“One push-up a day”


So, this happened …

I was super fit, and enjoyed using my bare hands to break roof tiles for fun. She was not fit, and was really into the sofa and TV.

I was a black belt in a martial art called Tang Soo Do, which is perhaps best described as a Korean form of Karate. I was competing as a member of the South African national team. My daily workouts included stamina, strength, flexibility, speed, and power.

My girlfriend at the time was not into exercise. She did, however, have the benefit of youth and good genetics, so had been able to eat whatever she wanted without any adverse impact on her body. That had just started to change, and she was noticing a little extra weight here and a little softness there.

Of course she started off with Denial (the first stage of grief). You know, something like, “I think they’re making clothes smaller than they used to. It’s probably a money-saving push by the clothing companies.”

After a time she jumped straight into the third stage of grief: Bargaining. This is where my story picks up.

“What’s the minimum amount of exercise I can do to start to lose weight?” she asked me seriously. “Like, would one push-up a day make any difference?”

“That’s ridiculous,” I screamed inside my head where she couldn’t hear me. But then I continued out aloud, politely. “No, I really don’t think one push-up a day is going to make a difference. You may as well not do anything.” And I really meant it.

Technically speaking, of course I was right: the additional calorie burn was basically zero, it would only affect her pectorals and triceps, and even if it were slightly challenging at the beginning because she was so unfit, it would only take a couple of weeks before one push-up a day was as close to zero effort for her as it would be for me.

But my mind didn’t let go.

Somehow there was deeper thinking going on, various “what if” scenarios that my brain continued to process. And a couple of days later as these thoughts bubbled up from my subconscious, I had an epiphany.

Yes! One push-up a day could make a massive difference!

As someone much cleverer than me once said, “In theory there is no difference between theory & practice. In practice, there is.”

Of course, if it stayed at just one push-up a day, my technical argument would remain true. One push-up a day, FOREVER, would have an insignificant benefit. But once someone had honestly created the habit of doing that single push-up a day, every day, would they really stick with just that? Or would the habit gain momentum?

The reality is it takes more effort to go from 0 to 1 push-up a day, than it does to go from 1 to 10 push-ups a day.

And if you start that habit, and maintain that habit, if your thinking evolves to accept that even a little exercise is better than nothing, then the most likely scenario is that 1 will indeed grow to 10, and more.


Simple Definition

One push-up a day: This is the reality that a small effort may not in itself produce a meaningful result. But as a starting point towards a bigger habit, as a change in thinking towards something more significant, it’s an extremely powerful action.

Summarizing what it means

“Small efforts” should not be judged by the word “small”, but rather by the word “effort”. And with consistency, even starting small, you can change your life.

One push-up a day builds your mindset, not your muscles

James Clear, in his excellent book “Atomic Habits” makes a great point: “Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.”

And that overlaps with the message of this chapter.

Once you’ve got into the sustained habit of doing a laughable “one push-up a day”, you’ve transformed yourself into someone who works out regularly. Yes, “one push-up” is a very short workout 🙂 but you are maintaining it. And with this new mindset, the evolution towards a more meaningful exercise regime becomes very easy.

This was exactly how my initial response to the one push-up was completely wrong. I saw things as static rather than dynamic, as locked-in rather than progressive.

Seriously, what is the chance that anyone will get into the habit of doing a single push-up every day, and sustain that forever? Pretty much nil, I would guess.

Of course this doesn’t mean they will definitely build from 1 up to 50, because they might also slide from 1 down to 0 again. But they certainly will not stay at just one, that’s for sure.

Good habits: It means nothing, until it means everything.

Discussing what it means

One push-up a day is not an act, it’s a habit

We are pretty much totally determined by our habits. Healthy habits like exercise, meditation, eating good food, hanging out with the right people, setting meaningful priorities, working with focus: these will make us healthier, happier, more productive, more valuable. And bad habits like eating badly, smoking, lazy lifestyles, nasty friends, constant time-wasting, pessimism, suspicious thoughts: will worsen our lives, shrivel our potential. And so it makes sense to get good at building good habits.

As you can read in #[I learned to speak Chinese by mistake], I had intended to just learn a few Mandarin phrases for my business trips out to China each year, but so enjoyed the short podcast lessons that I simply continued to listen, just a few minutes every day. A sustained effort and just a tiny amount of time invested, and a year later I found I could have basic conversations. By mistake, I’d learned how to speak Chinese.

In the screenshots below from my Muse meditation app, you can see that when I began, my sessions were very short and infrequent. (At only 3 minutes, the meditation was over before I’d actually settled into a comfortable position!) But months later, I was doing 20 minutes every single day. (The green part is where the headband measured my brain activity to be ‘calm’, the total time includes the white bar on top.)

     Muse meditation statistics - beginning the habit  Muse meditation statistics - established habit

Or consider this post I found on Linkedin, about Paul who started his weight-loss program with an apparently insignificant effort: all he did was start walking up and down his hallway twice a day. That’s basically nothing. And while he could have slipped back into actually doing nothing, instead he sustained that small effort, and it grew into so much more. Paul ended up losing 160 pounds (73 kgs) in under a year.

One push-up a day should never be regarded as a fixed habit which is meaningless when taken alone. Instead, it should be seen for what it really is: a potential transition towards something greater.

