Friday, January 9, 2009

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”.

Punishment 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.

The 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?


Rayne said...

Whoa, Byers, that was heavy. I concur, corporal punishment (self imposed or otherwise)rarely results in true behavior modification.

When I was a Marine I loved to yell and scream at my subordinates. It often resulted in fast results, but I was always yelling because I had to always get after my Marines.

I have come to understand that if I teach the principles of the behavior I am after then I get long lasting effects and people then enact the behaviors on their own sans Sergeant Gray yelling.

So the long and the short of it is I ditto what you said.


Samantha said...

Absolutely amazing post. Everything is so true. Doing a burpee wont tell you how screwed up you're making your insulin levels or how you may crash and burn the entire day of diet due to one slip up. Maybe even that you'll regret it and beat yourself up even though what's done is done. And maybe later in the day you just tell yourself it's okay to not do the burpees, after all it was one cookie wasn't it? One never hurt anyone?

I loved everything you wrote. Get off the crack.
I, too, am getting off the crack. I don't eat very much sugar anymore, but I'm now zoning my already Paleo diet. Today was a hard day but I just kept telling myself Friday is my cheat day, why waste an entire day of plans with a friend for that piece of dark chocolate I wanted oh, so badly? Nope. I just brewed myself a cup o' tea and all was well in the world.
Thanks for your words, inspiring as always :)

<3 -- Samantha

Gant Grimes said...

Oh dear...

Anybody who punishes themselves for drinking Guinness is a F'n douchebag.

My punishment for eating chicken fried steak is usually a couple beers.

Daniel said...

Extremely good post, Melissa. May be my favorite so far.

I'm doing the 30-day no-sugar challenge at CFEB, though for me it's more a matter of solidarity than necessity - my diet is already under 100g of carbs a day. It seems very silly to me that under the terms of the challenge I can have as many mashed potatoes, rice and bread as I want, but I can't have my favorite veggie sausage because it has dehydrated cane crystals in the less-than-2% portion of the ingredient list. But that's neither here nor there.

CFEB has no penalty structure in place, which I'm very glad of. It would feel weird to me, though I wouldn't have been able to put my finger on the reason why before reading this post. There are some folks doing the challenge who really do need to get off the crack, and I'm grateful that we're all pulling each other forward rather than pushing each other down.

Adam Drake said...

Hi, my name is Adam Drake and I love burpees.

It's true.

(No seriously it is.)

JG said...

Holy Crap! I never realized the far reaching psychological factors behind my burpees.

Seriously, guess I'm guilty.. I have a silly burpee rule. For me, it really is more about being more conscious in my decisions. If I decide beforehand that I'm going to eat half a pizza (which I plan on doing Saturday) that's one thing.

What I'm trying to break myself of is the little "cheats" that have no real value. Like grabbing a piece of chocolate or cookie out of the pantry at work because they are there.. It makes me a little more aware and it's only 30 days and I like challenges.

Good post though. Made me think about things briefly.. Off to do burpees.

JG said...

Oh, and I don't listen to people who have never done FRAN


Kevin Daigle said...

This is an interesting and insightful dissertation on cookies. I love cookies....I don't eat them often, but I love them....well, like a fat kid loves cake. The problem isn't so much that you need to relegate yourself and your problems to classical Pavlovian conditioning though. It's that as a mature, complex, learned (hopefully) person you have to actually desire the results, and enjoy the struggle.

In order to be successful in any difficult enterprise you must first meet one condition. Within yourself you need to be totally and truly dedicated to the purpose. You have to DECIDE that this IS going to happen.

I know that this is easier for some people than others. Personally, I have zero reserve for physical punishment. I've always been able to force myself to athletic extremes with ease. Eating is another story though. I suck at eating from a CrossFit POV. However, I LOVE to eat, I love food in general. So for myself at this point, I'm not there yet.

I know that it would be beneficial, and assist me. I know that could maximize my results by eating better. At this point, though, my cost/benefit analysis doesn't jive. The results I believe I would reap wouldn't be worth the reduction in personal happiness at the texas roadhouse, the 99, chili's, smokey bones, the bar etc.

At some point perhaps even soon this may be the case. For right now though I take an extreme (probably very arrogant and wildly overstated as it may be) point of pride in being what I think of as one of the most "fit" fat kids around. That's flawed logic at its myopic best really, but I sort of like being a big, muscular build....with a nice overlayment of fat in the midsection, and also being able to run a 20:10 5k (also with my miniscule 5'5 legs)

I apologize for the rambling here so in conclusion; Give me the goddamn cookie, I'll do your 100 burpees.....why? Because F you cookie, thats why.

Alycia Alves said...

Great post! The words of Good Calories Bad Calories, especially the chapter on Disease and Aging, resonate in my head in a way that 15 minutes of mild burpee discomfort never could.

And watching the overweight women at my job lumber around, breathing heavy, complaining about their knees and feet hurting, is enough to make me swear off cookies forever.

