Wikipedia tells us that suffering, or pain, “is an individual's basic affective experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm”. The threat can be physically or emotionally provoked, and physically or emotionally experienced, or both. Delayed onset muscle soreness, for example, is a physical symptom, while a sense of failure is an emotionally prompted insult. As trainers and coaches we may be fooling our clients when we dispel the old saying No Pain No Gain. In fact it is this very insult, this disharmony, this unpleasantness, which creates the space for adaptation and growth, be it physical or emotional.

On occasion when physical limits are pushed muscle soreness is the result. As fitness connoisseurs we have learned to recognize this discomfort as it relates to muscle fiber adaptation. While this experience may feel unpleasant, and perhaps painful, it may have a positive impact on total well-being. I was reminded of these physical and emotional sensations today during my last few challenging repetitions. Certainly, with our clients, we must consider health history, age, physical limitations and desired goals, before considering how far down the rabbit hole we want to lead them.

In examining delayed onset muscle soreness pain, for instance, we can hold to be that there are at least three ways that this suffering may be a gain. Firstly, there is value in stretching one’s physical boundaries, in that here, in the challenge, lies the potential for improvement and growth. Moving through a threshold, now, helps us diminish future obstacles. Secondly, “ is this not how we learn our boundaries?” Given that physical stress is a warning that there is disharmony, or possibly, an impending insult, this line of demarcation serves to define a physical boundary. It clearly delineates where we have been, and what, perhaps, we have not physically experienced. Thirdly, if we give up when faced with a challenge we can never know whether further effort, either harder, or differently, might have succeeded in a greater gain. We will never know what is down our own rabbit hole.

The client who is always late, or the one that talks incessantly during workouts may be using distraction in order to avoid the anxiety provoked with a change in behavior. Change itself becomes the impending threat, the process to endure. Perhaps you’ll agree that most change is not spontaneous, without effort or intention. The internal conflict between who we were, are, and will be, can be an enormous commitment. Yet one achieves a house with blue prints alone. It is when we work the plan that we manifest change. Growth is filling the gap between what we know and what we do. While clients intellectually know, for example the benefits of exercise, many are not vested emotionally or physically. The lights are on but nobody’s home. They have yet to embrace the ensuing process of change. Acceptance of the emotional struggle ahead serves as the impetus out of the muddle.

In accepting the uncertainty, and impending discomfort of change, we, and our clients are freed to choose a new course of action. When this action is repeated with willing discipline, over and over, this new change becomes an independent mode of behavior and a reflection of our identity. We reconnect with the essence of who we are and define for ourselves a new expression of what we value. It is in this defining workshop that I change. As Bruce Lipton says in his book the Biology of belief “Learning to harness your mind to promote growth is the secret of life.”

Mahatma Gandhi made this connection in this manner

Your Beliefs become Your Thoughts
Your Thoughts become Your Words
Your Words become Your Actions
Your Actions become Your Habits
Your Habits become Your Values
Your Values become Your Beliefs

Consider our perhaps innate resistance to change. It has been suggested that the longer we stay in protection mode, the more we compromise our growth. * We can not simultaneously contract and stretch. When we are guarding off offensives we have little energy for expansion. This may be what Buddha insinuates when he says acceptance frees us of the internal war. If I accept that suffering is a fixed part of life I may not spend my life in distraction, fleeing from pain and chasing pleasure. In accepting that light does not exist without dark, I am now free to embrace pain and move through it rather than deny it. This reminds me of a client’s long time struggle and final success with smoking.

DV How do you handle the urges to smoke?
EM I understand that it is an urge and that it will go away when I stay strong in my beliefs. My dad, told me when he quit, that the urges would come and that I needed to reach down inside and connect with what I truly valued. I hang in there till the urges go away.

As personal trainers we focus on action, and the repeativeness of said action. We know that change is not sustainable without reprogramming “hard wired” beliefs. We know intellectually that our clients can integrate new behaviors, and have a renewed sense of self. Yet our map may not be the map the client needs to get out of her jungle. What “we know” about pain or behavioral change, or new rituals, may have no bearing. It is what the client knows that tells all. Asking the client questions like, “What are you telling yourself about this new behavior that is blocking your moving forward? “What are you afraid to lose? What are you afraid to reveal? What pain are you avoiding? How is this new behavior more supportive of who you truly are?, may more rapidly reveal the source of the unconscious resistance. This approach tends to acknowledge the client as the responsible problem solver.

