The new year brings with it both irrational hope and unnecessary pressure. An arbitrary stake in the chronological sand signifies new hope, new beginnings, tabula rasa. That brand new kitten calendar is a blank slate; well, minus the kittens.
Yes, and we promise ourselves that we’ll fill up those calendars with awesome achievements. We’ll stop smoking, take a cooking class, write more, sleep less, learn to juggle chainsaws. These are our resolutions, and at the top of the list–just slightly above the chainsaw thing–is exercise/weight loss. “This is going to be the year that I lose my baby fat,” says our imaginary New Years party guest, never mind that he’s standing in front of our open refrigerator, squirting Easy Cheese straight into his gaping maw. “What? It’s the 31st. My resolution doesn’t start until tomorrow.”
Entire industries prey on the resolution-minded, none more so than the fitness industry. This is the time of year that gyms offer amazing teaser deals and airwaves are flooded with ads for fitness equipment, but it’s certainly not the only time of the year that we’re confronted with a baffling array of fitness solutions. It seems like everybody has the answer to our fitness problem for a price, be it gyms, personal trainers, manufacturers of both real equipment like treadmills and junk like ab rockers, and the seemingly endless workouts published in magazines.
Over the course of my adult life, I’ve given money to all of the above. At one point or another I’ve been a gym rat, kept binders of workouts clipped from the many fitness magazines to which I subscribed, and purchased equipment. Granted, none of my gear purchases sank to Thighmaster lows, but dating back to my first mechanical pedometer I’ve spent thousands on heart rate monitors, fitness trackers, free weights, treadmills, stationary trainers for bikes, and balls of both the yoga and medicine variety.
As far as I can remember, none of that cash outlay was the result of a new year’s resolution; rather, for the majority of my adult life I’ve just been a guy who enjoys doing physical things. That changed a few years ago for reasons that aren’t particularly interesting, and as expected it caught up with me. I don’t think I realized how out of shape I was until I received my new driver’s license, which featured a waxy, Halloween mask replica of my face melting into my undefined neck.
A visit to the scale confirmed what the DMV’s ace photographer captured: I was getting chunky. We’re not talking TLC Network heavy here, but overweight nonetheless. My waist had become an outie rather than an innie and my upper torso had lost any semblance of a vee. I don’t want to exaggerate: I’m sure that I still looked like someone’s “after” photo, but I had turned into my own “before” photo.
Now, I told you a couple of minutes ago that I fell into a sedentary lifestyle for reasons that aren’t particularly interesting, and while that remains true those reasons are relevant to what happened next. I’m prone to obsessive compulsive behavior, and that manifested itself very clearly in the fitness arena. “Why can’t you do anything like a normal person?” someone close to me at the time asked, and not with admiration. My legal pads filled with columns of mileage, calories, reps, pounds, heart rates, and sleep durations were symptoms rather than data according to this person, as was the work that went into those numbers. I was one sick individual, apparently, so yada yada yada I went on meds for OCD and sat my ass on the couch just to prove that I could do something like a normal person. See? I’m not sick! Pass the Easy Cheese!
The combination of meds and fear of falling back into obsessive behaviors regarding exercise led to weight gain. Eventually I stopped taking the meds because, like everybody who is prescribed medication to treat mental health issues, I decided that I was better now. But was I? Could I exercise “like a normal person” or would I fall back into old patterns? And how does a formerly fit but now out of shape chunky monkey ease back into fitness?
The new year approached, so I decided to try an experiment. I would choose an exercise that required nothing external–no gym, no gear, no anything. It had to be portable, weather resistant, and in no way dependent upon time of day so that I could make no excuses. I would change nothing else about my life–no dietary changes, no supplements, no alterations to my activity level beyond this one exercise. Additionally, I would measure nothing, as doing so was likely to affect the outcome. If I tracked my weight, for example, I might be tempted to change my diet, and while that wouldn’t be bad in the grand scheme of things it would certainly affect my little experiment. The same might be true for “before” photos or body measurements like waist circumference. Besides, wasn’t measuring such things symptomatic of my batshit craziness according to that voice in my past?
