In April 2011, the New York Times Magazine published an article asking fitness experts, "What's the Single Best Exercise?" In it, Martin Gibala, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University, suggested the burpee.
Gibala studies high intensity workouts, as his upcoming book, The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That's Smarter, Faster, Shorter, documents. The article said:
"It builds muscles. It builds endurance." He paused. "But it's hard to imagine most people enjoying" an all-burpees program, "or sticking with it for long."
The Habit Begins
On December 22, 2011, I mentioned the article to a friend. One thing led to another and we decided to do 10 burpees a day for 30 days, checking in by text, email, or phone each day.
Today completes my sixth year of daily burpees. 2,192 days. I'm just getting started.
I didn't know or care about research of how to start habits. The point was a fun, friendly challenge.
10 a day turned to 11. 11 to 12. One set per day became 2. By then end of the month we were doing something like 30 per day.
More importantly, doing the burpees felt great. They were hard to start, but finishing felt great. The payoff of feeling great all day outweighed the roughly one minute of push.
I passed Gibala's not imagining people "sticking with it for long" long ago.
I've written many blog posts on my daily burpee habit over the years.
The Habit Grows
During that month, especially while doing the burpees, I couldn't help but think of how much they helped at so little cost. I had dropped my gym membership years before. Yet here was an exercise working most of my major muscle groups, plus my heart and lungs.
I couldn't see a reason to stop and saw many to increase the challenging daily habit. I began thinking in terms of months and years instead of days.
I decided I would do burpees every day for as long as I could. I figure by my 70s and 80s I'll have to decrease my number.
But I've stuck with it since and I consider it one of the best things I've done for my life.
I've continued to increase my habit. When my number felt comfortable enough, I'd add another burpee. Now I do 26 every morning and evening (21 if I do diamond push-ups).
I've added back and ab exercises and stretches to the routine.
Do I claim doing only burpees is the best exercise possible? 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 most major muscle groups
At 45, I'm in nearly the best shape of my life. I've paid exactly zero dollars and zero cents for all of my burpees. Because the equipment takes no space nor adds any weight when I travel, I've done my burpees on six continents. I did them in North Korea.
I've done them when I'm happy. I've done them when depressed. To be precise, I've started them when depressed, but never finished a set depressed. I always finish them exhausted (the rewarding kind of exhaustion) or invigorated, never depressed. As a result, in the past six years, I've never gone more than 12 to 16 hours without recharging myself emotionally.
I've done my burpees through injuries. I've done them when I've come home drunk, which I wouldn't let stop me.
People often say I must have a lot of discipline to keep at it. They have it backward, like saying someone must be strong to lift weights. Lifting weights makes you strong. Doing burpees daily develops discipline.
If you think you lack discipline and want it, that's a reason to do a challenging daily habit, not an excuse not to.
I did burpees through sickness and injury. Actually, I don't remember having any sickness worse than a cold in the past six years. I certainly remember doing them with a runny nose, which is annoying, but not harder.
You develop by doing them through challenge. I did 52 burpees after the marathon I ran two years ago. They were probably my hardest.
Every set is hard, though. They never get easier. On the contrary, my skills increase. Isn't that what you want in life? Isn't that why you read Inc.?
Many others have followed me to start the habit. Are you thinking of doing them, but concerned about your ability? My mom started doing them at around 70 years old. She's a grandmother.
Anyone can do them. If you start with 1 per day, you'll reach 2 soon. As the number grows, so does your skill, strength, balance, and so on.
You may, like my mom, modify them for your physique. She doesn't do a full push-up and she steps forward instead of jumping. You still get the benefits, most of which are as mental as physical.
Mental Fitness As Much As Physical
Despite the physical benefits, I consider the mental development greater. I've started other habits since with ease. My diet has improved, which led to six-pack abs... at 45 years old! ... spending no money on no products taking a few minutes a day.
Someone considering starting the habit asked me, "You don't do burpees when you're tired or busy, right?"
ESPECIALLY when I'm tired or busy! Those give the most. The rest just build up your ability to do those.
Doing burpees every day, no exceptions no excuses, gives me the skill to do what I said I would, to say calm when others lose their cool, to laugh at adversity.
Burpees To Me
At their root, to me, beneath the fitness, the discipline, the cost savings, the diet, the abs, and everything else, burpees still take me to the evening of December 22, 2011 with my friend.
To me they're about friendship and fun more than anything else, which I've made a twice-daily way of life.
[EDIT: A month after writing this post I realized a mistake in my calculations. From December 2011 to December 2016 is FIVE YEARS, not six. Sorry for the mistake. I'll keep the headline, but it should say 1,827 Days of Burpees.
I don't want to change a headline, so I'll keep the article as-is, but please note that I've started my sixth year, not my seventh.]