February 25, 2022
Intentional Suffering to Progress in our Health and Fitness
WRITTEN BY Amanda O'Brien

Suffering: /ˈsəf(ə)riNG/ noun: suffering; plural noun: sufferings

  1. the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.

Modern agriculture and technology—and our indulgent culture in general—have rendered us unconscious of the need for suffering, and intolerant of any kind of pain. We have taken the American Dream and turned it into an expectation that we should be comfortable all the time.

It is quite possible to exist today without physical suffering. The pain of a headache or sore joints can be addressed with Tylenol or Advil. Forgoing the suffering that ensues from waiting in line at the grocery store can be eliminated by ordering curbside. The pain that often accompanies childbirth can be avoided with an epidural, and almost every illness, virus, or sinus infection can be suppressed with medication. Avoiding the suffering of an awkward phone conversation can be sidestepped simply by texting instead.

What we have failed to realize is that suffering has been a critical component of where we find ourselves today. Without willing to suffer in order to discover new lands, invent new tools and infrastructure, or even forage for food to sustain life, who knows where we would be today? Thankfully, we don’t have to travel hundreds of miles by foot to escape harsh weather or protect our tribes, but there is an element of suffering that provides great benefits we have failed to acknowledge.

In regard to health and fitness, a lack of suffering can make it more difficult to do the “hard things” that can be crucial in maintaining proper health. As health and fitness coaches we have found through observation that those who have endured more suffering have the ability to handle more discomfort both inside and outside the gym to reach specific goals.

Showing up to the gym, logging food to enhance awareness, decreasing or increasing calorie consumption, abstaining from processed foods and alcohol, drinking 80oz of water, and walking 10,000 steps per day can feel like suffering that must be avoided. The more we can purposefully challenge ourselves to endure discomfort and suffering, the easier these simple tasks will become habits, thus creating a higher likelihood of success. The right amount of suffering strengthens both the mind and the body in a beneficial way.

The hormetic response

Hormesis is defined as a phenomenon in which a harmful substance (in small doses) gives stimulating and beneficial effects to living organisms. It’s more commonly known as an adaptive response of cells to a specific stressor. Examples include dietary energy, infra-red sauna use, cold water immersion, and low doses of certain phytochemicals. We have two blogs that go into detail about how the hormetic response works in relation to hot and cold therapies. You can read more by clicking the links below:

Infrared Sauna Use… Is it Worth the Hype?

Cold Water Therapy…Is it worth the discomfort?


Exercise is another example of the hormetic response and requires a state of suffering to elicit the necessary adaptations to reach one's health and fitness goals. In regard to resistance training, the mechanical stress of lifting external loads needs to cause a specific level of stress on the tendons and ligaments in order for them to thicken and strengthen. This is why progressive overload is the bread and butter of adequate strength training. If there is not some level of discomfort in your training, it will be nearly impossible to improve performance over time. The same is true for strength improvements as it is for cardiovascular improvements. Those who endure more physical “suffering” in their day-to-day life have an easier time accepting the level of discomfort necessary to see performance improvements.


While in western civilizations it may be natural to reject suffering by fighting it, repressing it, or medicating it, some cultures welcome suffering as an important role in the path toward enlightenment. The Tibetan monk Rinpoche discusses the four benefits of suffering as wisdom, compassion, resilience, and deep respect for reality. When things go well, we rarely stop to ask questions about our lives. These tough questions that evolve through difficult circumstances can create a deeper sense of self. When an individual has a deeper meaning as to why fitness and health are important to them, it becomes “easier” to stay the course when things get tough.

Do you avoid discomfort or welcome it? This is an important question to reflect on to better understand how things show up in your life and how you choose to respond. Instead of running away from discomfort, challenge yourself to acknowledge it, feel it, face it head-on and see how life changes over time. At Central Athlete we understand that to produce change that leads to positive results, we need to provide the right amount of challenge and support for each individual. Change is uncomfortable, but the more equipped you are to handle discomfort the more likelihood of success you will have.

If you are looking to take your health and fitness to the next level and are ready for a coach that challenges and supports you in your endeavors both inside and outside the gym, reach out to a Central Athlete coach today to book a free strategy session and learn more!

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