Battling Comfort with Intermittent Challenges
A little discomfort goes a long way
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” - Seneca (quote is also true for women)
One of the most difficult parts of The Great Stuckedness has been the almost magnetic pull of comfort. I’ve come to a place where I am growing love/hate relationships with my phone, the TV, food, and my recliner: I love them all, and I hate how I fail to control how often I return to them. I come up with different ideas for interventions but mostly I just revert to the easiest, most comfortable thing: snacking in the chair, doom scrolling, and watching Netflix.
Fasting and Hormesis. One of the interventions I’ve been experimenting with are longer and longer fasts. I take vitamins and electrolytes but other than that it’s just a water fast. Along with my goal of having it help reset my relationship with food, fasting has myriad health benefits.
Fasting is an example of how we can intentionally stress our bodies (and minds) to produce beneficial results. This is an example of hormesis.
hor•mes•is | \ hȯr-ˈmē-səs \
Medical Definition of hormesis
: a theoretical phenomenon of dose-response relationships in which something (as a heavy metal or ionizing radiation) that produces harmful biological effects at moderate to high doses may produce beneficial effects at low doses
There are many examples of health improvements from hormetic effects that humanity has adopted where science is still catching up, including:
Consuming phytochemicals from many different plants
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
The benefits of pushing just a little bit further. My fasting “record” so far is just over 48 hours, which I’ve done several times, but I always struggle to push through to a 3rd and 4th day. Science shows us that we want to get into the 3rd day to start getting the deeper benefits of fasting: a rise in ketones indicating we are done burning carbohydrates and have switched to a fat metabolism, an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that improves brain function, and the process of autophagy begins to perform a cleanup of damaged cells. These are normal functions we have evolved: it was normal that calories simply weren’t available for long periods of time in our history.
I’ve been introduced to the concept of momentum in the fast as it relates to cellular and metabolic set points (see Stephan Ekberg’s video). Shorter fasts don’t really gain that much momentum so pushing through a little longer is important to have the body remember the change.
Similarly, Dr. Andrew Huberman talks about the benefit of pushing through another minute of cold shower therapy. Apart from all the physiological benefits there is a psychological benefit of knowing that you can push yourself to do something hard. Cold showers, like fasting, don’t actually involve you doing anything to push them longer: you just stand there and take it.
Widening the scope of how we challenge ourselves. I believe that we should look to physical and mental challenges outside of scientifically-backed regimes with hormetic effects. For example, therapists already use exposure therapy for PTSD and other conditions.
Recently Minette did an exercise to deal with grief from the Uvalde shootings that involved writing with her non-dominant hand. Like a cold shower this forces the body and mind out of its comfort zone. The exercise talks about rewiring out of habitual, automatic activities where we’re on autopilot. The original paper with this exercise is about gaining self-control over aggression.
We can also challenge ourselves with boredom and meditation. I am always amazed when I find my way back onto the meditation cushion how much my mind tries to avoid quiet.
Of course the possibilities to challenge ourselves with exercise are endless, but it’s important to look at where we think we are exercising but we are really just cruising. After a while our bodies adapt to whatever we throw at them and it’s necessary to inject changes to get out of easy mode. Minette and I walk quite often - enough that we walk a few miles at a brisk pace - but it’s all flat and my heart rate doesn’t go up much. It’s time to add some hills.
Fuck Comfort. If you are in a position where your needs are met it’s easy to be soft in today’s Western world. We don’t have to walk 10 miles for fresh water, burn our furniture for heat, or hunt for our food: our ancestors might have begged for this level of comfort. Yet, with this comfort comes a lack of challenge to our bodies, minds, and spirits.
We need to intentionally put ourselves in challenging situations just to get normal, good stress. I think the key is to constantly remind ourselves and our bodies that regular discomfort is the norm.
A big part of Strong99 is about doing the hard things. Look at the manifesto and it’s right there: we will battle every day to become stronger and wiser in the face of comfort. I will be adding these challenges in the form of experiments as I go forward - whether it’s longer water fasts, cold shower therapy, HIIT, or dopamine fasts - and I’ll show you how they go.
Most of us are capable of so much more than we actually do. Intermittent, reasonably difficult challenges throughout our lives not only give us health benefits, they open a window on to what we are capable of.
“You have passed through life without an opponent — no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” - Seneca
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