10 Push-ups: Or How I Developed a Fitness Habit

Five years ago, I was weak and overweight. I had spent months getting over a bad breakup self-medicating with beer, oatmeal raisin cookies, and burgers. In a moment of especially delightful self-loathing, I read about this guy who did 100 push-ups a day as his only exercise. He was pretty ripped for not doing anything more than push-ups, and I thought, “Pfft…I could do that.”

No, I could not.

Like not even close.

In fact, I couldn’t do more than 10 real push-ups without stopping. Which got me feeling even more self-loathing and depressed. But I had a feeling that to be able to do more push-ups I had to start by doing some push-ups.

So I did.

I started with 10 push-ups. I did them in my office every time I started to feel drowsy. Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee and an oatmeal cookie as I was apt to do a few times a day, I reached for the floor. Not knowing anything about habit formation at the time, it turns out I took an old habit-loop (trigger, behavior, reward), and swapped out the unhealthy middle part for something better.

So instead of my habit loop looking like:

Feel Tired > Drink Coffee and Eat Cookie > Feel Energized for 5 Minutes (then feel sugar and caffeine bonk about 30 minutes later)

My new habit loop looked like this:

Feel Tired > Do 10 Push-ups > Feel energized for 30 minutes

Not only was the behavior healthier, but the reward was more intense and longer lasting. And the added longterm benefit was I started to slim down and get stronger.

And if you know anything about working out, you know that if you do the same exercise enough, you get stronger and need to do more to feel the same reward. It’s a positive feedback loop.

So, within a few weeks, I was doing 20 push-ups a set. Then 25. Then 30. You get the idea…

After 6 weeks, I eventually built up to 3 sets of 50 push-ups every day. It was then other people started to notice. My shirts were get tighter in the shoulders and looser in the mid-section. Female co-workers started asking if I was working out.

Booya!

Eventually, I started adjusting my diet, drinking protein shakes, hitting the gym, and ultimately I started my own free fitness bootcamp, FreeFitSF.

That’s right, I became a certifiable fitness junkie — all from starting with 10 push-ups behind my desk.

So, go do 10 push-ups.

Just do it.

Everything else will take care of itself.

As you might imagine, this story is a powerful metaphor for doing anything that seems unattainable at the out set. And not just physical feats like push-ups, running a marathon, or bench-pressing 300 lbs. It works for mental challenges too — why do you think new readers start with children’s books?

Whatever it is you hope to attain, find the minimal first effort you can actually achieve and just do it. Focus on incremental accomplishments and eventually your long-term goal will seem not just attainable, but habitual.