Is Suffering Necessary in Health and Fitness?

Hey friends, in the next five minutes I’m going to talk to you about Suffering in Fitness.

Should your workout feel like suffering? Is pain really weakness leaving the body, as those t-shirts say? If you can think of any other stereotypical Fitness one-liners, let me know in the comments!

Now, let’s dive in. I was looking at the Twitter earlier, and I saw a quote from a conversation between chef and restauranteur David Chang and psychologist and author of the book Grit, Dr. Angela Duckworth. Chang said:

They were talking about David’s success as chef and restaurateur, how he mentors chefs in his multiple restaurants, and the industry of culinary arts.  As the conversation unfolded, he asked ”do we live in a culture that doesn’t celebrate suffering?” He compared the modern millennial absence of suffering with the religious context of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, the Catholic penance, and the entire framework of Buddhism.

David noted that in modern American society, we tend to forget the meaning of holidays like Memorial Day, which rather than reflections on those who have sacrificed for us, have turned into 3-day beach weekends. His perspective reminded me of an interview that Tom Bilyeu, who hosts the Impact Theory podcast, did on with my meditation teacher Emily Fletcher.

She tells a story about a 10-day silent meditation retreat, during which her body ached from sitting in the same position for multiple days in a row. Her teacher came over and said to her, “Stop trying to not be miserable.” Emily said that’s when something clicked, and she said this:

“If you have the ability to stop avoiding pain and chasing pleasure – if you can master that – you can master anything in your life.”

By now you might be thinking, “Hey Harold, how does this relate to fitness?” and I’m so glad that you asked!

From my perspective in the fitness industry, it seems like we’ve gone the opposite way, and glorified suffering by putting it on a pedestal. Our modern world is drawn to the extremes, and it’s a “no pain, no gain” and “no guts no glory” filter through which we’re likely to see the environment.

Marathons are no longer the pinnacle of endurance as ultra-marathons and obstacle course races grow in popularity. We’ve got Pukey the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo as characters in the CrossFit world, and that sphere of influence has greater reach than I’d like it to

Not because we shouldn’t be training hard, but because too many people are only training hard and too few people offer perspective on the many possibilities that exist in between sitting on the couch and sprinting so hard that you feel like you’re going to shit your pants.

We’re so all or nothing, so blast or dust, that we forget that there are incredible benefits from low and moderate-intensity physical activity.  Hell, they don’t even need to be formal workouts!

 A long walk with your dog, playing catch, dancing, a leisurely bike ride – these are all examples of under-rated and under-utilized ways to be physically active without feeling like you’re going to die.

So then, when does suffering come into play?

It’s not about glorifying pain, but about recognizing that being physically uncomfortable isn’t emotionally desirable, but it IS necessary to elicit physical adaptations. That simple quip that “What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you” is literally an explanation of biological sciences and exercise physiology.

The goal is to work hard enough to change your body in the desired ways. The changes that I’m personally looking for are getting stronger to hold on to my mountain bike while descending, and fit enough to pedal it back to the top of the mountain. Your goals may be different, but we should recognize that change takes time.

I think the most common “suffering” in the modern fitness landscape is accepting how long it really takes to change. Consider this: ancient humans walked across continents and sailed across oceans to lay the foundations for our modern world, and so a few weeks of doing sit-ups and not eating bread feels like an eternity, but it’s barely recognized by your ancient DNA. When we realize that training for health or fitness isn’t about quick fixes before Memorial Day, but about consistency for months and years – I’ve seen that realization be incredibly painful for some people.

During David Chang’s interview with Angela Duckworth, he talks about how some parents don’t want their children to suffer because they don’t want to suffer themselves as they watch it happen. I don’t have kids yet, but I think I’m getting some good practice as I coach the Ninjas at MFF and get to see the necessary discomfort of some really hard workouts, and the emotional growth that can only develop as we put in consistent work on the ever-increasing timeline of life.

The goal isn’t necessarily to avoid suffering but to provide or develop appropriate context so that we can weather the storm of stimulus without glorifying suffering beyond what is necessary.

My friends, I leave you with that thought, and now I’d love to know yours. What’s your relationship with suffering like? When is it worth it? What workouts do you struggle the most with? Leave a comment and let me know!

Thanks for joining me for this piece. If you’d like to watch this episode of HGTV, you can find it below. Cheers!

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Hey friends, in the next five minutes I'm going to talk to you about Suffering in Fitness. I was inspired by a conversation between restaurateur @davidchang and psychologist Dr. @angelalduckworth. David said: “If you’re not feeling like you want to quit, you’re not trying hard enough.” That reminded me of something my meditation teacher, @emilystellafletcher of @zivameditation, said to @tombilyeu on the @impacttheory podcast: “If you have the ability to stop avoiding pain and chasing pleasure – if you can master that – you can master anything in your life.” By now you might be thinking, “Hey Harold, how does this relate to fitness?” I’m so glad that you asked! The most common “suffering” in the modern fitness landscape is accepting how long it really takes to change. Consider this: ancient humans walked across continents and sailed across oceans to lay the foundations for our modern world, and so a few weeks of doing sit-ups and not eating bread feels like an eternity, but it’s barely recognized by your ancient DNA. It’s not about glorifying pain, but about recognizing that being physically uncomfortable isn’t emotionally desirable, but it IS necessary to elicit physical adaptations. That simple quip that “What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you” is literally an explanation of biological sciences and exercise physiology. The goal isn’t necessarily to avoid suffering but to provide or develop appropriate context so that we can weather the storm of stimulus without glorifying suffering beyond what is necessary. My friends, I leave you with that thought, and now I’d love to know yours. What’s your relationship with suffering like? When is it worth it? What workouts do you struggle the most with? Leave a comment and let me know! Thanks for joining me for this episode of HGTV. As always, you can read these words over at HaroldGibbons.com. Cheers! #FitnessIsFreedom #MFFClubhouse #FitnessCoach #Coaching #Suffering #SufferWell #ExercisePsychology

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