In the world of fitness, practice doesn't just make you perfect, it also makes you more comfortable.
As you first dig into a new fitness regimen, as many people do this time of year, the discomfort of exercise can be, well, uncomfortable. The burning muscles and gasping for breath can feel desperate.
Experience at exercise will eventually transform these early trials into feel-good experiences, but at first your systems can't deliver what exercise demands of them. The sensations of breathlessness and burning muscles, for example, correlate with the intensity of your effort. When you're out of shape, numerous receptors all over your body beg your brain to slow down: I can't maintain this. As you beef up each system, however, fewer receptors holler for mercy because your systems are no longer working so close to their maximum capacity. Eventually, the number of receptors screaming at your brain will level off, and more pleasant sensations will be able to rise to a conscious level. The signal that was once an emergency siren will become just a familiar signpost: I've pushed this hard before. I can handle it. It'll be OK.
Unfortunately, folks often give up training before this happens because they believe that early discomfort is a signal that they are not cut out for exercise.
The truth is, everyone is cut out for exercise.
Early exercise discomfort is natural and universal - it happens to everyone. But fear of those initial sensations can cause people to play it safe. So they end up choosing activities that come easy to them and avoid new types of fitness training.
Ironically, the areas that challenge you are often the ones you need most to achieve balanced overall fitness, according to exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D. Testa also points out that these areas hold the potential for the greatest leaps in benefit.
Some scientists now believe that your body signals you to stop exercise well before the point of exhaustion, to keep a little in reserve in case you need to run from that lion in your evolutionary past. But each time you can motivate yourself to push through that point, your body sets the limit a little higher. Continuing to exercise will actually "immunize" you against the discomfort you feel when you first start out.
That is, until you reach the competitive level.
At elite levels, all of the athletes competing against one another possess very similar physical abilities. Testa contends that at this level, what determines the winner is who can take the most pain. The ones who can motivate themselves through progressively higher levels of discomfort end up at the top of their sport, says Testa, but, he adds, when they are competing, they are all in pain.
That was definitely true for me. When I was competing, I was nervous before races, but not about winning or losing. I was nervous about how much suffering there was going to be - how much it was going to hurt. These days, things are different. I get to sample a number of sports and experience the various pleasures each has to offer - eventually.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Exercise Bible, for a Leaner, Healthier Body in Just 12 Weeks (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenothopaedics.com)