​“Reach for what you cannot.”

Dial “C” for Comfortable — 1991

In preaching the gospel of fitness, I emphasize the word ’comfortable.‘ Whatever the activity it should be done comfortably.

Most people believe the opposite. To be of any value, exercise should be uncomfortable. People are quite sure their exertions should involve, if not pain, at least some discomfort. They are certain that shortness of breath is a requirement for attaining any level of fitness.

Many people are further distressed by the publicized pulse levels needed for any positive effect on the body. Almost every article on fitness adverts to the target rate, and the series of calculations needed to establish it. Below that rate, we are told, the exercise will give little, if any, benefit.

My message is simple: “Comfortable” - a pace determined by consulting your body is the training rate. It is the midpoint on the eight-step Borg scale of Perceived Exertion, which ranges from very, very light to very, very hard.

It takes a little practice to find the precise level that is comfortable. The body is the most sophisticated instrument ever devised, but we tend to get out of touch with it. The body does not speak English. It has its own language and comfortable is a perception of a multitude of body responses. Veteran athletes slip into this mode immediately. Tyros frequently have some difficulty.

There are some tips I give my audiences. I associate comfortable with a pace at which I can converse with a companion-“The talk test.” When alone, I follow Alfie Shrubb’s suggestion for the marathon: “Find a pace at which you could fall asleep.”

Since I acquired a 10-speed bike, I have found the Borg scale much easier to explain. By shifting gears, I can go from very, very light to very, very hard in a matter of seconds. With a flick of the finger I can make instantaneous adjustments to duplicate any stage of the Borg scale. The various levels of effort once experienced in that way can be recognized quite easily in other activities.

The 10-speed bike also teaches the importance of tempo. Biking is done at individually established revolutions per minute. The tempo maintained whatever the terrain or the wind speed-and maintained at a constant level or effort. I accomplish this by shifting gears. On the bike, I have to keep shifting gears to remain in the comfortable zone while I am at my self-imposed tempo.

This concept applies to running and walking as well. Just this past week, I was jogging on a track and was passing walkers and was being passed by younger runners. All of us, I discovered, were taking the same number of steps per minute, i.e. we were all at the same tempo. All of us, however, were in different gears. In order to remain in our own “comfortable” zones, we had shortened or lengthened our stride.

In 30 minutes on the track, all of us, whether runners or walkers, and whatever our ability, had taken the same number of strides. It is this tempo, the number of repetitions per minute, that is the key to developing endurance in our muscles. Having established that tempo, it is relatively simple to find the stride length to go with it.

Using comfortable as the way to pass time on the road has obvious advantages. There is no need to consult my pulse. It also eliminates fatigue and shortness of breath and other bodily sensations that are the enemies of thought. Such sensations limit consciousness to the immediate present.

Being comfortable allows me to put my body on automatic pilot, and go wandering into the unexplored recesses of my mind.