Push-ups seemed like a good choice. One can do a push-up anywhere at any time. They require no special clothing or equipment, and countless websites to the contrary no special training is needed. All you have to do is lie down on your belly and push yourself up. A regular old “on your toes” push-up requires you to lift 64 percent of your body weight. If that’s more than you can lift, a modified or “on your knees” push-up means lifting 49 percent of your body weight. Still too much weight? Change your incline by resting your hands on a coffee table or counter top. The higher your chest is above your toes, the less weight you have to lift. Heck, even leaning against a wall and pushing yourself away requires work. Anybody can do a push-up of some sort.
So I would do push-ups and not worry about my form, but how many should I do and how should I ease into it? People are notorious for coming out of the gate too strong and then giving up when hit with a bad case of post-workout soreness, and on top of that I was battling the ghost of “why can’t you do anything like a normal person.” My plan needed to mandate a gentle ramp up. Here’s where the new year comes in.
While I refused to call it a resolution, I decided that I’d match the number of push-ups to the day of the year. That’s right: On January 1, 2019 I did one push-up. I have no idea how many I could have done. The plan called for one, and one is what I did. And while that same plan called for measuring nothing, I made an exception for tracking my progress. I started a spreadsheet with calendar dates in column A and number of reps in column B. This led to the unrealistic expectation that on December 31 I would pump out a set of 365 push-ups. Allegedly the average number of push-ups for a man my age is 9-17, so I added a new rule: All that mattered was that the number of push-ups matched the day of the year, not the number of sets. If I did 365 sets of one push-up each on December 31, that was equal to one set of 365.
I had completely isolated myself from all of the noise surrounding exercise–nobody (including myself) commenting on my form or how I laid out my sets. No rest days or balancing muscle groups. No calorie counting or heart rate goals. I was pretty much doing everything wrong according to the experts so surely I couldn’t expect any benefits, right?
On January 2, I did two push-ups, then three, then four. My first week totaled 21 push-ups. I probably shouldn’t brag, but that’s a whopping three per day on average. The second week spiked up to 70. Seventy, can that be correct? Adding one push-up per day resulted in a 49 rep increase per week? Of course it did: Adding one push-up per day meant that I was doing seven more reps on each day of the following week.
I blew past day 17, the upper end of average for my age, and was still getting them done in a single set. On February 1 I did 32 push-ups in one set–excellent for my age, according to the charts. I was beginning to feel pretty good about this thing, but who knows? Maybe if I had somebody nitpicking my form I would have only done 10 or some such.
That first month I knocked out 496 total push-ups. On day 45, Valentine’s Day, I crossed the 1,000 mark, and I was still doing them in a single set. That streak ended on day 57, but that was okay. It was all about getting them done, after all, not getting them done in one big set. Still, I thought I could do better. I crossed the 5,000 push-up mark on April 10, day 100. Starting with a single push-up and adding only one per day, I’d averaged 50 per day over those first 100 days.
Push-up number 10,000 came roughly six weeks later on day 141, May 21. My new max was 75, set on May 3. On day 183, the exact middle of the year, I was at 16,836 push-ups. Not bad for a guy whose driver’s license photo resembled a half-melted Bob Newhart candle.
July 19, day 212, was the 20,000 mark. I was doing my push-ups in four sets by then. That second 10k took 60 days; the first 10,000 required 141 days. Five days later, on July 23, I set a new single set max of 90. It was at this point that I suspected that if I kept up the “how many can I do in a single set” nonsense I was putting the whole game at risk. Waking up sore (or injured) and facing 200+ push-ups wouldn’t have been much fun, so for the remainder of the year I constrained myself to sets in the 50-60 range.
