Beginning a fitness program, and then maintaining it, is hard for a lot of people.  But why?  Seriously, why is it so hard?

It might sound like a stupid question, but have you stopped to think about it?  Of all the activities that fill your day, why is fitness so difficult to integrate and maintain?

People who have been exercising and eating healthy their whole lives probably find this line of thought strange or funny.  They have never known anything different.  But that’s not most Americans - seeing how 66 percent of us are overweight or obese.  Two-thirds of us need to make some changes - KNOW we need to make some changes - talk about it - think about it... and don’t.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with intelligent, rational, responsible people who work hard at their jobs, take good care of their families, pay their bills and even water the dang plants.  They admit to health problems or desires to look and feel better.  They come right out and say they KNOW they need to eat better and exercise - and they don’t.  It’s hugely irrational and hugely fascinating, all at the same time.

Why would a grown, intelligent, well-intentioned person avoid the very lifestyle he just told me he needs and supposedly wants?

Pain avoidance.  The perceived pain/discomfort of the “change” outweighs the perceived pain/discomfort of the current state.

All of us have heard that growth only comes through pain - when you are happy and content, there is no growth or even a reason to grow (change).  A plant will grow toward the sun and keep going in a single direction unless some outside force causes it to bend another direction:  maybe a tree limb blocks its path, a wind partially snaps it, or a nature- loving hiker steps on it.

Humans aren’t much different.  If everything in our lives is A-ok, we’ll just keep going in the same direction we’ve been headed.  It’s usually only when negative, external forces act upon us that we respond and change.  And the negative force has to be larger and nastier than our current state of contentment, or we still won’t change.

We usually sum this whole notion up into “No pain, no gain” - right?  Who hasn’t heard that barked from a trainer or a coach as you eeked out a final rep, shaking so badly that collapse felt imminent?  Or recited it in your head as you walk into a gym for the first time?  Tried hard to ignore cake cravings, and enjoy a carrot stick, while everyone else in the office sang “Happy Birthday” only to give in to an icing covered slab of sugary goodness?

We’ve all heard it or recited it.  But hearing it or saying it is nothing compared to experiencing it - and it often causes people to put forth so little effort that hardly any “growth” occurs, or worse, people just quit.  And I already hear you saying “but if I’m hurting myself - that can’t be good!”

So let’s talk about that:  pain vs. discomfort.  One is a warning that something is going wrong and the other is an indicator that you are in uncharted territory and aren’t acclimated to it yet.  True pain means  stop the thing causing the pain - damage is being done.  Discomfort means precisely what it implies, dis-comfort  you aren’t comfortable anymore.”

Here are some examples of truly painful things:  breaks, sprains, strains, tears, rips, dislocations, overuse, inflammations, impingements, etc.  Obviously the list isn’t exhaustive, but you get the idea.  Discomfort is more of an overwhelming desire to return to easier activities (or attitudes) usually due to burning muscles, poor aerobic capacity, sweat, heat, perceived fatigue or lack of coordination.  In fact, sometimes it’s simply because we feel conspicuous and want to go hide.  

It is extremely important to understand that your body will not change anything without discomfort.  Your body likes to keep things just like they are - it is very conservative.  Think of your body like a Depression-era grandparent - using tea bags multiple times, washing plastic bags and hanging them on the clothes line, saving three bites of leftover mashed potatoes and refusing to pay for cable TV channels when the roof antenna gets a few local ones for free.  Depression-era grandparents only crack open the coin purse and spend a few dollars when it is absolutely necessary, and even then it’s under duress.

Your body acts the same way.  It won’t build anything new or crack open some fat cells unless there’s a really good reason to do it - and that reason is usually “discomfort.”  It is a signal to your body that “hey, we need some new stuff around here!”  Your body responds to the signals and makes some new muscles cells, lays down some new bone, extends the cardiovascular network to feed all the new stuff, and installs some new nerves connecting everything into the body’s information network.  If you stop exercising, your body kinda shrugs its shoulders and says “eehhh, guess we don’t need all that extra stuff anymore” and tears it all back down.

Get that?  Your body will only create and maintain what is absolutely necessary to meet the current level of demands - and it knows what’s needed by the signals you send it.  Discomfort is one of those huge signals.

So that’s a new thought, huh?  “Discomfort” is a strongly worded message to your body that change is needed, not a reason to go sit down.  It’s really powerful to think this way.

“No pain, no gain” really ought to be “no discomfort, no gain” - but that really doesn’t rhyme now does it?


NSCA certified personal trainer Shannon Sorrels has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA. Her company, Physix LLC, works with Valley individuals as well as groups to improve their overall fitness. Reach her at (480) 528-5660 or visit


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