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5BX: When wishing is not good enough
March 25, 2009 5:52 PM   Subscribe

Bill Orban developed the "Five Basic Exercises" or 5BX program for the Royal Canadian Air force in the late 50s. Apart from the primary aim of getting people into shape it was designed to be simple to perform, to work on all the body, to require nothing in terms of special equipment or large spaces, to accommodate enough progression to cater for reformed couch potato and budding athlete alike and to fit into a time slot of 11 minutes including warm up. [Women, for whatever reason, were prescribed 10 exercises in 12 minutes with XBX]. The book of the exercises was translated into 13 languages and sold 23 million copies around the world before falling into obscurity in the 80s.

Because so many people did these exercises over several decades there is quite a lot of medical research published on their effectiveness. Sports Science and litigation have moved on since the 50s so there are now some caveats about the detailed method for performing some of the exercises. Jon Walker incorporates a simplified version of the program into "The Hacker's Diet".
posted by rongorongo (34 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't know if this post was prompted by it, but there has been recent rise in AskMe questions looking for simple whole-body workouts that don't require access to a full gym or even a weight set. At least one answer mentioned the 5BX program. Cool background info for people who are interested.
posted by Science! at 6:08 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Neat find--cultural artifacts are one of my favourite things about MeFi. I'm not deeply enough involved in excercise lit to know much about this, but something in the 5BX book just jumped out at me (emphasis mine): Weird. Wasn't it just in the last 18 months or so that there were videos or something on the web about this, and the media was treating it like a shocking new discovery...

Here we go, related MeFi post here, and a wayback machine link +Discovery, Guardian for the dead url.

Great find.
posted by Decimask at 6:23 PM on March 25, 2009


I actually remember doing the exercises in the book with my dad in the 80's. he didn't have enough time to work out properly and wanted to stay sort of in shape. For a boy more interested in his Apple ][ than "outside" it probably did me a lot of good too.
posted by Dr. Twist at 6:27 PM on March 25, 2009


I've used the version in the Hacker's Diet - if you can instill the habit, it does indeed get you fitter and help you lose weight. Doing tons more exercise would drop the pounds faster, but 15 minutes a day, every day, is a lot easier for me than "go to the gym on these weekdays but not these days".

The complete lack of required equipment makes it incredibly easy to do. Just find a half-dozen small objects for counting off the run-and-jump phase so you don't have to hold two numbers in your head at once and that's it.
posted by egypturnash at 6:29 PM on March 25, 2009


I love it. Loooooove it.
posted by tkchrist at 6:36 PM on March 25, 2009


definitely going to try it.
great find!
posted by liza at 6:40 PM on March 25, 2009


Heh. A+ rating for a 2 mile walk on chart 3 is 25 minutes. 4.8 mph isn't exactly what I'd call a "walk".
posted by Decimask at 6:47 PM on March 25, 2009


Oh, God, my parents had this battered little paperback. I don't think any of us actually ever used it. The CBC has archived a nifty radio feature on the program. You have to love the write-up:
In 1961, tired and listless Canadians head home after work to plop down in front of the tube. Royal Canadian Air Force to the rescue! The RCAF has developed 5BX, a set of exercises sure to give the nation twice as much energy. For years, the RCAF has used the 11-minute-a-day regime to get into shape no matter what the locale. 5BX has six levels and combines a series of strenuous exercises like running, squatting and pushups.

Champion athletes use level six and housewives get an extra minute in level one. On CBC Radio, Wing Commander J.K. Tett says after two weeks you're bound to have a "pretty stiff workout."
By the 1970s, yes, the 10BX was history, we were being shamed by those damn Swedes, and a generation of kids were panting through the Canada Fitness Tests. (I scored solidly bronze all through grades 7-9, except for reaching silver in the shuttle run. Don't ask me what my sister scored. It still hurts.) More from the CBC on kids and fitness:
"Exercise is for the young," says radio personality Byng Whitteker. His four-minute walk from car to office this morning is an arduous trek at 290 pounds. In 1958, Whitteker is like most adults who don't understand the health merits of what he calls "huffing and puffing."

Vigorous exercise prepares you for an early grave, he explains. Fitness expert Lloyd Percival disagrees and is worried about Whitteker's heart.

"What you don't use, you're going to lose," Percival quips in this CBC Radio debate.

