A comfort zone is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to work out there.|
Comfort is defined as, "a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or discomfort." That sounds conducive to napping in a hammock, getting a massage or sipping an umbrella drink by the pool—but not working out. After all, that old catch phrase "no pain, no gain" was coined for a reason.
I've been lured into my fitness comfort zone many times. When I find a workout routine that I like, I tend to put on my exercise blinders. There was the year I discovered spinning, when I pedaled furiously five days a week. Then there was that stretch of several months when I ran the same six-mile loop every day. And on the days when cold weather forces me into the gym, I make a beeline for the row of ellipticals and treadmills, not because they're fun or challenging, but because they're comfortable—all the while eyeing the weight machines with equal parts fear and curiosity.
On one of my recent elliptical days, as I churned out the miles to nowhere, an uber-fit woman hopped onto the elliptical next to mine and struck up a conversation. I'd seen her around the gym before, flitting from one weight machine to the next, constantly switching up her routine.
"I know this is none of my business," she said. "But why don't you ever do weights? I see you on the elliptical and the treadmill all the time, but you never lift. I just hate to see someone with so much potential get stuck in a cardio rut."
After I got past the shock of the unsolicited advice, her words struck a chord with me, because they rang true. The only thing stopping me from getting out on that weight room floor was my own self-doubt, which had me stuck in my comfort zone. Later that week, I called to make an appointment with a personal trainer for a strength training session.
As certified personal trainer Kim Schaper says, "It's easy to stick with the 'fun' fitness activities because they're typically safe and non-challenging—which is sometimes okay—but in order to see results, we have to get out of our comfort zone, because that's where change happens."
If your workouts have become tedious, your scale isn't moving or you just feel like your body is stuck in neutral, here are some tips for shaking up your routine, taking a risk and getting wonderfully uncomfortable.
1. Form a cross-training tribe.
You already know that working out with a fitness buddy increases the odds of sticking to a fitness plan. Take that one step further and find a group of motivating people with various interests. Maybe that means trying a free CrossFit class, doing yoga in the park, running a race with some co-workers or all of the above. Cultivating friendships with people across multiple disciplines will help you keep your workouts dynamic and challenging, while creating your own personal cheering squad.
Ellen Yin of Ledbetter Fitness recommends joining a local Facebook group centered around a common fitness interest, such as tennis, triathlons or weight lifting. "This is a great way to meet new friends in town, find a group to train with and hear about events," she says. "Being part of a community of like-minded individuals will motivate you and provide you with a safe outlet for sharing your goals and progress."
2. Be spontaneous.
If you're headed to the same old Monday night spin class but the bright blue sky and crisp air are calling you outside, grab your trainers and hit the trail instead. Do you always exercise right after work? Switch it up and try a sunrise workout. Occasional changes in routine will keep your body guessing, your muscles working and your mind stimulated.
3. Don't shy away from (a little) pain.
Have you been avoiding a certain workout or intensity level simply because it's physically uncomfortable? Trainer Franklin Antoian of iBodyFit.com points out that an effective exercise will always involve some sort of pain, and that the key is increasing intensity slowly. "You may experience muscle pain, soreness, tiredness or another discomfort," he says. "Expect this and deal with it appropriately—don't let it surprise and defeat you."
Carol Frazey, a trainer with The Fit School, has her clients run or walk a mile on the first and last day of her sessions. “I tell them that whenever you try to run your fastest mile, it always hurts, for everyone. The key is to learn to listen to your body to determine what is real pain that could cause injury and what is discomfort that comes with pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.”
4. Push a little farther or harder.
The mind is a powerful exercise tool. Schaper recommends having a little self-pep talk before each workout, where you tell yourself you're going to do the very best you can. Another tip is to add an extra five minutes after your regular routine. It may seem like a small time frame, but it could equate to an extra half-mile of running, an extra set of reps or a few more laps in the pool. Try throwing in some quick bursts of extra intensity, too: If you're a runner, incorporate a few sprints; if you're lifting weights, pause at the top of the movement and hold before releasing. You can also use mind tricks to push through periods of fatigue. "If you're running and want to stop, commit to a marker, like a tree or mailbox yards ahead, and rest there," Schaper says.
