The Discomfort Zone
A 60-something woman in a circuit class at a senior center balked at doing one of the exercises. She said, “I’m retired. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to.” All the exercises the young trainer included in the circuit were safe and effective for people her age and level of conditioning.
She rebelled at doing the exercise because she was not going to be comfortable; the exercise challenged one of her physical weaknesses, a part of her body that she needed to strengthen to maintain her ability to live independently. For just one minute, she would be uncomfortable – her muscles would burn a little, her heart beat a little harder, her breaths come a little faster. But in no way would the exercise take her near the point of exhaustion, and she had no disability that would make the exercise inappropriate.
Sometimes people, like this woman, misinterpret or fear what they’re feeling, or going to feel, during exercise. They wonder if their heart or joints can take it, then succumb to their fears and stop like she did. However, it’s when you steadily overcome your weaknesses by completing an exercise, as this woman had the opportunity to do, that you progress.
Being mostly pleasure seekers, we don’t go looking for discomfort. But productive exercise, versus going through the motions, takes an effort. The level of exertion at which you feel your body is stressed a little – let’s call it The Discomfort Zone – is exactly where the benefits of exercise begin. People unaccustomed to physical exertion will acclimate to these sensations once they understand the discomfort is a normal response and doesn’t represent a threat to their well-being. As they become fitter, they are able to spend more time there.
Aging itself makes exercise less comfortable because joints are less flexible and the muscles not as strong as they once were, but the vast majority of older exercisers can do more than they realize. The benefits of pushing their limits just a little far outweigh the risks. You never escape some discomfort because it indicates you are challenging yourself, but you know from experience it won’t kill you.
If the woman in the circuit class had completed the exercise, she would soon seek more time in the Discomfort Zone rather than avoiding it. She would realize that the rewards of exercise aren’t obvious when you’re doing it, but later when you can successfully perform everyday tasks, long into old age.