One push-up EVERY DAY is valuable, even though JUST ONE is pointless

When we underestimate what the value is of starting with just one, we are forgetting that big numbers are made up of many many 1’s.

It’s like people arguing that it’s not worth voting, because their vote is just one vote. And yet the outcome of an election is made up of millions of people marking their X on the paper. It’s wrong to look at a single vote in isolation, in the same way as it’s wrong to think of that daily push-up as only one push-up.

It’s the same with saving and investing – what’s the point in having a few dollars in an account? You may as well spend it on a cappuccino that you’ll enjoy. (True, cappuccino should always take priority, but stay with me here …) If, however, saving and investing become a regular habit, then the ongoing new money in plus compound interest, can grow to a substantial sum.

The negative habit of NOT one push-up a day

Lest we forget, we should also remain aware of our bad habits that are slowly developing, becoming concrete parts of our lives.

We forgive ourselves because it’s only one small bad habit. It’s just one cigarette a day. Her insults to her partner don’t happen often. It’s just light-hearted ‘suggestive’ banter with a work colleague, we both know it doesn’t mean anything.  Right?

That one small uncommon transgression could become zero, but it’s so much more likely to become something bigger, something sustained, something that poisons us.

So many people don’t begin doing “One push-up a day” because they don’t appreciate how powerful a start it is towards a healthy and fit lifestyle. But people also aren’t strict enough with themselves and their little bad habits, because we’ve all similarly convinced ourselves that they mean nothing. In reality they mean so much more!

So our big take-away here is that, even if we take really small steps when starting a habit, the small start is a much more powerful position than not starting, and we shouldn’t under-estimate how much can be achieved (or destroyed) from modest beginnings.

Whether it lifts you up or drags you down, that depends very much on the nature of the “push-up” you’re doing.

Bad habits: It means nothing, until it means everything.

One-push up is at least doable

Let’s put aside the fact that one probably won’t stay one, and could grow into something significant. We should also remind ourselves that sometimes we don’t do something because it seems like such a big effort.

If you set yourself the goal of doing 100 push-ups a day, when you currently do nothing, then the likelihood of sustaining that effort could be low. There is no value in aiming too high and then failing, when you’d get a much better long-term result by aiming really low and making a solid go of it.

You can read more about this concept in #[The average photo that you DO take].

Of course, the goal would be to grow to something much more than a single day push-up, but starting at 1 increases the chance you’ll actually stick with it. In a sense, this is like the concept of “lubricating your habits” that we discussed in #[Hang the guitar within reach].

One push-up a day is an oak tree, not an acorn

It should be obvious to you that this #hashtag-story is also about perspective.

It’s too easy to fall in the trap of judging something by what it is, rather that what it means.

In #[The Hello Kitty Stapler] we saw how we fail when we judge something by it’s appearance rather than its function. And in this case our fail comes from judging something as a single unit, rather than looking at what it can become.

It’s also worth considering the difference between someone at school and an adult. In #[Luxury Bridges], I point out that at school you are taught to answer questions, without stopping to think about whether that’s a good question or not. As adults we (hopefully) have learned to contextualise things, and to think a little deeper than just the face-value of what we are presented.

As you will have noticed, when I originally answered the question about whether one push-up a day would help someone lose weight, I failed the #[Luxury Bridges] test – I was asked about “one push-up a day”, so I thought about “one push-up a day”, and then I answered specifically about “one push-up a day”. Fortunately, although it took a few days, I eventually realized that the push-up should not be seen as a single act, but rather as a sustained effort.

Have you managed to outgrow the school-taught habit of limited thinking yet?

Making it personal

Take a few moments to think of habits that you’d like to begin, or that you’re struggling to sustain. What could be the “One push-up a day” start that you need right now? Don’t specifically do this with the intention of building on it, and don’t specifically create a timetable for when that one push-up will become five, or 50. Just pick today’s equivalent of a single push-up (which might actually be a push-up!) and commit to sticking with that for a while.

Also think for a moment about some of the “negative push-ups” you do on a regular basis, which you forgive yourself for because “it’s only one”, but which represent the seeds of a downwards spiral, and in due course a worse quality of life.

Do you think mild bad thoughts about yourself, sometimes? Do you snap at others, but it’s not so aggressive so it’s OK? Do you add sugar to your coffee every time (but that’s fine because it’s only one)?

Identify these, and perhaps make a small start on eliminating them from your life, sometimes.

And of course, when you notice these seeds, remember to flag them up instantly as “One push-up a day”.

You could also do this with your partner. (Although as I’ve said before, it should never be your goal to change your partner, that’s their job.)

You can use this #hashtag in a work context too. For example, if you run a team of sales people that has the sometimes habit of leaving work without having set up any new appointments (but they think it’s OK because it only happens sometimes), then share this chapter with them, and in future you can give them a little push just by asking about their “one push-up”. They’ll know what you mean.

In my personal experience, referencing something external (like a push-up a day) comes across as less aggressive and less nagging than when you explicitly chase about a specific act (like setting appointments). So take advantage of this … whether in the office or at home.

Remember, you are in control of whether one push-up a day is just an act, or a life-changing habit.

Related stories

#[Hang the guitar within reach]

#[Luxury Bridges]

#[I learned to speak Chinese by mistake]

#[The Hello Kitty Stapler]

#[The average photo you DO take]

Headline Picture Credit: Thanks for Jeny for permission to use this amazing photo