The two discuss "cholesterol," a substance thought to cause heart attacks. Percival is also concerned about the health of schoolchildren. Since evaluating a group of Toronto kids who failed a fitness test, he's coined the term "TV legs" because of their unhealthy obsession with the sedentary pastime.
posted by maudlin at 7:00 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


My mother still has the XBX book; I remember it from the late 60's-early 70's. Really cool post and comments.
posted by TedW at 7:22 PM on March 25, 2009


I have been looking for this for a long time. Prince Charles I believe uses this workout.
posted by Deep Dish at 7:28 PM on March 25, 2009


I did the Hacker's Diet version of this; it was great, and the whole program helped me lose 70 pounds and keep it off to this day. I still do a modified variant of this exercise program every day.

Be really careful with the bend, or touch-your-toes exercise. It can be rough on the hips. I substituted a back-exercise routine for that portion after it became painful.
posted by MrVisible at 7:56 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was somehow bestowed with a shopworn copy of the booklet when I was a teen, around the mid 70s. (Mine doesn't have the tentacle-porn graphic on the cover, but a smartly-uniformed RCAF officer.)

I've used versions of the program over the years, although rarely diligently enough to really comment on their effectiveness. They always did seem a bit out of date and I've wondered why the program wasn't updated. The simplicity seems quite appealing. An equivalent in some ways is the parcourse -- but those are also disappearing.

Can we only exercise now with expensive elliptical trainers?

Or did 5BX just offer fewer dating opportunities?
posted by dhartung at 7:57 PM on March 25, 2009


I had this when I was a kid in the '80s, and (speaking only for myself, because it does seem to be a well-balanced and efficient program for getting in shape) it did me absolutely no good. Nor did later attempts at jogging (ugh). It wasn't until years later, after I discovered exercises that I really enjoyed, that were social and fun to do (esp with music) that I got in good physical shape, built muscle, toned what I had, and dropped much of the babyfat. For me, this program was too much like work and duty.
posted by Auden at 7:58 PM on March 25, 2009


I had this when I was a kid in the '80s, and (speaking only for myself, because it does seem to be a well-balanced and efficient program for getting in shape) it did me absolutely no good. Nor did later attempts at jogging (ugh).

Amen to that. When I first started exercising, using a program very similar to this, after a few months I had to do an absurd number of reps before I even felt like working out. Same with jogging - it felt like torture. In contrast, a weight training program designed to work every muscle group to momentary failure in every workout just felt "right" to me.

I think finding a good exercise regimen depends a lot on figuring out your particular bodytype or genetic makeup. Some people love running. Some hate it. Some find weightlifting futile, others build muscle almost immediately. I think that any exercise that works against your genetic predispositions is going to make you miserable, and conversely any exercise regimen that exploits your genetic makeup is going to feel better and achieve better results. Just my $0.02.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:23 PM on March 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Searching for demonstrations on YouTube led me here (Poodle Fitness)
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:27 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of a worn old paperback book on isometrics that my grandfather had & always used. It was associated in some way with the American military, all the photo illustrations were American soldiers. My mom & I have been looking all over for it, has anyone heard of it?
posted by zarah at 10:17 PM on March 25, 2009


Jesus, my mother had that booklet-- she kept it on her dresser. Thanks so much for the memory trigger...
posted by jokeefe at 10:20 PM on March 25, 2009


5BX vs. P90X in a Steel Cage Deathmath . . . Who will win?!
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:47 PM on March 25, 2009


I do the modified version of the 5BX exercises, and have for several years. There are some reports that the original version could cause back problems, so I think it's worth doing the sit-ups in a more modern way.

It's worked extremely well for me, and I tend to end up pimping it in Ask MeFi a lot. It's well worth taking a look if you want to start getting fit.

HOWEVER. This is a very light, minimal exercise programme. The big advantage is that it's very easy to do. There's no equipment, you don't need much space, you don't need to leave the house: so however lazy you are it's hard to find an excuse not to do it. Whereas an experienced slacker can think up a dozen reasons not to go to the gym in half a second.

But 11 minutes a day is never going to get you super-fit: you're not going to be running marathons or climbing mountains. The programme itself recommends that you do sport as well as the exercises, which are just a base. I like it because it keeps me just fit enough to run for a bus or climb a few flights of stairs if the lifts are busy.

My opinion is that modern fitness advice tends to be over-ambitious. People are advised to do half an hour or an hour of exercise every day. Some people take that advice and get very fit. A lot more people keep it up for a few months, then find they just don't have the time, then give up entirely.

If you're already in the habit of doing a modern exercise programme, then switching to 5BX doesn't really make sense. But if you're not doing any exercise at all, or find you just don't have the time, or find that you just get fed up and quit after a month or to, it's well worth considering.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:30 AM on March 26, 2009


This makes me think of Mike Rowe.
posted by 6am at 3:05 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the comments. I discovered 5Bx via the aforementioned Hacker's Diet. Then I made the connection to the Canadian Airforce exercises that a 75 year old friend had been telling me he had been doing daily for the last 40 years: they were the same thing.