Also in July, my pants fell down while I was climbing the stairs. Fortunately, they were the stairs in my house. While I’m not above public displays of physical comedy, I really didn’t want to end up on a sex offender list because I didn’t realize that my jeans were now too big. I dug my slightly smaller jeans out of the back of the closet and retired my fat man pants.
On August 13, day 225, I came down with the flu. This was the big test. I could lie in bed with my cough drops and my fever dreams and nobody would care that I didn’t do my push-ups. Heck, nobody would even know. It’s not like ESPN 8 (“The Ocho!”) was covering my progress or something. I did them anyway, and again the next day. Three days into my flu I was so sick that I could only do knee push-ups, but I still got them done.
September 1, day 244, I did push-up number 30,000, and 41 days later I knocked out number 40,000. On day 299, October 26, I got busy and forgot to get my reps in, so I got out of bed and knocked out 299 push-ups in 12 minutes. This was the only day that I didn’t do them at my own leisurely pace, usually with 15 minutes or more between sets. Again, that strategy is totally wrong–I wasn’t working my muscles to failure, too much recovery time, blah blah blah. And yet I shrunk my way out of my fat man pants.
Halloween came (day 304), and I binged on candy. My promise to myself was that I wouldn’t change any behaviors, and those Reese’s cups were calling my name. I didn’t feel guilty because I didn’t set myself up to feel guilty. I wasn’t “off the program” because the only program that I was on was to add one push-up each day. (Full disclosure: After writing this paragraph, I went and got a Reese’s cup. It was delicious, and I still don’t feel guilty.)
The 50,000 mark arrived on November 12, day 316. That’s an average of 158 push-ups per day. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad, but it’s approximately 158 more than zero push-ups per day. Exactly one month later on December 12 (day 346) I crossed 60,000. I was now at 173 per day on average.
I couldn’t end the year without trying to set a personal best for reps in a single set, so on December 29 (day 363) I gave it one more go and managed 137 push-ups. That’s only 10,370 shy of the world record so I’m basically, like, second place. I eagerly await my medal.
By the end of the year my one little push-up on January 1 had ballooned to 66,795, or an average of 183 per day. I wish I could get returns like that on my 401k, but I’m happy with the returns I earned. A couple of weeks ago I pulled my old belt out of a drawer and tried it on: I’ve lost a little over three inches off of my waist. The slightly smaller jeans that I dug out of the back of the closet back in July are now at risk of falling down midway up the stairs. I have a waist again, and my upper torso has regained something of a vee shape. And while I didn’t weigh myself precisely prior to kicking off this little experiment, I clearly remember the largest number my scale ever reported to me. I’m down 23 1/2 pounds from that number.
So what’s the point of all of this? I think there are a few:
You can do a lot with a little. It doesn’t have to be push-ups, but whatever you do it’s okay–perhaps even better–to start small and just add a little bit every day. Walk a little bit today and a little more tomorrow. Do a squat, tomorrow do two squats.
You don’t have to buy fitness. You can, though. Gyms are great. Equipment is fun. Good trainers are outstanding. But you don’t have to. The only equipment you need is your body.
Take it easy on yourself. Resolutions–and for that matter plans of any kind–are great, provided they don’t set you up for failure. You know you’re going to get sick, eat too much over the holidays, take a vacation. If your plan doesn’t factor in real life then you are destined to fail. Give yourself permission to eat that Reese’s cup, or better yet send it to me.
There is no wrong way. Perhaps one of the most intimidating things about fitness is this notion that there’s a body of arcane knowledge that only the fitness gurus have, and if you don’t tap into it you won’t get results. I wonder how many first timers will show up at gyms in January and never come back because some well-meaning trainer tells them their form is all wrong. Sure, there’s a best way, but doing anything is better than doing nothing.
Whatever goals you set for the new year, I hope you attain them. As for me, my goal for 2020 is to get rid of this horrible driver’s license photo.