Studies Show, You Don’t Grow In Your Comfort Zone

Yale just performed a study that may indicate something about our brains that we’ve known about our muscles all along; that we need change, and sometimes discomfort, in order to grow. No progress can be made in your comfort zone.Grow

A new study by Yale that was published in the journal Neuron watched the activity of monkey’s brains while navigating a simple task. The experiment worked like this: “In the initial experiment, monkeys were given a choice between hitting a red target which provided rewards 80% of the time and a green target that paid off 20% of the time. They quickly learned it was more profitable to hit the red target, so scientists increased uncertainty by switching things and making the green target more profitable. In a second experiment they introduced stability — an orange button always paid off 80% of the time and a blue button always paid off 20% of the time. The monkeys stopped learning, and brain activity related to learning in the frontal cortex was dramatically reduced.” (Yale News)

The meaning that the researchers pulled from this experiment is that uncertainty lights up the parts of our brains that help us learn and adapt, and that uncertainty may be necessary for learning. It may be that when we are in our comfort zones, we don’t learn or change as much, because what we’re doing now is “working”–the best strategy for survival is to simply stay the course. If you want to grow and change, then you need to leave your comfort zone. There may be some debate about how exactly discomfort and uncertainty affects human learning compared to the monkeys in the study, but we do know what discomfort does for our muscles.

Your Muscles Will Not Grow Without Discomfort

Your muscles change and adapt to the needs you require of them. If the heaviest thing you ever picked up was fifty pounds, your muscles would eventually grow strong enough to pick up fifty pounds, and not beyond that. Similarly, if someone suffers a serious injury and an extended hospitalization, their muscles will severely atrophy if they don’t keep using them. Our muscles adapt to the stimulus they are given.

That’s the principle behind strength training; it’s not enough to pick up the amount of weight that you can comfortably pick up and stop before you get tired. That’s working within your limits and your comfort zone, and your body gets the signal that “this is enough; we are equal to the challenge. No change needed.” But if you go to your limit, and then keep going, your limits will expand.

Here’s what happens when you have an effective workout, and push your muscles to failure: you will experience discomfort, a stress to the muscle tissue, and then possibly some Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness the next few days. But during the recovery, is when the magic happens: your brain sends a series of chemical signals to your muscles. As your muscles recover from the stress caused by the workout, they will not recover to the point they were before the workout; they will surpass that and become stronger. If you want to grow, you need to leave your comfort zone and embrace failure to complete the work. As we like to say, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

To talk about how you can expand your limits, talk to a trainer at Vertex Fitness.


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