There is a story that Jeff Hawkins - inventor of the Palm Pilot - started off with a block of wood of a size which would fit comfortably in his pocket. He then used this as a key constraint for the dimensions of the actual device. By the same token I believe that 5BX is a great example of design for miniaturisation: if we allow a 15 minute daily time window, no equipment and the amount of floor space available in a typical bedroom then what can we achieve? The simplicity of the final program should not mask the considerable amount of research that apparently went into getting it right.

I see that the question of how to modernise 5BX was posed in this classroom exercise - I would be interested in the sort of answers they came up with.
posted by rongorongo at 4:00 AM on March 26, 2009


I used the Hacker's Diet to lose about 60 lbs (so far), but I actually didn't use the exercise ladder, though I did start it. Now that I'm having trouble with the last few pounds, maybe I should try again. Thanks for the reminder!
posted by DU at 4:51 AM on March 26, 2009


TheophileEscargot - I think it's worth doing the sit-ups in a more modern way.

Indeed this is sage advice. The Hackers Diet link says:

Sit Up - Lift your upper body, bending at the waist, until you're sitting up vertically.

Do not do this!
That is, unless you like lower back problems. Lift your shoulders and ribcage off the ground, leaving the lower back in contact. The aim is to exercise your stomach muscles, not strain your lower back. That is why we now refer to them as stomach curls.

Push Up - lift your body until your arms are straight.

Do not do this! Always keep a small bend in your arms, unless you want to destroy your elbow joint and/or encourage hyper-extension (bending past the limit of mechanical strength).

There is a difference between health and fitness, as my osteopath likes to say. Staying healthy is good for you, while focusing on being 'hyper-fit' will very likely lead to damage unless undertaken with a great deal of care. He gets a lot of work from people who spend their time at the gym, exercising according to their programme and yet damaging themselves.

For the purposes of this statement, the modified 5BX programme would be healthy, whilst training to do a triathlon would be hyper-fit. Look at the bodies of professional athletes for examples. Rafael Nadal is 23 years old, but his knee injuries are likely to end his professional tennis playing career within five years.

As regards exercise that is easy to incorporate into a normal lifestyle, I think pilates is hard to beat. Core strength is of value to all activities, and can be practiced at the same time as any exercise. It can also be practiced while waiting for the train, lift, bus, standing in a queue, sitting at your desk or even lying in bed .
posted by asok at 5:05 AM on March 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the post asok. In fact from the 5BX group I think just about the only exercise which people would not recommend modifying today is the last one (running). Recommended methods seem to evolve a bit like first aid techniques - so if you are relying on what you learnt while you were at school, for example, you could be way out of date. Here is a quick summary of common exercises which you thought were good for you - but which are now considered dangerous (together with suggested alternatives)
posted by rongorongo at 5:34 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Even though it's worth changing the sit-ups, I think the risks of 5BX may be overestimated sometimes.

5BX has been done by hundreds of thousands of people over fifty years, so any problems that exist have shown up. Whereas if you do Bikram Spin Boxercise, or whatever the latest trend is, it may have even worse problems, but they won't have had time to show up yet.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:57 AM on March 26, 2009


My first exposure to 5BX was during my undergrad engineering degree. We had a crusty old professor for calculus, Dr. A. Cormac Smith. The first page of his course notes was something to the effect that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind and he recommended the 5BX.

My 65 year old uncle still does the 5BX and runs 5 miles every morning.
posted by substrate at 6:38 AM on March 26, 2009


By the same token I believe that 5BX is a great example of design for miniaturisation: if we allow a 15 minute daily time window, no equipment and the amount of floor space available in a typical bedroom then what can we achieve?

I think there are two problems with this:

1. If you only have 15 minutes, you are invariably going to design a program that shoots your heart rate up from total rest to near maximum exertion dangerously quickly. Even weightlifters are encouraged to do some gentle cardio exercise for at least five minutes before lifting so their heart rate doesn't go from 60 bpm to 150 bpm during their first set.

2. If you only have 15 minutes, a pure aerobic/cardio workout isn't going to get you very far in the long term (in the short term anything produces results). What I've learned from reading and from my own experience is that you have to put on muscle so that your body is burning more fat and calories when you aren't exercising. To do that, you need to push the muscles to momentary failure because that conditions in the muscle during that failure are what trigger it to grow (i.e. that last pushup where you can't possibly push your body off the ground no matter how hard you try is momentary failure).

