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Why Should We Embrace Discomfort?

Recent evidence suggests you might benefit from being uncomfortable.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Adventure often takes us to where we experience discomfort. Once we experience it, we come home to the comfortable confines of our houses. The contrast can be quite amazing—often leading many people to feel euphoric initially and then depressed afterward. Exposure to uncomfortable environments (e.g., extreme temperatures, poor nutritional options, sleep disturbances, etc. often combined) leads us to gain something in the process of losing those creature comforts we value so much. What are those gains? Consider a few lines of research that all suggest we ought to consider embracing discomfort more.

1. Cold exposure improves immune functioning.

The mechanisms of acute exposure to cold remain largely unknown but the evidence exists that human physiological responses to cold (and wet) environments during extreme exercise are both significant and meaningful. Some speculate that cold exposure leads to the development of brown adipose tissue that, in turn, leads to greater resistance to environmental temperature stress. Thus, lower environmental stress means more energy to fight off any pathogen. How does this all relate to adventure? Get outside, feel the cold, and you might be able to fend off the next round of influenza. Scott Carney's book, What Doesn't Kill Us: How freezing water, extreme altitude and environmental conditioning will renew our lost evolutionary strength, provides many anecdotes to support this thesis. Unfortunately, we have only scant empirical evidence today, but the evidence is growing.

2. Strength training improves both cognitive functioning and mental health.

We all know that being strong later in life predicts functional independence. Well, perhaps not in all of us. What the literature suggests is that strength training—a form of self-imposed discomfort—results in many benefits beyond feeling better about your physique. Strength training reduces anxiety and pain in older adults while also reducing cognitive decline among those with early signs of dementia. If you want a quick method to be uncomfortable to gain back some functional independence, look no further than the gym.

3. Exercising outdoors may be more beneficial than indoor exercise.

There exists a growing movement to get people outdoors to commune with nature; the push may have some scientific evidence to support it. A recent (2011) review suggested that initial evidence supports a difference between outdoor and indoor exercise. We know that indoor exercise can be equally uncomfortable as outdoor exercise; however, most of us would agree that the elements outside make exercise a little less predictable. That unpredictability makes most of us uncomfortable.

These three points may be taken collectively as an initial push to get you to seek out discomfort. What I suggest based upon this evidence is to try to make yourself a little uncomfortable and see if the results are promising. We often rely too much on empirical evidence when the benefits may be readily available to each of us in our own application. The use of activity monitors and online competitive environments permits us to compare performance results in all settings. Why not ignore those competitions and just get uncomfortable? Give it a go.

References

Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M. H. (2011). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental science & technology, 45(5), 1761-1772.

O'Connor, P. J., Herring, M. P., & Caravalho, A. (2010). Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(5), 377-396.



Intracellular monocyte and serum cytokine expression is modulated by exhausting exercise and cold exposure
Shawn G. Rhind, John W. Castellani, Ingrid K. M. Brenner, Roy J. Shephard, Jiri Zamecnik, Scott J. Montain, Andrew J. Young, and Pang N. Shek
American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 2001 281:1, R66-R75

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