He was clutching his knees and his breath still hadn't returned to normal. But he managed to look up and say to me, "That was absolutely brutal...like...the most awful thing I've ever done."

A few minutes later, after the worst of the pain had finally dissipated, he thanked me and wished me a happy weekend.

I just smiled. Another satisfied customer.

The joy of struggle

These are comfortable times.

We live climate-controlled lives where the next meal is just a click away, clean water is abundant and free, and for most of us, there’s no real immediate threat to our safety. Compared to our ancestors or to those less-fortunate around the world, we’ve got it pretty easy.

But exercise provides us with a unique opportunity to experience struggle and discomfort in a way we seldom get to in modern society. And the fact that this discomfort is self-imposed is key to what makes it so important.

After all, a hard workout isn’t something you have to endure, it’s a challenge you choose to take on. It’s self-inflicted suffering. And making the decision to move forward through the discomfort, even though there is no real consequence to calling it quits, is an experience that is tremendously rewarding and has value to other areas of living.

When I finish a difficult run, I get a sense of pride and accomplishment that I don’t get in any other way from my day. It softens the edges of life’s little stresses and so-called problems. I'm calmer. I feel greater sense of control. Through exercise, I get to practice my ability to endure physical hardship, to accept whatever reality I find myself in and continue moving forward, ever focused on the process of simply completing the task at hand.

Exercise provides us with a unique opportunity to experience struggle and discomfort in a way we seldom get to in modern society.

Of course I can’t help but feel a little silly writing this. Hardship? Suffering? I know...I’m thinking it to.

This isn’t real anguish. This isn’t actual adversity. I wouldn’t pretend to know what it’s like to be starving, enslaved, or fearing for my life. My misery is a sort of manufactured kind, born from boredom and privilege.

Perhaps it’s because I have no experience with true suffering, the kind that’s not self-imposed, that I’m so fascinated by it. I’m not sure. But I do know that whatever amount I’ve exposed myself through running and lifting has made me a better person. It’s through the practice of doing difficult things that I experience a richer, more gratifying life.

But in a society so deeply routed in convenience, ease, immediate gratification, exercise is a hard sell. Too often, people try to blunt the pain of exercise and look for ways to make it more pleasurable. They plug in, tune out, and achieve distraction through their treadmill’s built-in TV screen.

If more people got connected with the discomfort of exercise and learned to see it as a gift and an opportunity, the more beneficial of a practice it would be. But by denying the one thing that gives it value, the less likely they are to develop an attachment to it, and ironically, the harder of a habit it becomes to form.

Where's the love?

It would be easy to take everything written to this point to mean that I believe exercise should be some kind of masochistic practice of pain and abuse. The truth is, I don’t believe that at all.

I love running. I love being active and enjoying the outdoors. I get a strange sense of joy from picking up heavy things and putting them back down.

The point that I’m trying to make, and that so many people fail to understand, is that while exercise should be enjoyable, we also shouldn’t hide from the pain---that’s where the good stuff is. The real value of exercise shines through precisely in those moments where it stops being fun, and the opportunity to overcome something difficult presents itself.