That being said, I'm a human being. A human being with a biiig sweet tooth. I dont see anything wrong with cheating to maintain your sanity - except that the cleaner we eat, the better we perform, and the easier it is to notice fluctuations in performance output on/after days of cheating.

As a Crossfitter, a bad workout is enough punishment for me.

Melissa Byers said...

I'm going to respond to Alicia's comment about cheating to maintain your sanity. I agree. In fact, I wouldn't even call it "cheating", in your normal day-to-day life. It's just EATING. So my Grey Goose dirty martini (three olives, up) or the piece of french toast with syrup on Sunday morning is just a part of my overall, everyday diet. It's not a cheat, it's BALANCE.

However, if you've committed to a short term Hard Routine (like some of these 30 day challenges), then you have committed to NO cheating. In which case, you simply don't eat the cookie. At all. Ever. This isn't your lifestyle, this is a 30 day exercise in mental toughness. In which case, you need to find ways to make sure you can stick to the plan for the duration of the program.

And that is the difference. Short term "HR" challenge? No cheats - figure out how to manage that. Normal life - eat a cookie once in a while. And for the love of Gant, wash it down with a Guinness. Or two.

Jason M Struck, RKC said...

Cookies and Burpees get a bad rap.

And I have to go with everything Gant said about Guinness. There certainly aren't any carbs in guinness.

According to dietfacts and the dailyplate, 9.2g (sound familiar Zoners?)

The only thing I like as much as O lifts, KBs, Gymnastics, throwing people, choking people, armbarring people, and pinning people is beer. I used to work at a brewpub in the burbs in atlanta as the assistant brewmaster.

Guinness Pub Draught is very low in total calories, and very low in Carbs for two reasons: low O.G. and high attenuation. There's only about 3.4% Alc b/vol in the final product, because the total amount of sugar in is relatively low... 1038 SG i think, and the final gravity is also low... 1008 SG I think. Hence, little residual sugar=low carb, but high attenuation, relatively dry. Guinness, and all stouts of all varieties derive most of their flavor and color from Roasted Barley, Black Patent and Chocolate Malts, which are so darkly roasted that they have no nutritional value left.

Jason M Struck, RKC said...

crack also gets a bad rap

Maximus Lewin said...

I don't like the idea of a punishment structure: extrinsic motivators are bad enough, but punishment, unless exceedingly draconian is not an effective behavior modification modality. Sure if there were TV cameras on you all the time and you knew you would be tortured to death, live on national television, this would keep you from eating cookies, but at what cost? For sure when the "challenge" ended you would be likely to rebelliously go back to sugar. Other punishments are not as bad, but as MB pointed out, are ineffective for the same, albiet, less severe reason.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is powerful: if the behavior engaged in makes a person feel proud, in control, physically better, etc, compliance is likely to be high.

The only extrinsic motivation we are using is mutual support and competition to see who can A) go the longest without sugar, B) accumulate the most overall days without sugar. This could be the same person or persons in the case that a lot of people finish the whole challenge. I suspect I will.

Jennifer said...

Jason - quick question for you. Some of my 30 day no sugar challenge participants are arguing that Guinness has no ADDED sugar. Is this true? Do they add any sugar to the beer anywhere in the beer making magic?

Jennifer said...

Byers, you're amazing. Your post is both timely and flattering. Just last night I was at my Mom's house, minding my own business, and BAM! There on her kitchen counter were 7 different types of homemade Christmas cookies on a huge platter. GAH!! She might as well have written a sign that said, "ridiculously tempting cookies" with an arrow.

ME: "MOM! I thought all your Christmas cookies were gone! For the love of Suri Cruise, where did those come from!?"

MOM: "I froze a dozen of each for you so we could have them later." (insert big, innocent Mom smile)

You are the devil and your cookies can kiss my ass! I'm going 30 days without sugar if it kills me!

JG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JG said...

Byers - Very good point on a 30 day "exercise in mental toughness".


Jason M Struck, RKC said...


While I don't have Guinness's exact recipe, I can offer this: Typically only the cheapest and lightest beers have any 'added sugar'. Traditionally this would be used to fortify the beer, or the lighten the body, texture or flavor.

In many light pilsners (think Bud light, 30%) 'adjuncts' are par for the course, such as corn, rice and various maltose/dextrose products. In some traditional English strong ales, treacle, honey and other sugars were added to increase the strength.

In Ireland, beer is taxed(and priced respectively) based primarily on it's OG, hence the stimulus to create ever lower OGs, and higher attenuations. This would be a good purpose for sugar, except sugar lightens and thins the body and flavor of the beer, the last things you'd want in a stout, and the greater the percentage of contributions from highly refined CHO sources, the more your beer starts tasting like wine, sake or just rubbing alcohol. There's a distinct ethanol character, as the % gets too high relative to the FG and products like protein, hops and carbs etc.

Short answer: Not likely. If so, it's probably pure dextrose (industry term for glucose in dry/powdered form) and it's likely less than 10% of the total mash, and hence less than one gram all day. (per 11oz draught can)

Evelyn Rodas said...