During periods of intensity, Frazey reminds her clients that the discomfort is temporary. “I tell my clients: ‘You're strong. You can do anything for three minutes’ (or whatever time is left). This is when they can say in their head, ‘Yes, I am, and yes, I can.’”
5. Start out slowly.
When introducing your body to a new exercise or routine, give it time to adapt to the movement and pay close attention to how your muscles respond. "I like to test the waters by doing a rep or moving slowly to make sure I have the movement down properly, then will increase speed as appropriate," says fitness and nutrition expert Mandy Unanski Enright.
Ultramarathoner Beth Weinstein of Only Atoms emphasizes the importance of small goals. “Pay attention to how you feel after you reach outside your comfort zone and meet each small goal. Like climbing a mountain, each step counts. Focus on small steps that add up.”
6. Keep a training log.
If you can't hire a professional, Kelly says it's a good idea to keep a fitness journal. "Logging your personal bests will keep a record of your progression and help you target your weak points," Kelly says. "You'll be motivated by your progress, and this will help you slowly increase the demands your body needs to get results."
7. Focus on the payoff.
After Frazey’s clients have finished a particularly grueling workout, she urges them to pay attention to how they feel. “I've found that every time someone is cooling down after having pushed themselves outside of their comfort zone, there is a glow, a giddiness and a real sense of accomplishment in them. I ask them to enjoy and remember this feeling. This is what one needs to remember when the pain of exercise discomfort sets in. The reward of an amazing sense of joy and accomplishment is so worth a few minutes of discomfort.”
8. Try a new class.
If you've been stuck in the same workout routine for weeks, months or even years, shake things up with a new group fitness class. There are dozens of different boutique studios offering specialized workouts, such as barre, CrossFit, aerial yoga, boxing or pole dancing. "Having a regular class time adds an extra level of accountability, and working out in a group environment challenges you to keep up with the class pace," says Yin. When trying a class for the first time, Enright says the most important thing is to arrive with an open mind and to put your confidence in the instructor to teach you the proper technique.
9. Compete together.
Yin recommends enlisting your friends or coworkers to sign up for a race or competition. Committing to an athletic event, whether it's a 10K or an obstacle course, gives you a tangible goal and set deadline to work toward. You can make race day a social event by inviting your group to dress up in themed outfits or enjoying a celebratory lunch afterward. "Better yet, race for a purpose by asking your family and friends to sponsor you," Yin says. "They can pledge to make a small donation to your favorite charity if you finish the race within a certain time frame."
10. Hire a professional.
Sarah Ann Kelly, fitness trainer with MomTrainer.com, recommends enlisting an expert to help push you to your full potential—and to let you know when it's time to give your body a break.
Don’t have the time or desire for a personal trainer, but not ready to go it alone? “Hop in a group fitness class,” suggests fitness instructor Ashley Pitt. “It's ideal to push out of your comfort zone by trying new moves and equipment during hard circuits in the presence of a qualified group fitness instructor or trainer. That said, you can also do it on your own with the right preparation and planning.”
11. HIIT it.
There’s been a lot of buzz lately around two opposing types of cardio: Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Fitness trainer Cheryl Russo says HIIT--where you perform an exercise at maximum intensity for a short period, and then recover--is the best strategy for pushing to your limit.
“As an example, if you usually do regular squats, you can try a jump squat [which is] a power plyometric move that adds cardio as well as bodyweight strength,” says Russo. If you do this for 20 seconds and then recover for 30 seconds, you’re getting out of your comfort zone, but you know it only lasts a short period of time and you get a recovery period.”
12. Use stress to your advantage.
Trying something new or pushing your body farther can be stressful—but you can leverage that stress as a source of energy and motivation. When you walk out of that CrossFit class feeling sore, strong and exhilarated, you'll realize the risk was well worth the reward.
Fitness trainer Samantha Bowman sums it up best: "The body needs a challenge in order to adapt. Muscles and metabolism adapt to work. Get out of your comfort zone with either more intensity, more weight, more speed or just something entirely different."
What's your favorite way to break out of your comfort zone?