Why it is CRITICAL to your Health to Challenge Yourself

by | Nov 4, 2019


More than a few times, I’ve had people ask me “what drives you to do what you do?”

The answer is different for each of us. However, I would suggest that for anyone achieving a goal, it begins with the concept of the comfort zone.

The term “comfort zone” originated as human bodies are “most comfortable” in temperate climates between 67 and 78 degrees F. Outside these zones, our bodies are subject to more stress.   

Yerkes Dodson law shows that our performance levels also have a “comfort zone” and that each of us has a unique optimal performance level. The optimal point is the point where we have enough stress (arousal) in life to move us to seek a goal, however not so much that we’re overly anxious and stressed. The optimal performance chart is a bell-shaped curve.

On the left side of the curve, we are in our “comfort zone” where stress is low to moderate and we are in familiar surroundings. This side is our “status quo” where we get up each day, brush our teeth, go to our jobs and eat dinner. The peak of the bell is where we are at the perfect level of stimulation (motivation) and challenge. 

So, why would we ever leave our comfort zone?

  1. Nothing truly great happens within our comfort zone. I would challenge you to come up with a great accomplishment you’ve made, that didn’t require you to be “uncomfortable” for some period. That promotion at work came from learning and conquering new skills. Finishing that first marathon came from stressing your body and mind to run farther than you’ve run before. In fact, our very progress in society ONLY happens because individuals pushed beyond their comfort zones; in business, sport, science or other. The greats of their field –Albert Einstein, Serena Williams, Bill Gates – have each had moments of great discomfort and doubt to get to where they’re at. A story has been told that Albert Einstein loved sailing, and despite the fact that he did not know how to swim would, on several occasions sail his boat directly into the eye of a storm. Inevitably, he would come just short of drowning and require rescue. Why did he do it? Because Einstein understood the idea of challenging oneself beyond comfort.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Einstein: “I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.” He knew that, to accomplish all that he did, he would meet significant failure before achieving great success. He knew he would have to become comfortable with failing. And once he did achieve success, did everyone immediately see Einstein’s genius? No. In fact, even after publishing his special relativity paper in 1905, comments abounded that it was “absurd and impractical” until 1910 and even as late as 1923.  Do you have true challenge in your life right now? Or are your days full of the same activities you’ve done for years? Are you failing or making mistakes? Ask yourself why not.
  2. Being outside our comfort zone builds mental strength. The need to keep learning – and this is all through life – requires constant reworking of the brain. A 2013 study proved the fact that only demanding skills, those outside your comfort zone, are the ones that drive mental strength. The study showed that activities previously thought to provide mental strength, such as crossword puzzles and listening to classical music, did not have mind enhancing power. It was only the truly demanding and new skills – like learning photography or speaking a new language that improved mental acuity. Denise Parker of University of Texas said it best “when you are inside your comfort zone, you may be outside the enhancement zone”. Think about it: Are you pushing yourself enough to try truly new things?? Or just variations on the norm………..
  3. Being outside your comfort zone builds physical strength. As with the mind, so with the body. Our bodies decline with age. After the age of 50, our bodies lose muscle mass and cardio capacity at an alarming rate. To counter that, we need to stress our muscles and respiratory system. Get a heart rate monitor and put yourself in a fitness class that will get your heart rate to 80% of max, on and off for 45 minutes, at least 3 times per week. For most people over 45, that will be somewhere around 165 BPM. You need to have short term bursts of intensity to grow. The same is true for strength training. Many of us overlook weight training, believing it is only for those “meatheads” trying to gain bulk. Not true. I could even argue that strength work is more important for women (who tend to do it less), as we lose muscle mass at a greater rate than men as we age. Lifting very heavy weights is best. Light weights with high repetition will tax your cardio more than your muscles, so don’t be afraid to go big.
  4. Don’t be average. On average, our comfort zones shrink with age. Translation: we are open to doing less and less; staying within our little box. The flip side is that as we age, we have more capacity for trying new things. The kids are gone, our disposable income is likely higher and we have more time on our hands. This is the PERFECT time to stretch your boundaries and try new things!!! Our confidence is intact in our later years; we’ve accomplished things, leaving our egos in a good place to seek out challenges that may result in failure. Take a moment to envision a long term goal. What would make you feel great, to accomplish in 2020? For me, its likely starting a new business, racing in a bike time trial and hiking a higher mountain than previously done.

So what if you fail? If you come in just short of your goal, is that really failure?

My mantra is go big or go home. In 2015, I signed up for a full Ironman triathlon without having ever done a triathlon. I had no idea what was instore, but knew I wanted to get to that end goal.

What’s your Ironman?

Later this week, we’ll discuss how you can take those first steps to getting outside your comfort zone.

Ciao for now!

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