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Friday, January 9, 2009800px-Chocolate_chip_cookies

Burpees vs. Cookies – nobody wins

Right now, I am supporting my friend Jenn in a "30 Day, No Grains, No
Sugar" challenge. In fact, there have recently been a ton of 30 day
diet challenges posted – on the CrossFit Message Boards, on Facebook, within individual CrossFit affiliates.
The “No Sugar Challenge”, “Paleo Challenge”, “Zone challenge”… take
your pick, because they are all up for the joining. The idea is to
shock your dietary habits into behaving – giving the cold-turkey finger
to food and drink that has a detrimental effect on your training,
weight loss or overall fitness goals.

For many, this is a pretty
extreme sacrifice. Saying sayonara to Diet Coke, ice cream, candy –
these may be things that you consume on a pretty regular basis.
Breaking the habit of reaching for a sweet when you are bored or
pounding a Red Bull when you are tired requires some serious willpower
and mental toughness. In fact, such an extreme challenge will probably
require some external motivation – a factor designed to help you stick
to your Paleo guns.

Most challenges have instituted a “cheat
penalty” – a punishment for guzzling that Guinness or sneaking that
snickerdoodle. Burpees appear to be the punishment of choice, for
obvious reasons. I mean, unless you are Adam Drake, nobody likes
burpees. So there’s your motivation – eat a cookie, do some burpees.
How many? Some challenges say ten. Others say 50. Still others say one
cheat is 100 burpee-worthy. Holy hell, that is one metabolically
expensive cookie.

The trouble is, that is not an effective means of motivating yourself to stick to a diet. Oh sure, it seems like it would be. I mean, staring at that cookie, you can’t help but think to yourself, “I want the cookie… but do I 100 burpee want
the cookie?” In a perfect world, the answer would be hell no, crisis
averted, challenge intact. Except most of us don’t think that long
term. Yes, from cookie to burpee is, in fact, “long term”.

is an ineffective motivator because it happens AFTER the fact. You
still get the good stuff first, and to those instant
gratification-oriented people, that’s all you can see. Cookie now. And
you’ll worry about the burpees later. Sometimes much later – how many
transgressors eat the cookie then immediate drop into push-up position?
It may be hours later that you find yourself mid-jump-clap, thinking, I
can’t even remember what the stupid cookie tasted like. Plus, once you
actually start doing the burpees, there is not a freakin’ thing you can
do about your diet slip. Nada. Nothing. The cookie is gone, and you're
still stuck doing burpees. Finally, punishment teaches nothing about
how to change behavior. It says what not to do, seldom what you should do.

And how does this punishment affect you emotionally? You don’t forget punishment, you suppress it. The punishment makes you feel frustrated, angry, anxious and resentful. You may learn to fear the behavior that leads to the punishment, but that does not always propagate the desired behavior.
If your teenager gets detention for not finishing their homework, it
may not lead to a completed algebra assignment – they may decide to cut
school instead. It is simply human nature to try to find ways to escape
or avoid punishment.

Which means for some of you, you’ll
continue to sneak cookies and do burpees. And eventually you’ll start
thinking, this is dumb. Dammit, I am a Grown Up Person. If I want to
eat a cookie, I should be able to without being punished like a six
year old. Or you may start taking out the punishment on those you
perceive as the “punishers” – your CrossFit trainer, your encouraging
and supportive wife, yourself. Or you’ll find ways to avoid the
punishment, by instituting a secret “3 PM cheat” rule or straight-up
lying about your compliance to your challenge group. In
all circumstances, the desired behavior (cleaning up your diet) falls
to the wayside because the external motivation designed to keep you on
track is relentlessly, sneakily pushing you to self-destruct.

Take, in contrast, CrossFit San Francisco’s pre-payment penalty.
Want a cookie? Do 100 burpees FIRST. Yep, buy-in with 20 minutes of
pushing, jumping and clapping and you get your three bites of sugary
delight. Is this method any better? It omits one of the issues above –
since you’re taking your “punishment” up front, you have the power to
change your behavior at any moment. Decide it’s not worth it? Stop
doing burpees and skip the cookie. But it does not address the other
concerns. Do burpees teach you how to eat better? Does the movement
suggest a better dietary choice? Will clapping overhead improve your
understanding of how the cookie affects your insulin response? Negative
on all counts. In fact, in no way does any kind
of burpee punishment fit your dietary crime. (And don't even TRY to
argue that it burns off those cookie calories, because you and I both
know that is NOT why you began this challenge in the first place.) No,
the punishment is merely the CrossFit equivalent of a bitch slap,
designed to pound you into submission.

So what are you supposed
to do? I agree that you need some motivation – it’s tough to
successfully work something this strict on willpower alone. So find something that does for you what the burpee rule does not. Make it timely, and pre- (not post-) cookie. Make it teach you what you should be doing, not just hammer what not to do. And make it relevant to the behavior in question.

next time you’ve got cookie in hand, stop. Remind yourself of all the
reasons you undertook this challenge in the first place. Pull out your
copy of Good Calories, Bad Calories, log on to The IF Life,
read through the Message Board challenge thread. Learn more about how
you are forging a healthier, happier mind and body by making these
dietary commitments. Phone a supportive friend and ask them to give you
three reasons why you really don’t need that cookie after all. Sit on a
bench at your local mall Food Court and people-watch, reflecting upon
how grateful you are to feel so fit and healthy. These external
motivators will stay with you far longer than an infinite number of
burpees, and will set you up for greater success during the length of
your challenge… and beyond. Because after all, isn’t getting off the crack for good the real goal?

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