The avoidance of physical discomfort

​When I think about having children, I often end up asking myself, “What would I teach them?” Would I show them the difference between deeds and words? Would I educate them about the role of responsibility and trust, and the consequences of shirking them? Would I try to teach them to love books, to cherish learning and new experiences, and to value deep and intimate relationships? I default to the imparting of such profound lessons. But really, the most valuable lessons are much simpler.  And one simple lesson that I learnt—and I’d wish for them to learn—concerns physical discomfort.

In our culture, physical discomfort is a means to an end; we suffer it now in order to profit later. We endure a spinning class because we want to ward off old age’s flabby appendages. We pick the barbell up and put it down because we want to be strong. We breathe hard only so that we may breathe easy. Without such an identifiable end, we avoid physical exertion. We don’t hop on a bike and climb a monster hill for amusement. We don’t walk or run for hours to get nowhere in particular. We don’t tolerate meaningless physical discomfort, the presence of work when it is divorced from a quantifiable outcome. Which is a shame because the human body is an adaptable motion machine. It excels at adapting to stimuli and overcoming obstacles. 

This avoidance of physical discomfort is, in part, why people struggle to lose weight. When overweight, it’s hard to move. Joints feel—and are—unstable. Muscles feel weak. Motion feels awkward, instead of smooth and graceful. So the common response is to avoid movement altogether, to avoid these feelings of discomfort the same way we avoid unfamiliar ideas and novel experiences.

I understand the tendency. Believe me, I’m not talking down; I fight my own vicious battle with the feelings of physical discomfort. I just hope future generations don’t absorb the same skewed narrative we’ve come to call “normal”. Because when I see overweight children who visibly shy away from physical challenge, I feel a deep sadness. Before the ills of modernity kick in, children are energetic. They bound and bounce for no reason, because they can. But then they are forced into the embrace of comfort, compelled by pressure from their peers and elders, and there they remain.

But how different would our society be if our attitude to physical discomfort was flipped? If every person were vigorous and physically ambitious, wouldn’t they be happier, more creative, less likely to die prematurely, and more able to contribute to the world around them? Undoubtedly. And the first step to such a supposedly unattainable utopia is to rework our narratives concerning movement and physical discomfort. 

We need to allow and encourage movement, instead of immobility, in the young and the old. We need to ignore the calls to “Slow down, stop moving, and stay where you are.” We need to build a culture and construct practises in which movement is an integral part, rather than an add-on. We need to embrace physical discomfort as an end in itself, instead of framing it as an optional stepping stone on the way to contentment. We need to realise that hard is fun and more valuable than easy.