Discomfort will never sale well, but I think it’s a vital ingredient to keeping a healthy mind and body. Now of course, this can be easily taken to unhealthy extremes. We don’t want or need to maximize discomfort. But what are some ways to -optimize- it. Thrill! In August I had the opportunity to experience and think about various forms of the discomfort that we seek, usually in the name of thrill.
The major league coasters at Hershey Park were fun. But while waiting in line I often found myself staring at the trees, visualizing tree challenges and pathways for climbing to roofs and beams.
I bounded around a trampoline park while celebrating my daughters birthday. I usually judge the parents sitting in the chairs along the side. Most of them could be doing -something-. But I always end up pushing the envelope, leave feeling like whiplash. I assume the sedentary parents do not.
One Saturday included five hours of cliff jumping into a lake. This was outstanding. But I grew weary of the scalpels prodding at my 42-year old feet, and marveled at the kids sauntering up and down rocks and gravel.
I loaded a barbell to bodyweight and squatted it 65 times in three minutes. This too was a beautiful hit of adrenaline, growth hormone, challenge, exhaustion, and gains. But I can’t imagine doing it for twenty more years. A few days later, I flew through the woods on a mountain bike, down a perfectly groomed trail with ramps, drops, and banked turns. Now THIS was in my wheelhouse! But again…for how long?
Finally, I jumped in the Atlantic ocean at dusk in a chilly wind. I did venture far in. This was amazing. In the past I’ve jumped into the spring fed-creek in our back yard. These require minimal skill and place practically no strain on the musculoskeletal system. You return to what you were doing, normal adulty responsible things, feeling magnificent. But why?
I think about this stuff; optimizing performance, fitness, and health. That’s what I do. What else am I going to think about? Sales funnels (see previous post)? The government; pro sports; a color to repaint the foyer? Those are not my things.
Children eagerly hit the water every day. They are curious and do not fear discomfort. They are in and out ten times while adults find every opportunity to avoid it. I understand. Cold water hurts.
With age we all become more limited in our skill set and risk tolerance. That’s all the more we need to seek out resiliency and overcome fragility. Some recommend Floating in body-temperature saltwater, in a sound controlled tank which affords complete comfort. This is said to support the immune system, promote relaxation, recovery, pain suppression, release beneficial hormones, and unlock the doors of perception (meet Jim Morrison?), and to expand consciousness itself. But cold water immersion is has been said to fulfill the exact same list of claims.
So then, which should we be doing?
What the literature says: Despite much funding in product design and marketing, there is little evidence concerning the effects of sensory deprivation. The mind is powerful, and we tend to believe what we want to believe. It feels good to relax and lay down for a nap.
On the other hand, we have legitimate evidence regarding the beneficial effects of cold on the immune system. Full body COLD resulted in increased metabolic rate. It reliably produces a sustained increase in norepinephrine, which substantiates the long-term pain relief touted by cold gurus. Cold has also shown promise for those with chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic heart failure, and even some types of cancers.
We should be supremely thankful when we do not have to endure slavery in exile, long and barren winters or marches through the snow to achieve independence from tyranny. But for many modern lives, comfort, and our quest for it, is killing us at worst and making us numb at best.
We are like a frog boiling in a pot of comfort that has been slowly turned up. And we could use a sensory reset. **Extreme or harsh and prolonged discomfort is unnecessary. What are you, crazy ; ??
We work, live and drive in climate controlled environments. For many of us, even time exercising involves somewhat comfortable exercise machines, massage chairs, televisions, and not even a little bit of dirt. We should not wonder why life stress, physical and mental, perturbs us.
There is nothing “natural” about complete sensory deprivation. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the miracle of sleep, which is free and under utilized. If you want to pay $200 for a nap in warm salt water, have at it. Let me know if it’s truly worthwhile, beyond scheduling an hour of your day to relax and pray and nap. Seriously – I’m listening.
Prescription: Getting the month in
An older acquaintance once told me of his routine that involved jumping into a creek every month. “I always make sure and get the month in.” This has been on my mind for over five years, as the research on the benefits of cold and the marketing for both comfort and discomfort therapies continues.
It’s all fun when the weather is warm and friends are near. But with this essay, I’m committing to Getting The Month In. This is not a fitness challenge or plunge for charity. This is not about recovery from training or competition. It’s simply something that I’ll be doing for health of body and mind, a “sensory reset.”
[The practice of icing immediately after intense training limits the beneficial adaptations involved with recovery. If you did not hear that, please know that extreme cold such as ICING AFTER A WORKOUT ACTUALLY RESTRICTS YOUR GAINS. ]
I will continue to train (and train others) outdoors when possible, in any conditions; 20 minutes or an hour outside in the beautiful and ugly. The discomfort itself is the full dose of an exercise session. Breathe in those gnats for extra gains.
Where thousands will spend time in float tanks and cryotherapy protocols, I will be grateful for the fountain of youth in my backyard. Soon it will be a rainy day in November, and I will walk bare footed through the grass and sticks. I will ease in and try to stay put for 30 seconds or a minute.
You are welcome to it. Who’s with me?? [crickets] Yeah, I don’t blame you.
But I’ll be paying attention, betting that a -certain- amount of discomfort makes the mind, and possibly the body, more resilient, capable, and even grateful.
…will keep you posted.