Great post! My dog is a testament to the backfire effect of punishment. It's been a long road (and still very much a work in progress) but I finally understood that while I can punish him into good behavior, I get more lasting and consistent results when I make the behavioral change worth his while. I don't mean to liken any of you to dogs but if I were to do so, I assure you, it would be the highest of compliments! MB, you're my hero! What would I do without your blog???

Kevin Daigle said...

Jason.....why does guinness make me absolutely shitfaced as opposed to other beers if the alcohol content is so low? thats like a coors light level 3ish percent. haha

Jay Ashman said...

I just give myself one day a week to enjoy myself and I usually don't go nuts. But... I cannot allow someone to punish themselves over a Guinness, that is a tragedy! :)

Robzilla said...

I just realized why I like this blog so much.

There are these posts that I can relate to, but more importantly, others do too. It's good knowing others think like me. Actually, it's kind of scary.

Anyway, I could write a lot more but I'll keep it simple. Thanks for the great insight, anecdotes, and thought provoking conversations.


je77rey said...

Hey Melissa!

I'm definitely in agreement with you in regards to taking a psychological approach to one's diet. People-watching always helps me - it serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of a lazy attitude towards my diet. I think positively re-enforcing the reason you're doing something is a better approach than punishing yourself.

Lookin' forward to your next post!!

- Jeff

Rusty - Fitness Black Book said...


I think I could give up everything except the caffeine. I don't go overboard with it, but as an IF'er I live off green tea on my fasting days.

Why haven't I seen your blog before? Obviously I haven't been paying attention, because you have an extremely entertaining writing style. I wound up here from IF Life (I'm a friend of Mike and I also have a high traffic fitness blog).

Not tough enough for Crossfit...LOL


Richard Byrn said...

Hey i loved this article but one tiny thing i didnt understand was the part where you wrote "Want a cookie? Do 100 burpees FIRST. Yep, buy-in with 20 minutes of pushing, jumping and clapping". 20 minutes?? Seriously? I generally pass out on the floor after the first 50 and dont wake up until way longer than 20 minutes later! Good stuff!

Stuart said...

What about the motivation for the challenge in the first place? Why are you committing to it?

I'm sure we all have mixtures of different motivators:
* fear
* dreams
* ego
* peer-approval
* bitterness
* hatred
* love

Are you motivated away from or towards things?
* towards being skinny
* away from being fat

How viscerally can we imagine that which we fear or dream of?
* A picture of a cancerous lung or a helmetless motorcylcle crash victim
* That perfect hot body shining in the sun

I would think one of the great things to learn here is how to really connect with our general and specific movtivations and tendencies. Once one learns that about oneself it might have incredible applications in all areas of our lives

BEE said...

Damn! Comments galore!

Great post Melissa, per usual. I'm only kind of in on the 30 day challenge, really I'm in on a 2009 challenge, to be more primal and listen to my body. I haven't thought about punishments for the times I cheat, although it may make them WAY less appealing.

Overall I think the key is my '09 resolution- to listen to my body more.

Chris said...

Sometimes I wonder if the penalty is the right approach at all. I remember a section in Freakeconomics where they discussed a day carr center that had a problem with parents picking up their kids late.

To attempt to address this they instituted a fairly small fine if the children weren't picked up on time.

And the problem INCREASED. It seemed that when they assigned a cost to the infraction the parents determined "if it was worth it" when before it wasn't seen as a reasonable option for many. That or the penalty before was the feeling of being rude to the staff at the day care center - which seemed more severe to most than the small financial consequences.

So, while I agree the 100 burpies before the cookie approach is good, it still makes it seem like an option to the people buying into the challenge.

I wonder if it might be better to just indicate that the program is "30 days, no cheating" and not assign a penalty.

Gracewanderer said...

Found you on the crossfit forums and liked your "whites of the eyes" picture so I followed you here. And I like this post, so I decided to subscribe =)

I don't have time now (that's a lie, I have time to browse the XF forums and read your blog...) but sometime I'd like to tell you about Personal Marketing Messages. The general idea is that you make advertisements for yourself, advertising things you really want. Then when you're tempted to violate your plan (saving money, not eating cookies, etc.) you remember the ads (pictures of yourself in the car you're saving for, or your head on a sexy, sexy body) and they motivate you to change your behavior.

Okay so that's really all there is to say about it, apparently I had more time than I thought.

Neal Jamison said...

Coming on late, I know. If all we ate was cookies, and we did 100 burpees for each one, we would still be fat.

Will said...

All I have to say is for 100 burpees I'll never eat a fucking cookie ever again.

morten_g said...

I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned incompatible behavior. I defeat the cookie by eating something else - Real Food. I can't eat cookie while eating something else.
Incompatible behavior is one of the corner stones of getting away from punishment. Consider reading What Shamu Taught Me etc. You can probably find it at your local library (it's pretty cheap on amazon but I think so many copies have been sold that it should be easy to find second hand). It's a short read and a great inspiration to making changes in your life to improve your interactions with other people and improve your own behavior.

PS Yes I know I'm really late to this post.