Monday, January 18, 2010

Five Basic Exercises

I think it was a reader here who pointed me at 5BX, a set of exercises developed in the 1950s to keep Royal Canadian Air Force pilots fit even when they were confined to barracks in remote locations with inhospitable climates. I'm always looking for new exercises to do in my hotel room, and I like the cachet of something developed especially for Canadian pilots. Blogger Angus Watson has more information:

In the late 1950s a man named Bill Orban created a worldwide fitness phenomenon. He had been asked to build a workout programme for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, for whom space and kit was limited. His solution was 5BX, or Five Basic Exercises, which required just 11 minutes of exercise every day (12 minutes for the female programme, XBX). If followed correctly, Orban claimed, 5BX could help anyone attain a decent fitness level in six to 10 months, then maintain it.

Though it was designed for pilots, 5BX found far wider favour, particularly among office workers. The 5BX handbook, Physical Fitness, sold 23 million copies in 13 languages. Today it is out of print, but a loyal band still swears by the 5BX ethos.

Bill Orban seems to have been someone truly interested in helping people achieve and maintain fitness, not just some guy told to do something about all those fat pilots. He dedicated his life to the idea, testing everything on real people and as he got older paying attention to the fitness needs of the elderly and disabled as well.

The 5BX programme has fallen into recent disfavour because the hands behind head situps and bouncing toe touches risk back injury, so I'm doing my toe touches very slowly and will substitute more modern abdominal exercises like stomach crunches and bicycles for the advanced situps.

I've been doing the 5BX program since before Christmas. You are told to start at the beginning and work systematically through, doing each level several times and not skipping any, thus so far it's very easy, but does actually does feel like a bit of a workout. I'm reminded of that complicated machine you see in TV ads and inflight magazines that claims you can do a workout in four minutes a day. The machine costs something ludicrous like $12,000, so if you're going to believe a ludicrous claim like that, you might as well believe the one that is free on the internet. Sometimes I do a mile run instead of the in-place running, and when I do that I usually do a fast half mile at the beginning, do my normal run workout and then another fast half mile at the end. It's still no challenge to make the targets at these easy levels.

You'll notice the above quote mentions a women's programme, the XBX with ten exercises. I initially started doing the 5BX just because it was easier to print off: five charts as opposed to a 51-page PDF booklet. Women have very few muscles that men lack, and I doubted Orban or the Air Force was sufficiently interested in the tone of those specialty muscles to develop five sorts of Kegels, so the men's programme suited me fine. I did come back to look at the women's programme though.

The XBX booklet's age highlights the social changes that have taken place in fifty years. It starts with an assurance that "The XBX is designed to firm your muscles-- not to convert you into a muscled woman." Muscled woman? Hello! Does anyone today look at a muscled female athlete like Serena Williams and not think "I want me some of that" in one sense or another? But I wasn't expecting to bulk up doing floor exercises. These are, with some modifications, the five men's exercises plus five more, concentrating mainly on flexibility.

Some of the modifications make a lot of sense. For example while the first level of the men's program calls for what I call "girl pushups" -- pushups from the knees instead of from the feet -- the first level of the women's asks you to start in the girl pushup position, but raise your body by any means possible, the illustration suggesting that you push your butt back over your feet to straighten your arms. As women typically have less upper body strength and the starting level is supposed to be something anyone can do, then that makes sense. But the ambition set for the women is very low. The top level of running in place given for the women is below the one I have already reached in the easiest chart of the men's program.

Does the program reflect lower physical expectations society had of women in the 1950s, and women just accepted them? Or have women changed that much in fifty years while men have stayed the same? Studying the charts I see that while the highest level of expectation for men is at age 18-15, followed by age 25-29, the peak of expectation for women is in girlhood, 15-17 years of age. WTF? Was the woman of 1960 so continually gravid that her physical capabilities declined as soon as she matured?

My intention is to do continue the 5BX plus the extra exercises in the women's program until I stabilize at my maximum level and then add in new and different exercises. Nothing wrong with continuing to try to level up on the 5BX, but doing the same few exercises without change isn't good. There's supposed to be a tougher program called PX90 or something similar, but al I can find online for it requires equipment or expensive videos.


Anoynmous said...

I remember seeing the 5BX/XBX booklet on my parents' bathroom counter when I was about 8 or 10 years old. Finding out what it stands for satisfies a curiosity I didn't realize I've been carrying for more than a quarter century.

The other piece of reading material there at the time was a guide to Glacier National Park, mentioning the "40-odd glaciers" within its borders. Today, it's more like 20. (Ten years from now it might be zero; another ten years and it will be.)

Rhonda said...

Ooh, that's worth looking into, to add to my normal activities. Thanks for the link.

Unknown said...

Like everything else in life, there's now a 5BX iPhone app - $0.99.

I recall mention of this program in the '70's Canadian military, and although we didn't employ it directly in the infantry (11 minutes, hah!) the basic exercises were part of our PT programs.

Aviatrix, all you need now is an infomercial for the P5BX90D program!

Traveller said...

I think P90X is the program you are thinking of. It can get quite intense.

5BX is the basis for the exercise component of the Hacker's Diet. I'm sure there is an app for that as well. I use the Online version for tracking my weight. I used the Palm app in the past.

Unknown said...

Take one of the infomercial.

Traveller said...

@Angus: you forgot about the Green Hair. ;-)

CanadianInvestor said...

FWIW, I have been doing 5BX on and off, mostly on, for nigh on 50 years and it is still the best due to its convenience. Something you actually do is worth 100% more than the perfect program you don't do. My body is still holding together without much damage, though I have modified the situps slightly by bending my knees. Only thing is I can no longer even get close to chart 5, where I managed level B+ for a time. The running on the spot with knees to waist height is a killer. I'd love to know if anyone ever did chart 6.