[This post is part of a series on my daily exercise and starting and keeping challenging habits. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Today, December 21, 2012, marks the 365th day of my exercise regiment of daily burpees. They began with me talking to a friend about exercise, then deciding to do ten a day for thirty days, then expanded to a consistent long-term daily routine.
I now do two sets of twenty per day — one just after getting up and one just before going to bed — and four stretches before the morning set. Do I claim doing only burpees is the best exercise I could? No. But you’ll be hard pressed to find an exercise with such great characteristics:
- No equipment needed
- No gym needed
- No other people needed
- Negligible risk of injury
- Can be done in any weather at any time
- Builds heart and lungs
- Works several major muscle groups
Besides, I don’t only do burpees. I also stretch. This year I played ultimate frisbee twice a week for a few months. I run when the weather inspires me. I row sometimes. And I do random other things, like walking a few miles sometimes or walking up stairs to nineteenth floor offices. Even if I did only do burpees, the New York Times reported on a fitness expert suggesting burpees as the best single exercise.
What’s a burpee?
If you want to do some and haven’t done them before you can start with ones without the push-ups or jumping. Or you can do push-ups with your knees on the ground. You know, I shouldn’t call them easier burpees. One burpee without push-ups or jumping may be easier than one with them, but you can always just do more of them to make a work out burn as many calories.
I think the ones I do work more muscle groups — in particular the push-ups doing something with your arms and chest. Still, if anything gives out first, my legs do in the jump when I have a high target to reach for when I jump.
They have become one of my core daily routine elements, like brushing my teeth. I plan to do them until my body gives out doing them.
Things you do daily help define you. What does this one say about me? Most of all, it says I value health, physical activity, and consistency. Since I check in on doing it with my friend it says I value my friendship with him, friendship in general, and accountability. I value convenience and not making excuses.
Ten burpees will get most people winded. I did sixteen in a minute the first I timed myself in January so I presume my total burpee exercise started at under one minute per day, rising to maybe three minutes per day now.
These are the emotions my routine starts and finishes my day with. Can you think of anything better? Other exercises and routines may do better, but the ease of doing these and garnering the following emotions every day makes them attractive.
Doing them at all makes me feel friendly and healthy.
Having started the program and continuing it makes me feel responsible.
The physical effort makes me feel accomplished and exhausted.
Feeling healthy makes me not crave unhealthy food, which makes me feel free. Being able to eat and drink whatever I want, knowing my health is covered, makes me feel more free.
Sharing the exercises with others is fun.
Sharing them publicly makes me feel accountable.
Successfully maintaining the program makes me feel accomplished and capable to do other projects, especially challenging long-term ones.
Knowing no matter what my mood, stretching and burpees will improve it makes me feel resilient, calm, and stable.
Not needing equipment, weather, or a gym makes me feel independent.
Not accepting excuses makes me feel capable and optimistic. Learning not to come up with excuses makes me feel confident.
I can’t think of punishing or painful emotions or feelings burpees bring me. Before I do them I often feel like I don’t want to do them — maybe feelings of futility and laziness — but once I do the first one I always finish the set, which creates many of the above emotions and overrides the punishing and painful ones.
Application to the rest of life
I can’t tell you how much it helps to know intellectually that I have something so simple and mechanical that can overcome and override punishing and painful feelings. If I feel lethargic or in some way bad, I can do my burpees and I feel revitalized. I long ago realized I could manage my emotions in general and knew exercise helped, but until burpees didn’t have something so accessible and effective — more so, even, than running or walking.
This mechanical way to manage your emotions with merely modest willpower applies to all areas of life. Once you know you can do it for some emotions, you know you can do it with all emotions.
When I had some multiple-month gut-wrenching challenges earlier this year I made sure not to give up the burpees. I knew that the routine would keep me resilient, calm, and stable, and it did.
I haven’t missed a burpee this year. I don’t expect to miss any more. If you communicate with me, feel free to ask how my burpees went that morning, because I will have done them.
I’ve done them alone, with people, in public, indoors, outdoors, drunk, sober, hungry, full, early, late, happy, frustrated, and every way you can imagine feeling and being every day for a year. I’ve done them in New York City, Hollywood, North Korea, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines.
I haven’t done them sick. This year hasn’t seen even had a headache to stop me. Are the burpees contributing to my health? I imagine so. Lack of exercise would probably make me unhealthy so, as most of my exercise, I think they must. I’ve fallen asleep before doing burpees, then woken back up (there tends to be alcohol involved with falling asleep first, which also leads to waking up to have to go to the bathroom) and done my evening set at 4am. I don’t ask myself if I want to do them or think about how maybe I can skip this one set or something like that. I just do my burpees. The mental effort I save not dwelling of if I should do them or not actually feels greater than the calories I burn doing them.
Benefits of consistency
By making them a routine, I’ve taken choice out of the equation, so I just do them. My friend’s advice
If you miss one day you can miss two. If you miss two it’s all over.
has kept me consistent. My success with burpees has led me to apply that principle to many places — notably stretching and finally starting to floss daily without exception. Now I can’t imagine going to sleep without flossing — I’ve become too accustomed to clean teeth to skip.
I wouldn’t have expected to learn how much such a solid routine of something so challenging helps. I don’t pretend twenty burpees is anything grueling, but they’re serious exercise. Ten will get you winded.
Since your mind and body make excuses to avoid doing them, you learn just to do things. You don’t necessarily ignore those excuses. You just don’t succumb to them. You don’t need willpower. You develop the mental skills to do what you consciously want over the inevitable and incessant objections and distractions of your lazier parts. Anyone knows the value of that.
I started with ten a day, any time. My friend and I increased the number a few times in the first thirty days as well as one doubling when we added an extra set per day.
In the eleven months since I increased a burpee per set every now and then. I also added stretches. By November 3 I had been doing sixteen every morning and fifteen every evening with four stretches before the morning set for a few months. Periodically I would do more if I ate or drank more empty calories than usual.
On November 4th I took my dad out for his birthday and had a rich, cheesy meal. That night I did twenty burpees and then continued to do two sets of twenty burpees a day from then on, my biggest jump — from 31 to 40 per day — since doubling last January.
I expect to stay at two sets of twenty per day for a long time. I might increase if I feel like it, but this number works well for me.
I’ve done about nine to ten thousand burpees this year. If I remember right, that roughly follows a year of 500,000 meters on the rowing machine. This year I believe I have a guaranteed entry to the New York City Marathon, so I’ll have a few years of consistent exercise.
I don’t try to persuade anyone, but people around me do burpees with me — from my mother and stepfather, approaching 70 years old, to my nieces and nephews, down to five years old. Friends have done them too.
I think I’ll do a hundred burpee day soon (EDIT: done!). They keep me warm in these cold, unheated Shanghai buildings. If I like it I’ll do more hundred burpee days. One year down. A few dozen years to go.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees