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The Secret of Adaptation

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There’s a school of thought that suggests those who adapt most effectively to their situation, environment, circumstance, or challenge are the ones who ultimately survive. At the very least, they do the best and succeed where others don’t. We see this play out in nature, business, relationships, sport, politics, and life in general.

Our world, and nearly everything in it, is dynamic – that is, in a perpetual state of change. Great for those who get bored easily, but scary for those creatures of habit who are comfortable with familiarity and the same. While the same can be comfortable and safe (what we like) for a while, it can also be boring, unfulfilling, frustrating, and unrewarding in the long term.

The irony is that the very thing most of us want (to learn, grow, succeed, improve, and win) is usually facilitated by the thing we typically do our best to avoid: discomfort. In all its various forms (physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, financial, and social), discomfort is a very real and ever-present part of out lives. It is a very real path to emotional development and personal growth.

While we don’t want to live in discomfort-ville, it’s when we deal with (and don’t avoid) discomfort (situation, circumstance, and challenge) that we begin to develop the necessary skills, strength, and attitude to move forward. That’s where the adaptation happens. By spending our life trying to stay perpetually comfortable and safe, we are actually depriving ourselves of some amazing opportunities to grow, learn, and do and be amazing – to get strong.

We stress about change, but the interesting thing about stress is that while it is commonly associated with all the negative stuff, it also has the potential to be a major positive if we manage it the right way. When we talk about general stress we usually classify it into two different categories:

Distress: The bad one that results in anxiety, fear, unhappiness, depression, and physical illness.

Eustress: The good one that gets us moving to create positive outcomes. We all need a certain level of eustress to keep us moving, doing and creating.

Keep in mind that stress on an individual level, good or bad, is largely dependant on our interpretation of what’s going on around us, how we deal with it, and how we adapt. One person’s distress may be another person’s eustress depending on what it represents to them and how they deal with it.

Stress can be best described as an internal response to an external situation, event, or circumstance. That is, we create stress. It’s not about our situation; it’s about us in the situation. We don’t adapt by avoiding certain situations or issues. We develop, learn, grow, and improve by facing up to and working through those challenges.

Don’t be an avoider! When you take your head out of the sand, it (whatever “it” is for you) will still be there to deal with. So deal with it! Be an adapter.

In Exercise Science we talk about a thing called progressive overload. In simple terms, progressive overload means we stress our body with exercise (all exercise is a form of physical stress) and then it adapts (gets stronger, fitter, faster, bigger, smaller, more flexible, and healthier). Simple enough.

The second part of the story is that if we want to see continued improvement (adaptation), we need to keep stressing the body in new, different, and progressive ways. Typically, we see people who are new to exercise make significant gains for a while (weeks to months), but then those improvements start to slow, if not stop completely.

One of the biggest mistakes people make with their exercise regime (other than giving up within the first month) is that after a period of time they will (typically) do the same thing, the same way, for the same amount of time at the same intensity – forever — and then wonder why their body isn’t changing.

It ain’t changing ’cause it don’t need to, baby!

This common exercise scenario (doing the same thing the same way) is, for many of us, a metaphor for our life. We don’t get stronger (adapt) because we avoid anything that hurts. We stop challenging ourselves. We do the same. We become creatures of predictability and repetition. Sometimes (not all the time), that pain is exactly what we need (not want): a little short-term pain for some long-term gain.

Our bodies and our minds will only adapt when we give them reasons to, and most people following most exercise programs are not adapting (progressing), they are maintaining. They are not giving their body a reason to change.

The majority of people in gyms around the world are maintaining (staying in the same place physically) and not progressing because they continually stimulate their body the same way. Same creates same. Different creates different. It ain’t rocket science.

This is exactly what we do with our relationships, our careers, our financial situations, our ambitions, our dreams, and our life. We follow a very safe, predictable, comfortable, boring, unfulfilling, and frustrating maintenance program and end up exactly where we didn’t want to be.

Why don’t you step out of your holding pattern and become an adapter?

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About Craig Harper