Modern humans are obsessed with comfort. We have become a species focused on making life as easy as possible. Why are we so obsessed with comfort? Likely because most of our existence has revolved around discomfort. We have always been striving for ease, safety and peace of mind. Those things have always meant survival. That’s not a bad thing- humans have gone a long way in the pursuit of comfort. However, it seems as if we are getting a little too comfortable. Making life easier is great… most of the time. But all of the time? By making things too easy for ourselves we have in essence taken away much of what has made us who we are.
Humans have evolved under circumstances and environments that have been uncomfortable. Life can be, and sometimes should be, uncomfortable. Our bodies and brains have adapted to both regular and intermittent discomfort. In fact, we thrive under situations of stress and hardship. That is how we got to where we are today. We were challenged, we adapted, we got stronger. The basis of our physiology is formed by this dynamic. Nearly every bodily function and process has been formed by thousands of generations of environmental, physical and emotional challenges.
Do we want to go back to the Stone Ages? No. Not at all. The comforts and safety of modern living is fantastic and I would be foolish to desire the misery and challenge of living 40,00 years ago. Or 400 years ago for that matter. However, I think it is also naive to overlook the adaptive expression of our genes that have evolved over human history.
So where is the compromise? I think the sweet spot, shockingly, lies somewhere in the middle. Make the basis of your life modern but interject brief moments of controlled, purposeful stress. There seems to be a few ways that you can implement stress that have minimal investment and maximal return. Exercise, eating and environmental are the three big stressors I like to introduce on a regular basis, but there are several others people can use to make themselves healthier and happier.
Before getting into the specifics, keep in mind that I am primarily referring to acute stress, not chronic stress. Acute stress is challenging but our bodies are designed to experience it occasionally, quickly, and intensely and then rebuild stronger as an adaptive result. Humans have evolved this response to better survive. On the contrary, we are not well adapted to the chronic stressors. Chronic stress wears down all of the human functions and physiology. Everyone knows the detriment of chronic stress on health, happiness and productivity. So let’s focus on the benefit of brief, intermittent acute stress with adequate recovery.
Exercise… occasional brief but maximal bouts of exertion
This means intense effort for a short period of time. The harder and shorter the better. Think “fight or flight” here. Take the body to it’s limit and then back off. We very rarely come across actual fight or flight situations, but most people know the pounding heart, heavy breathing, focused attention experience when they feel it. During this time, everything in the body is geared toward performance. Anything that doesn’t matter is turned off. This is something that we can use to our advantage. You can get more out of 5 minutes of maximal exertion than 60 minutes of moderate effort. Challenge the body and then allow it recover and grow stronger. High intensity effort results in a cascade of positive hormonal and genetic changes, all of which lead to better health and longevity. When done 1-3 times per week, this can be the only “exercise” you need for peak health, aesthetics and performance.
Eating… occasional fasting
Humans have only recently had stable, consistent access to food. For most of our existence, food was hard to come by. We ate what food we could when we could eat it, not knowing when the next meal might present itself. Although our metabolism has benefitted somewhat from a consistent food supply, much of our physiological processes are still hardwired for feast and famine. Humans have, as a result, evolved several adaptations to deal with an inconsistent food supply. In other words, we are still expecting occasional starvation. This is not a bad thing. By skipping a meal sporadicly, you can turn on some of the natural, inherent health benefits humans have adapted. Burning fat, repairing cells and detoxifying are some of the biggest benefits from occasional fasting. Be careful, when you skip meals too often or always skip the same meals, the body will adapt negatively. So just skip breakfast once every couple of weeks, or even easier, skip dinner once a week and go to bed a little hungry. Your body will thank you for it.
Environmental… get out in the elements: heat, cold, rain, wind, terrain, etc.
Simple but effective. Experience the opposite of the climate controlled indoors. Turn on some natural adaptive processes by simply taking a walk in the cold winter air (you will not get a cold as a result). You will help reduce inflammation and promote heat based fat storage. When you experience cold, your body will selectively direct fat into “brown” fat deposits (instead of your love handles) that release fat energy as heat to keep you warm. You can also keep the thermostat a little cooler for the same effect, but shorter duration and more intense cold stimulus serves as a more acute stressor. For the really adventurous, the cold shower or ice bath will magnify the adaptation.
You can do the same with heat. Don’t be afraid to get out in the summer time heat for a few minutes (yes without sunscreen). Most people like a good sweat and it can be good for you on occasion. If you have access to a traditional or infrared sauna, that works great. Your skin will make the necessary adaptations to the heat and sun as long as you keep the exposure short. For example, 10-15 minutes of direct sunlight will give you a day’s worth of vitamin D and help develop a nice tan over time. 60 minutes will give you a sunburn. So keep it smart.
Rain and wind are both good to experience simply from a sensory perspective. We are natural creatures, make sure you stay in touch with mother nature. Your senses will thank you for it.
Lastly, connect with the earth. Take off your shoes and feel the ground. Natural surfaces are best but any will do. Most of us have weakened feet and legs from being protected by shoes. There may be no better way of reconnecting with what it means to be human that to take a barefoot walk through a field. Will you have to watch where you step? Absolutely. But you will get the benefit of turning on millions of neurons and some dormant muscles that have been given too long of a break. And it is a fantastic way to get “in the moment” of life. When you walk barefoot, particularly over terrain, it is a multi-sensory, challenging and real time experience.
And don’t be afraid to get dirty. There’s a reason why kids like to get dirty- it’s good for you. From a natural perspective, we all get a little stronger every time we get our hands and bodies dirty.
Some other stressful events…
Bleed… give blood whenever you can
When your body loses blood, it goes into overdrive to create new blood, which is fantastic for your health. A secondary benefit is the depletion of iron and ferritin buildup in the body, important for men and postmenopausal women.
Movement… walk somewhere, take the stairs
This is not always acute and intense, but is an easy way of getting out of your comfort zone. Park far away from where you are going. Take the stairs whenever possible. Carry groceries. Walk to a colleague’s office to talk. The list goes on. Whenever you can use your body instead of relying upon a machine, go for it.
Eyesight… go without glasses
This is a new one to me but it makes sense. If you need glasses to see well, try to function without them occasionally. Work on focusing on objects just out of your eyes’ range. Amazingly, over time your body can and will adapt to seeing better little by little. Just be careful with this one and practice it safely.
So there are a few ideas to play with. In my experience, the humans with the most comfortable situations are typically the most unhealthy and unhappy. Make your life uncomfortable on occasion and it will make you stronger, happier and healthier as a result.
The Bare 5 Bottom Line: Acute stress= strength. Chronic stress= weakness.
Check out this website for much more on using stress to get stronger… Getting Stronger
Thanks for reading, have a great uncomfortable week!