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18-Minute Minimalist Exercises

A few years ago, I couldn’t do a single push-up—and I certainly couldn’t do a pull-up. I hardly exercised at all; and when I did exercise, it was sporadic: it never lasted more than a few days before I gave up. Sound familiar?

Even after I shed 70 pounds of fat—due mostly to diet—I was in terrible shape. At age 28, I was doughy, flabby, and weak.

Not anymore.

At age 30, I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m in good shape because I’ve found ways to enjoy exercising: I’ve found ways to make exercise a daily reward instead of a dreaded task.

I can point to three reasons exercise is now enjoyable.

I do only exercises I enjoy. I don’t enjoy running, so I don’t do it. I attempted it for six months and discovered it wasn’t for me. If you see me running, call the police—someone is chasing me. Instead, I find other ways to do cardio: I walk, I get on the elliptical machine at the gym, I do bodyweight exercises that incorporate cardio.

Exercise relieves stress. Although I enjoy exercising most in the mornings, I love hitting the gym (or the park) in the evenings if I feel tense or stressed. Exercising at the end of a long, stressful day also gives me time in solitude to reflect on what’s important.

Variety keeps exercise fresh. When I first started exercising, I used to hit the gym three times per week, which was certainly better than not exercising at all. Then, as I got more serious, I started going to the gym daily. This routine became time-consuming, and doing the same thing over and over eventually caused me to plateau. These days I mix it up: I walk every day, and I still hit the gym occasionally, but the thing that has made the biggest, most noticeable difference has been the variety of daily eighteen-minute bodyweight exercises.

Eighteen minutes?

I know, eighteen minutes sounds like an arbitrary number. That’s because it is. When I started these bodyweight exercises, I didn’t have a specific window of time in mind. But I timed myself for a week and discovered that almost every time I hit the park for my exercises, I was worn out within eighteen minutes. Thus, these are my eighteen-minute exercises (all of which you can do in your living room, outdoors, or just about anywhere).

I usually alternate between the following exercises. You can of course pepper in your own favorites. And, yes, these exercises are suitable for men and women.

Push-ups. Like I said, a few years ago I couldn’t do a single push-up. Eventually, I could do one (after doing modified push-ups for a while). After a while, I could do ten and then 20. Now I can do 50–100. I tend to do three to five sets, resulting in about 200–400 push-ups within my eighteen minutes.

Pull-ups. Two years ago I thought I’d never be able to do a pull-up. Eventually, I learned how to do one. Soon, two, and then four. Now I can do ten to fifteen in a row. I complete three to four sets, resulting in about 50 pull-ups within my eighteen minutes. I use monkey bars at the park. You can use a pull-up bar at home. A friend of mine uses tree branches. I hated pull-ups because they seemed impossible, but now it’s my favorite exercise.

Squats. I just started doing bodyweight squats, and I’ve already noticed a huge difference. I’m doing only three or four sets of 30 right now, but I’ll continue to work my way up—I’ll continue to grow.

I don’t have a specific routine or plan, I simply take a 30-second break between sets, bouncing from one exercise to the next. After eighteen minutes, I’m spent. And I feel great afterward. I get that wonderful tired-but-accomplished feeling you get after a great workout. What used to be tedious is now exhilarating.

Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.