“Things that are hard to bear, are sweet to remember” – Seneca, Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome

For the past century, cultural evolution and advancement in technology have made our lives increasingly more convenient, comfortable and easy. We spend most of our days indoors in temperature-controlled environments, sleeping in cushy beds, sitting in comfy furniture and walking in comfortable shoes. Push-button automation is the norm whether you’re outside your house using elevators, self-driving cars, drive-through coffee, fast food, and ATMs, or at your home using garage door openers, TV remotes, and the ultimate of push-button device, our smartphones. Modern day conveniences have convinced us that comfort and ease of life must be good for us. But there’s a catch! Years of sedentary behavior and relying too much on labor-saving devices contribute to decrepitude as you age. On the other hand, we build resilience by stepping outside our comfort zone and regularly doing hard things. This is not only a healthy practice for our mind and body, leading to a better quality of life as we age, but it also presents more memorable and meaningful life experiences.

I started the Be Resilient Project at the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all struggling to cope with the life-altering challenges that most of us had never faced. Being isolated by stay-at-home orders, practicing social distancing and wearing masks in public were the new norm. Although these public health requirements were necessary to limit the spread of COVID, they went against our innate desire for human connection. Possibly the most important strategies in coping with stress and improving resilience are building your social connections and staying mentally engaged and physically active. For those reasons, I created the Be Resilient Project – to offer a way for my group fitness classes to stay connected and maintain their fitness.

I believe most of us know that chronic stress is harmful, and unhealthy coping mechanisms make matters worse. Having a hard day at work, being stuck in traffic, family disputes, dealing with chronic pain, loneliness, or worldly concerns like the pandemic can leave us feeling overwhelmed. We’re more likely to retreat to the cushy comfort of our couch, or self-soothe our fragile mental state by having a glass of wine, snacking on junk food, taking pain meds, binge watching sports or mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds – anything to numb or distract us from the trials of life. Fair enough, and I’m guilty of this behavior as well. But, there’s a healthier way to cope when life gets difficult.

Low-to-moderate doses of eustress (good stress) on a regular basis make us more resilient. “Unlike distress, eustress is typically associated with feelings of excitement and challenge rather than anxiety or fear”. For example, recreational activities that prompt exhilaration, learning a new skill, traveling to new places, or joining a group of people with shared interests. These activities can be uncomfortable at first, but they also have positive health outcomes.

Two people snowshoeing

Another form of eustress is outdoor environmental stimulation. We’re conditioned to believe that if we keep ourselves safe and cozy in our homes from the variations and unpredictable exposure of an outdoor environment, all is well. But that’s not how we evolved. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors traveled long distances on foot to seek water and food, avoid threats, and find shelter. They had to exert themselves daily while exposed to harsh environments in order to survive. “In contrast, our modern societies have transformed our surroundings to minimize and eliminate environmental stressors like food and water shortages, temperature extremes, and physical activity.” In fact, we now live most of our daily life indoors in a perpetual state of comfort and ease.

I’m not suggesting that we give up completely our modern conveniences and lifestyle to live off the grid. But to overcome our insatiable desire for comfort and reboot our innate biology that we inherited from our ancestors, we need to brave the outdoors more. When we expose ourselves to a range of outdoor environments such as cold and hot temperatures, sunlight, rain, snow, and altitude that emphasize variance over fixed habits, we expose ourselves to good stressors that can make us more resilient. Other forms of eustress include variations of exercise that are challenging (such as hiking an undulating rocky trail, vs walking on flat sidewalks), and periods of fasting along with eating a variety of wholesome foods, rather than limited choices of unhealthy foods.

Resilience is born from being in touch with what it feels like to fail, from understanding the pain of loss, and from the experience of being overwhelmed and out of our depth (or out of breath!). In other words, resilience is developed through some discomfort on a regular basis. When we reflect back on our lives, what we remember most is when we overcome hard things in life: standing up to a school bully or overbearing boss, graduating from college, recovering from a long illness or injury, overcoming the death of a loved one, climbing a high mountain peak, crossing the finish line of a long race, or getting through an ongoing pandemic. When we regularly do hard things and overcome them, it builds confidence and resilience, but more importantly it allows us to live longer, happier, and more meaningful lives.