Why The Lure of Comfort Can Be Detrimental To Your Health And Longevity

“It’s only when you step outside your comfort zone that you grow. Being uncomfortable is the path to personal development. It is the opposite of complacency.” Nic Lamb – World champion big-wave surfer.

Person resting on the sofaThe lure of comfort and our sedentary habits contribute to a chronically sick society and stressed healthcare system. It’s not a coincidence that America’s poor state of health from lifestyle-related factors made the U.S. more vulnerable to Covid, and there’s no escaping the fact that we Americans mostly die from preventable diseases due to eating and sitting too much. Why would someone with type 2 diabetes, who knows that losing weight would reduce their risk of blindness, limb amputation, or death, not be able to change their unhealthy lifestyle behaviors? Well, there are good reasons and it has less to do with willpower and more to do with our homo sapien bodies and the cultural and environmental influences that promote and encourage inactivity.

For most of human history our species had to adapt to constantly changing, hostile environments and fight off predators and starvation to survive. As human culture advanced, we built better dwellings, domesticated animals, and settled into a bit more secure lifestyle as farmers, but life was still hard and demanding of our bodies. Then, in the early 1900s with the advent of indoor plumbing, heating, electricity, cars, and grocery stores, we were able to control our environment, allowing us to live in a perpetual state of effortless comfort. Advancements in technology and science have made our lives more convenient, easier, and longer lasting; however, what is comfortable, easiest, and feels good in the moment, can lead to decrepitude over our lifespan. In order to overcome what some social scientists depict as a “comfort crisis”, we need to step out of our comfort zones.

First, our ancient bodies are not well adapted to our present environment of easily accessible, highly processed foods and modern labor-saving devices. If given the choice of chocolate cake over celery, or taking an elevator over stairs, most of us would opt for the sweeter and easier choice. From an evolutionary perspective these unhealthy instincts would have benefited us during times of scarcity. It took our hunter-gatherer ancestors daily, sustained effort in hostile environments to find energy-rich foods, which meant they had to conserve energy for their next meal to increase their chance of survival. Today, we spend most of our time indoors in the comfort of our temperature controlled homes, where you can order a pizza from your couch and have it delivered to your doorstep with little effort. These common lifestyle tendencies makes us vulnerable to marketers who promote unhealthy foods and sedentary living.

Over the years deceptive marketing has convinced many of us that comfort and ease from our busy, over-stressed lives is associated with well-being. Whether it’s Marlboro’s, “Why don’t you settle back and have a smoke,” or McDonald’s “you deserve a break today,” or Lazy Boy Furnishing’s, “Live life comfortably,” the message is clear.– you won’t be content until you try our product. However, these multi-billion dollar corporations don’t truly care about our well-being. They know that selling comfort is very profitable even if it contributes to the ill-health of our society.

The health consequences of indulging in smoking, fast foods, and being sedentary are well documented, yet we’re held captive by the pernicious influences of mass media and our innate, human instincts of seeking immediate gratification. In other words, we almost always choose what feels good or comfortable in the moment at the detriment of our long-term health. The more we pursue external comfort, the more it affects our physical and emotional state. Years of inactivity and passive lifestyles such as being a sport spectator, eventually take a toll on our health. One study found that men who watch more than 23 hours of television a week have a 64 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than men who only watch 11 hours of television a week. Some experts say that people who are inactive and sit for long periods have a 147 per cent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Learning to be comfortable with discomfort is not only important for our health and quality of life as we age, but can also lead to a happier, more fulfilling life. Learning a new skill or being exposed to experiences that challenge us in a variety of ways can be life affirming and a key to being resilient. Polar explorer Ben Saunders, questions our desire for complacency and comfort in his highly viewed TEDTalk, “Why Bother Leaving the House?”. He says, “true inspiration and growth only comes from adversity and challenge… from stepping away from what’s comfortable and familiar, and stepping out into the unknown.” At the end of his talk, Saunders implores us to summon up the courage to leave the comfort and confines of our houses and get outside and into the world! “Not because it’s always pleasant and happy, but because that’s where the meat of life is.”

When we step out of our comfort zone and become more attuned to our innate biology, we become more human and resilient. As a longtime health and fitness instructor, I’m not advocating that we grin and bear more exercise. This clearly has not worked for most people who are tempted to retire to the couch after a long, stress-filled day at work. Instead, there are everyday lifestyle interventions that we can engage in that will help us navigate discomfort and improve our health: sitting on a floor cushion, instead of a soft couch; taking stairs, instead of an elevator; preparing and cooking a wholesome meal at home, instead of opting for fast food; biking to work, instead of driving; getting outdoors and exposing yourself to a range of environments (eg. temperature, sunlight, altitude), instead of being indoors all the time in a temperature-controlled environment. For many of us who struggle with depression and anxiety, or with feelings of isolation and despair brought on by the pandemic, opening our front door and stepping outside for a walk and fresh air could be just what the doctor ordered!

All humans have the same psychological needs — autonomy, a sense of competence, and social connection, which can only be satisfied through active participation, not passive observation. When we spend hours scrolling through our social media feeds, or binge watching sports or our favorite cable TV series, we’re merely spectators in life. Self-determination theory posits that in order to be happy, healthy, and motivated we need to have some control in our daily lives, we need to feel like we’re making progress or getting better at something, and we need to feel a sense of belonging or be part of a group working towards the same goal. All of these needs require active engagement. Let’s not let our sedentary culture persuade us otherwise and push the boundaries of comfort and add more challenge and adventure back into our life.

Share Your Wellness Thoughts: Have you exposed yourself recently to any new experiences that have taken you out of your comfort zone?