Why Discomfort Can Be So Good for You
There's a good reason so many people embrace cobblestones and free weights.
Posted Jan 03, 2017
It seems like we humans are continually in search of the quickest, easiest, or most predictable path to any given end—convenience stores, escalators, fast food, and faster downloads and text messages.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. The mobile app Waze provides us with the quickest route from point A to point B, alerting us to accidents and traffic jams in advance so that we can avoid the hassle. For most of us, a good day is one that is hassle-free.
The trouble with our smooth, well-ironed environment is that the real world has bumps in it; life has bumps in it. The world is not a paved street. It’s characteristically flawed and full of surprises. I suppose we have a choice in that we can continue to detour around every approaching pothole, or we can accept and eventually embrace the uncertainty that comes with daily life, training and retraining our brains to deal with the ever-changing path we walk on. It turns out that the latter approach is not only better for us mentally—it also has a significant effect on our physical health.
Ask the residents of Acorn Street in Boston's historic Beacon Hill, or the residents of the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. Research suggests that people who live and walk on cobblestone streets have an improved sense of balance, an improved cardiovascular system, and all-around improved health, and that we can attribute these health benefits to the poor conditions (as in “not smooth and even”) of the streets on which they live.* The bumpy, rocky, coarse, uneven, unpaved streets outside their front doors are actually doing them more good than harm.
Imagine you and I are walking together down Acorn Street: Each time we take a step on that unpredictable cobblestone street, our brains are engaged in the task, giving both mental and physical instructions. Our minds are alert, constantly adjusting to the erratic ground beneath our feet. Our cardiovascular system is making similar adjustments, changing the way it pumps blood through our bodies.
Still don’t believe me? Take a trip to China and be on the lookout for black stone mats laid out next to the streets. Passersby remove their shoes and step across the black cobbles, sending information through the feet, signaling their vestibular network to engage in a workout, improving their overall equilibrium. They’re literally thrusting themselves into uncertainty for the sake of better balance.
When you work with trainers or fitness coaches, they do not put you on the elliptical machine on a steady incline at a constant pace. They put you on the BOSU ball and do their best to make you a little unstable. They pull you off the weight machines and put free weights in your hands because they want your muscles to feel awkward. When muscles are awkward, they start firing more, and that in itself builds strength. When you’re in a spin class, the best instructors will have you in and out of the bike’s saddle, at both high and low resistance, so your body never acclimates to the workout. Why? Because the purpose of any well-conceived physical exercise is to promote disruptive change. That’s how you build strength, build muscles, increase stamina, and improve balance and performance.
This is exactly what we need to do: Create a well-conceived strategy to build our ego strength and our mental muscles, and increase our grit and resilience so we can handle distress and rebound after a loss. By doing all that, we will improve our performance.
We can do this by disrupting patterns. We need to get out of balance, out of our set routine, and out of our comfort zone. We must seek opportunities to feel clumsy, awkward, embarrassed, insecure, and self-conscious. That is such a crazy thing to do. And it works so well. But there is no way for you to know that until you experience it. These words will have zero benefit unless you translate this strategy into action.
If we’re truly interested in living in the real world—the world of cracks and crevices and cobblestones, the world of instability and accidents and unexpected incidents—then we must train ourselves to cope with the insecurity of not knowing and the sensations that come with awkwardness. That leads to resilience—our ability to spring back from troubled times. We must learn to deal with variability in our environment, unpredictability in our lives, and changes in the nature of our circumstances. We must, first and foremost, learn to step on the cracks rather than stepping around, over, or between them.
Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.
*William McCall, “The path to better health and lower blood pressure may be paved with cobblestones,” Associated Press Report, 12 July 2005.