your website and blog—thank you! 🙂

      1. Stefany - Post author

        Hi Betsy! Loved your insights. Too funny, I’m very familiar with ABA, and even went to a conference on it back when I was teaching in the public school system! And yes, it definitely can be applicable to exercise and healthy living, thanks for pointing that out!

    5. John Johnston

      GREAT article. Every personal trainer, weight loss expert, and life coach in the country should print it out and hand it to clients.

      1. Stefany - Post author

        High praise from a journalist I deeply admire! Thanks, John. It’s definitely something to keep in the forefront of our minds as we try to make the best choices for ourselves. And I’m tickled you stopped by our website!

    6. Gary Wheaton

      Stef my wife and I love your Fitness for Seniors videos. The Hand Weight, Resistance Band, and Ball videos. Is there a way for you to put all of the Senior videos in the same place on you WEB site so we don’t have to look all over for them? I just found out about Fit RV in the WIT Club Magazine. I looked you up and then bought a set of Bodylastic Bands – just got them yesterday. Your instruction are very clear and easy for us to understand. Thanks

      1. Stefany - Post author

        Hi Gary! I’m so glad you found us through WIT Club! Hopefully you’re planning to attend the rally this summer, we’ll be there! I have a solution for you for finding all the senior fitness workout videos! Do you see the the search tab towards the top of our page? Type in “senior fitness” and they will come up in a list form. Thanks for stopping by, it means a lot to hear you find value in those workout videos. 🙂

    7. Barb

      Wow I’m new to your site and love your article how true. I can relate to it with church and God also.Thanks

      1. Stefany - Post author

        Welcome to the site, Barb! You’re so right that this relates to religion and one’s spiritual beliefs too, thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t thought of that one.

    8. Mike

      What a timely article – thanks! I have to admit I’ve been lax in my exercise regimen the past few weeks, after suffering a slight injury during physical training for a volunteer organization I’m with. It’s time to get back into my gym visits!

      Love the term ‘discomfort zone’! Speaking as someone who used to be terrified of public speaking in front of an audience, I’ve pushed myself into that discomfort zone over the past few years and am finding that it does get easier with practice and proper techniques. Teaching your brain to adapt and push forward! 🙂

      1. Stefany - Post author

        Glad the article resonated, Mike, and yes, get to the gym! Public speaking: what a GREAT example of getting uncomfortable for a purpose. Love what you said about “adapting.” Yes! Another common piece of discomfort! We adapt and grow from it. I like that. 🙂

    9. Ted

      I doubt if there are many physical regimens that exceed the sheer agony of patients trying to rebuild their bodies after physical trauma. My brother “The Doctor” told me that the running joke in his hospital goes:
      “So what’s the difference between Physical Therapists and Terrorists?”
      answer …. “You can negotiate with Terrorists”

      If you ever wondered about the limits of human endurance, then look no further than the Barkley Marathon a race so brutal that it took a dozen years before anybody managed to complete the course (there’s a crazy documentary on Netflix now)

      1. Stefany - Post author

        I will have to check out that documentary, Ted! I am fascinated by stuff like that. And too funny, the PT and terrorists comparison, lol! I’ll be using that one. 😉


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