“You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone. Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” -Roy T. Bennett
Ever wonder why some people seem to glide effortlessly through life, handling problems as if they were riding waves on a surfboard? They always appear cool, calm and collected during those intense stressful moments, like college finals or business meetings, while you and everyone else break into a sweat. You wonder if they possess some secret elixir of awesomeness or 24-hour access to a personal self-confidence life coach. Chances are, they do have the formula for success, and some of them may not even realize it. It doesn’t come in powders or pills; it comes through pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone with regular, intense exercise.
Comfort zones are cozy places defined by the familiar things with which you fill your daily lives with. They are the stuff you don’t question and go through the motions of doing. They are predictable. Unchallenging. Comforting. Like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. And like eating meatloaf every single day, staying within your comfort zone all the time can be bad for your health.
Athletes who physically push themselves, whether they are training for a marathon or a long distance swim, break through the barriers of that comfort zone, holding on until they reach their goal: that 5-mile run, that 5th lap, the top of the climbing wall. They achieve their athletic goal, but something else happens in the process: they are rewiring their brain to accept physical discomfort.
Society today is geared towards removing obstacles from your life. Remote controls change the television channels from afar, room temperatures are altered with the flick of a button, cars start themselves without you turning a key (some even drive themselves). In the process, you are losing touch with yourself and when faced with a difficult task, it can appear more daunting and stressful than it actually is because you’ve been weaned off of dealing with obstacles.
While interviewing top professional adventure and endurance athletes, Brad Shulberg of Outside Magazine noted in his article1 that despite their different life choices, from mountain climbing to long distance swimming, these highly successful athletes physically pushed themselves to their limits to reach their final goals—completing the race, reaching the summit. And they had one thing in common: they taught themselves to embrace life outside their comfort zones. They became comfortable with being uncomfortable.
If you have ever attained a physical goal like a 10-mile mountain hike, a 3-mile run, or whitewater rafting Class V rapids, a curious thing occurs. When you reach the end, you feel exhausted yet elated. You feel hot and sweaty. Your muscles are aching, maybe even screaming, and your body is shaking. Your heart is pounding. But you feel happy. You came, you saw, you conquered! Yes, it was difficult. Maybe even terrifying. That last part you pushed yourself through, just to reach the end, like Indiana Jones stretching out to grab the golden idol before the temple collapses.
Afterward, you may have high-fived your fellow rafters and chugged a quart of water, feeling like the king of the mountain. It was hard and you survived. Somehow facing the boss on Monday morning doesn’t feel so daunting. And that kid who got your sandwich order mixed up at lunch? You laugh it off. Your perspective on life has altered. Your brain has changed.
Psychotherapist and Counselor, Angela Percival explains2 that the human brain continuously labels and uploads information. It constantly compares any new information it receives to its “library” of collected data, so when you are faced with something outside of your comfort zone like those finals or the dreaded meeting with the boss, it has nothing with which to compare it, and you get that uncomfortable, queasy feeling—your fear of the unknown.
Percival goes on to say “the more uncomfortable and new experiences you go through, the more your brain realizes that you will be okay, because you did the unknown before and you survived,” so by all brain-logic, you will survive this too. As a result, you feel less stressed and more confident when venturing outside your comfort zone because you have made that place your new norm.
The more you wade outside of your comfort zone, the easier it becomes. Partaking in regular exercise to reach an athletic goal—whether it’s training for a marathon or building up the stamina to hike the Appalachian Trail, will improve a plethora of areas throughout your life.
Make a goal and write it down. Set up an action plan to work towards that goal. Use the baby-step process if you are a beginner; in other words, if you want to run a marathon and you don’t jog, start by walking. Download a health and fitness app on your phone to track your progress. Join a gym. Consider hiring a professional trainer. Enlist friends and family to help. And always consult your physician before partaking in any rigorous exercise.
When you do something on a regular basis, it becomes a habit. If you exercise regularly with a set goal in your mind, you will push yourself towards that goal and it will become easier to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable.
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