On December 22, 2011, I did ten burpees, planning with a friend to do ten a day for thirty days.
A friend asked me in my senior year of high school how I had lost my chubbiness from 9th grade, since he and I started with the same body type but I got more fit. My joining the cross country team probably helped. I also played ultimate frisbee with friends when we could on the school’s north lawn, organized by ourselves, not the school.
In any case, running cross country in high school was my first voluntary regular exercise. My grade school didn’t organize sports, though I remember running around a lot during recess, which schools restrict kids from more and more. My family had me play little league baseball and soccer, but I didn’t engage on them that much. On the contrary, I watched a lot of TV growing up. My sedentary childhood makes me feel like I’m still catching up, partly since I never reached the physical potential many teammates did.
Running cross country wasn’t fun, but it was rewarding—the teamwork, the competition, the ride back after a meet, seeing how much better you could become. Ultimate was also fun. I grew to love fitness, competition, striving to achieve my potential, exhaustion, teamwork, discipline, camaraderie, and all that sports and athletics bring.
I become hooked and never stopped sports, athletics, and fitness. I can’t imagine life without them. Rather, if I didn’t actively and vigorously practice them, I would restart them as my first priority.
In college and graduate school I played ultimate, playing in Nationals as a freshman (even mainly warming the bench, I witnessed and participated in what it took to get there). By one’s mid-30s, the number of competitors drops, making the sport less fun, plus aging means that your physical potential drops every year.
Marathons and distance running took over from ultimate. I’ve run six so far, which meant dozens, maybe hundreds of halfs to 20-mile runs. I also joined local gyms for lifting and cardio machines.
For a few years I did yoga about twice a week or more with a teacher I liked a lot. I remember people describing some of the poses I did as beyond impressive.
But marathons are long, as are their training runs, and made me very skinny. Gyms cost money and weren’t fun. Yoga depended on others’ schedules and also cost money. Life was beginning to look like exercise and sports naturally fit into young people’s lives but not older.
Burpees restored fitness
Burpees restored fitness. They cost nothing, took less time than walking to the gym, let alone a full workout. They didn’t depend on weather or anyone else’s schedule. While they weren’t fun like a team sport, they felt great to finish. They developed discipline.
They entered my life at a perfect time, filling the gap that marathons, gyms, and yoga didn’t. They aren’t as much fun as ultimate, but they make up for it by requiring only a few minutes a day. They help me maintain a base level of fitness and vigorous activity.
My feeling that my access to fitness was decreasing led me to see burpees hitting the spot. I saw during that first month that they could fill a gap long increasing since stopping competing seriously in ultimate. Within that month I went from thinking, “I should keep doing these after the month ends” to “how long should I keep them up?” to “I will keep doing them until I can’t.” I wondered when I would stop being able to and figured aging would require me to decrease the numbers in my 60s or 70s. Maybe I’d have to stop in my 80s, maybe not.
Removing the element of choice on which days I’d do them simplified the mental part, creating mental freedom while achieving my fitness goals, and allowed me to focus on how to do them, not if. As my fitness increased, I increased the number. As I learned more about fitness, I added other calisthenics to exercise what burpees didn’t. As I learned more about diet and nutrition, they became part of the picture.
Today begins my eighth year of daily burpees. Now I do 54 most days (3 sets of 9 twice a day, but 3 sets of 8 when I do them with diamond push-ups and 1 set of 26 when I do them nonstop) plus stretching, abs, back, and other calisthenics for a 15-minute twice-daily routine. While eight years may seem like a long unbroken stretch, it’s small compared to my unbroken stretch of brushing my teeth daily, which goes back as far as I can remember.
How you can do it too
I hope your stretch of brushing your teeth daily goes back as far as you can remember. If you can do one burpee, you can do one burpee a day. If you can’t do a burpee, you can do something, as people without legs finish marathons. I once did a 100-mile bike ride with a man with one leg. Whatever you can do, you can do it daily. Whatever you do daily, will develop in you skill, fitness, discipline, and tons of mental skills. Eventually, you’ll be able to do two. Beyond being able to, you’ll crave doing two. You’ll love doing more as you experience the feelings of accomplishment, self-awareness, growing skills, and so on.
After two a day comes three and so on. Even starting from ten, I spent under two minutes per day on my habit for probably the first year. I’ve never spent a penny on my calisthenics. Oh wait, you could count the kettle bells I ended up buying (mostly used from Craig’s List), so maybe something like $150 over eight years. Meanwhile, I spend less on food as a result of fitness helping motivate me away from packaged food and the time I spent exercising kept me from activities that cost money, so fitness has net saved me money.
The point is that burpees turned fitness into saving me time, money, and other resources while creating mental freedom, discipline, fitness, and too many benefits to list, perhaps greatest of all that I expect doing them to make me more fit tomorrow than today, which motivates me to keep at them.
As valuable as I find calisthenics, they’ve receded from being a big deal to me to being like brushing my teeth. They take more discipline and calories, but using internal resources is their point. Fitness increases the internal resources it uses. Regarding external resources, brushing my teeth costs more.
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