Health and Fitness

The Ultimate Minimalist Workout


We both know travel well — as a former McKinsey and Company consultant and a scientist who studies a topic of global interest — we are familiar with life on the road. But airline status (overrated) is not all that we share in common. We are also both completely, 100 percent exercise-dependent. As in the kind that will probably make its way into the next version of the DSM.

(Note: True exercise dependence can be a serious issue. There is a big difference between having all of your days include a workout and having all of your days revolve around multiple workouts at the expense of a career, family, and friends — unless you are a pro athlete, of course.)

Collectively, we’ve selected hundreds of hotels based on pictures of the gym (the greatest asset of any hotel website), but sometimes, those pictures don’t represent reality, and worse, sometimes one is forced to travel to places where hotels with coffee, let alone a 1970s exercise bike, are a luxury.

Amidst this reality, one of us found a new job (though Brad swears it wasn’t just the exercise thing), and the older, wiser one of us found the ultimate minimalist workout. First used by the Royal Canadian Air Force in the late 1950s, the 5BX plan, or something similar, can be executed just about anywhere, and will allow you to maintain your fitness — and sanity — when traditional exercise options are limited.


Developed by an early exercise scientist named Bill Orban while he was working for the Canadian Defense Department, the 5BX plan was the antidote to weight gain and fitness loss for Canadian pilots and airmen that were stationed at remote bases in the far north, without access to gyms and traditional military training facilities. Like numerous barebones fitness plans that have followed, 5BX — for “5 basic exercises” — is progressive, requires no equipment, and adjusts for age and fitness. The five basic exercises are:

  1. Stretching
  2. Sit-ups
  3. Back extensions
  4. Push-ups
  5. Running in place

Though the exercises are self-explanatory, we highly recommend taking a few minutes to review the program in its original form here. (Even if only to admire the fabulous old-school graphics.)


Sure, the images may be a bit outdated, but nearly all of the advice is more relevant than ever. Take, for example, the guidance that the 5BX manual offers on building physical activity into your day: “Welcome an opportunity to walk; look for ways you can walk a few blocks rather than ways in which to avoid walking. Step out smartly and breathe deeply.” Though over 50 years old, the wisdom in 5BX is quite similar to headlines from the past year re: the dangers of sitting and the benefits of short spurts of deliberate mindfulness and activity.

The 5BX plan concludes with a critical piece of advice about fitness, and one that seems especially appropriate for those with a fitness-based New Year’s resolution: “When you start, defeat the desire to skip a day; then defeat all such desires as they occur. This exercise program has plenty of bite; the longer you do it the more you will enjoy it.”

So whether you find yourself in a middle-of-nowhere Holiday Inn for business travel, barracks in the far north, or in the midst of a family vacation (which is often a fitness plan’s worst nemesis), remember 5BX and XBX, and be sure to take your fitness goals with you.

Note: This article was co-authored by Dr. Michael Joyner, who is an anesthesiologist and physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota


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