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?