Metamorphosis is not for the lazy, the faint- hearted, or the person that does not consciously desire change. A client may agonize over his being overweight but make no conscious effort to lose weight beyond showing up for sessions. He knows the pain he lives with, has identified with it, it is fixed, and it is endurable. A new, way, ritual, or habit may lead to a temporary loss of self and a deemed higher level of anxiety and suffering. And while they may tell us, and themselves, they want change, they stay stuck in the contemplative stage of change, subconsciously, continuously, replaying the same old tape. For some, this internal conflict is a lack of luminescence, awareness. For others, it is their chosen manner. Understanding this distinction can clarify for us, as mentors, a more honed approach with our individual clients. It may also sooth our sense of frustration with client non-compliance.

Freedom, or the ability to choose, comes at a price. First, freedom has to be perceived to be real. An ant, as an example of a story I read in “How People Change”, has the potential to climb onto a sheltered ledge of a car and be driven to a hilltop picnic, rather than be crushed in a parking lot by one of thousands of wheels. But, of course, this is from my vantage point and not that of the ant’s. Yet what eludes the ant’s present consciousness may be a key to its more abundant life. As presence must be a learned behavior, (or there would not be so many books on how to do it,) I conclude that integrating a new skill, once again takes effort, exercise, and what some of us think of as painful – continuous work. Can you just imagine the toil the ant would undergo to have the picnic potentiality?

The American College of Sports Medicine’s new guidelines for stretching recommends the practice 2 to 3 days a week, holding the stretches for 30-60 seconds, and performing more than or equal to 4 repetitions per muscle group. Now this is a real s t r e t c h for me. I certainly have the mental wherewithal to practice such a protocol. I have the freedom to step out of my self-limiting box. I have the potential to change my resistive self-talk. Then what blocks my action? Could it be pain? To me boring is painful and stretching is boring. What if I told myself a different story? Would then my thoughts become my words, my words become my actions?

Have you ever though about what a life without pain would look like? How would we know pleasure, its polar opposite? Does not embracing pain break down roadblocks? If pain is a signal that something is up, and that we need to attend to it, then eluding it is an illusion. If I elude pain through avoidance behaviors I endure the pain over a greater period of time. I may even be compounding my pain with unhealthy distractions. If in fact I discipline myself to do more stretching I balance myself emotionally and physically. I shorten my self-flagellation and allow for new possibilities and greater peak experiences.

Giving up something is always painful. How many times have we heard the sentence, “Well I did not have to exercise before to keep my weight down”? We grieve loss before we move forward. In accepting the sting of grief, we take responsibility, and step into a system of techniques that defines constructive problem solving. We move from contemplative to action. The steps are not without discomfort. Yet we will never reach the light at the end of the tunnel without going through the dark. Instant gratification is a siren call. It distracts us from true peak experiences, that as Abraham Maslow professes, can only be attained through daily conscious effort to tame our instinctual urges.

Effort is crucial to self-care and self-care is crucial to health. Ongoing self-examination and discipline does not always make us happy, but laziness does not serve us well. We in the business of health are often teased for our attachment to eating healthy foods and practicing healthy habits. This gain certainly does not mean that we are disciplined in all aspects of our lives, but, it’s a good start. Our mastery skills in this area can be useful in areas of our greater challenges. While fitness may be a strong value for us, and therefore it puts wind in our sail, we too wane and are distracted. Discipline is never without effort.

Self-care is an ongoing process that implies effort. We have to be brave and we have to love ourselves to be guided by our own inner light, our own motivating values. Keeping that light lit is a daily challenge, a daily responsibility and a daily confirmation of our love of self. Love is active not passive. When we nurture the practice of love, like a muscle, it gets stronger and more supportive.

Perhaps are clients are best served when we help them embrace the agony in change, and love them for their efforts.

*Biology of Belief Bruce Lipton PhD
How People Change Allen Wheelis
The Road Less Traveled M. Scott Peck
Thomas Leonard The Portable Coach
Buddha Deepak Chopra
ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription eighth edition

Author's Bio: 

Danielle Vindez holds the vision of optimal health, conscious eating, proper exercise, and mental balance, for all those seeking to transform their lives. She serves as a role model, a health coach, a personal trainer, and a fellow student in the search for excellence. She has opened a world renowned health club, worked at exercise and nutrition clinics, has been active in national research studies, makes presentations on well-being in her local community, and implements worksite health programs. Danielle received a BA in Sociology from UCLA, is a graduate of Coach University, holds certifications from ICF (ACC), ACSM (CHFS), NSCA (CSCS), and ACE (LWMC).