I think the constraints on such a program are:

1. No bursting or jerking movements. The first repetition of any exercise is the most dangerous because that is the one in which the muscles at their strongest. Jerking or bursting especially on the first repetition is how joints, ligaments, and tendons get injured.

2. Absolutely no locking of the joints ever. Echoing what asok said, locking joints during exercise is how you will destroy your joints. Joints should be extended just shy of full extension.


With that said, a 15 minute program (after some light cardio and/or stretching) is tough, but I think it could be very effective if it combined bodyweight exercises with the super slow approach. Because you can't add resistance with more weights, you can add resistance by doing each repetition much more slowly. So instead of a push-up being 2 seconds on the way down and 2 seconds on the way up, take 20 seconds going down and 20 seconds going up moving very very slowly, but not stopping. This way, you are working the muscles through their full range of motion (unlike static exercises like components of Bruce Lee's workout), but much more strenuously than normally.

Although even with this, I think you'll eventually run up against that fifteen minute barrier as the muscles develop.


You know, now that I think about it, the government should probably collect all of the science on exercise and fitness and come up with a program tailored for men and women in different age groups that they can do at home with no equipment that if followed diligently will achieve at least the minimum baseline health we'd like people to have but without causing ancillary joint or heart problems. This way, it is something that everyone can get free and clear information about without all the fitness industry fad nonsense.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:44 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Bikram Spin Boxercise
You know, I do this in the pool and can only report success, though the underwater bikes are maintenance intensive...

MY folks had this as well but I don't think they ever used it... Now I'm thinking this is something I should look into... So, thanks.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:53 AM on March 26, 2009


Remember to take 50's shit with a grain of salt. I remember when consuming water during athletic exertion was forbidden. You could swish it around in your mouth but immediately had to spit it out. I also recall walking through a steel mill which had salt tablet dispensers on the wall in case you were dehydrated.
posted by digsrus at 7:27 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just find a half-dozen small objects for counting off the run-and-jump phase so you don't have to hold two numbers in your head at once and that's it.

I find it easier to count with the thumb and two fingers of one hand in binary. It interrupts my rhythm less than sliding coins around with my feet.
posted by vira at 8:49 AM on March 26, 2009


that shoots your heart rate up from total rest to near maximum exertion dangerously quickly

Why do you view this as a bad thing? Surely our hearts, evolved over millions of years of escaping from predators, are meant to go from zero-to-hero. Your ancestors had hearts that could withstand sudden exercise: that's why you are here.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:43 PM on March 26, 2009


You know, now that I think about it, the government should probably collect all of the science on exercise and fitness and come up with a program tailored for men and women in different age groups that they can do at home with no equipment that if followed diligently will achieve at least the minimum baseline health we'd like people to have but without causing ancillary joint or heart problems. This way, it is something that everyone can get free and clear information about without all the fitness industry fad nonsense.

Repeated for emphasis.

But it'd be another step toward socialism, so best to avoid it. Everyone knows that society falls apart if you have socialism!
posted by five fresh fish at 8:48 PM on March 26, 2009


Sit Up - Lift your upper body, bending at the waist, until you're sitting up vertically.

Do not do this! That is, unless you like lower back problems. Lift your shoulders and ribcage off the ground, leaving the lower back in contact. The aim is to exercise your stomach muscles, not strain your lower back. That is why we now refer to them as stomach curls.

Push Up - lift your body until your arms are straight.

Do not do this! Always keep a small bend in your arms, unless you want to destroy your elbow joint and/or encourage hyper-extension (bending past the limit of mechanical strength).


Wellllll...actually you could do both of those things. For the average person, you probably should not do full sit-ups. Athletes properly trained can do them just fine. Without getting into specifics, the way a crunch and sit-up is performed are very different.
The average person should not have a problem extending your arms or legs out through a full range of motion. I'm not sure if there are many Power or Olympic lifters here but if you ever watch one do a Bench Press, Clean & Jerk, or a Deadlift it is common for them to "lock out". This is with many hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

Now Tempo, or Time Under Tension (TUT), is rarely discussed in workout articles because for the average person it is generally a bit to much and no one wants to keep that much details of what they're doing. Here is an article that is a good overview of Tempo. (Good ol' T-Mag)
posted by P.o.B. at 2:33 AM on March 27, 2009


Why do you view this as a bad thing? Surely our hearts, evolved over millions of years of escaping from predators, are meant to go from zero-to-hero.

Yes, they are, but an untrained or de-trained weakened heart could possibly fail. So the general advice given is to take it slow.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:37 AM on March 27, 2009


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