Some people don’t need any help finding physical challenges. They naturally and intuitively figure out ways to engage physically with the world and test their prowess. But that’s not everyone, or else we’d see people sprinting down the street, hurdling park benches, climbing flagpoles, and swinging from tree branch to tree branch. It’d be a cool world, to be sure. It’s just not the one we live in.
In this world, where physical challenges are usually optional, we have to go looking for them.
What are some fitness challenges to try? I’ve got 11.
1. Climb a tree tall enough to make you a little queasy.
How high you go depends on the climber’s faculties and experience. Don’t underestimate yourself on this one, however.
This one, of course, tests both psychological and physical fitness. Everyone has that point where they begin questioning the decision to climb. And climbing itself requires hand-eye coordination, tactical planning, and physical strength. Compared to bouldering, climbing a tree is much more user-friendly, allowing the climber to dictate the terms of ascent. You can rest in between branches, or go full steam ahead. You can get winded, or take long rest periods in between bouts of exertion.
Try different routes up and back. Practice until you can ascend and descend smoothly.
Do pullups and dips on the branches. Use your legs for assistance if needed.
Take a selfie at the top. Post it to social media and bask in the adulation. You earned it.
2. Return to an activity you used to do all the time but haven’t touched in years.
For me, it’d be basketball. I always liked the game but was too small to make it very far in school. That’s actually why I turned to running—the more illustrious football and basketball options didn’t work for a guy my size.
Maybe you were incredibly passionate about martial arts as a kid, but drifted away after high school. Go take an introductory class at the local gym. They’re usually free.
Maybe you were a decent wrestler in high school. Get back into it. Barring that, roughhouse with a friend.
Maybe you figure skated as a kid, giving it up when it became apparent you weren’t elite-level material. Go down to the ice rink and strap on a pair. See how it feels.
Unearth your passions and check for viability.
3. Go rucking for at least 3 hours.
From hunter-gatherers lugging auroch quarters back to camp, Roman legionairres carrying 80 pound packs on campaigns, to patchouli-scented trustafarians backpacking their bong through Bali, the act of trekking with something heavy on your person is a time-honored human tradition.
Maybe you grab a couple friends and go backpacking in the nearest uninterrupted slice of nature (lots of places have short backpacking trips you can cover in 2-3 nights). Maybe you do a dayhike with a really heavy bag. Maybe you freak your neighbors out by walking around the block a few times with a kettlebell in the rack position.
Just carry something heavy and go walk.
4. Swim in cold water for ten minutes.
Aim for sub-65° water. Cold enough that you inhale sharply, but not so cold that you have to take Wim Hof’s course just to survive.
Swim sprints with plenty of rest. Swim laps at a slow pace. Try swimming the entire length of the pool underwater. See at least how far you can get.
They don’t have to be heavy. Aim for 20 reps at least, so choose a weight that makes that possible but really difficult at the same time. It should be a struggle toward the end (these 20 rep squats are sometimes called breathing squats, because you have to stop in the middle to catch your breath).
This is the horse stance. It’s a mainstay of Chinese martial arts, whose proponents say it develops a type of lower body strength and stability unlike any other execise. It teaches you to “root” to the ground. It’s also not too bad for the quads and glutes.
Assuming you have the flexibility, it starts out real easy. But after 30-45 seconds, things get serious. Your thigh might start trembling. You might feel the urge to dip your shoulders and break the integrity of your spine. Work up to being able to sit in the horse stance for five minutes.
Do it every morning, first thing when you get up. I find it opens up the hips quite nicely, so any subsequent movement comes more easily.
For a little added difficulty, try slowly rising up on your toes while in the stance. Maintain the upright torso. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat.
If you can get someone to whack you with bamboo poles every few seconds, all the better.
7. Do the Wingate Test.
The Wingate Test is what exercise physiologists use to test an athlete’s peak anaerobic output: 4 30-second, all-out sprints on a stationary bike at maximal resistance with 4 minutes rest in between. To illustrate just how difficult these are, subjects peforming Wingate Tests typically get puke buckets.
This month, take a Wingate Test. I don’t intend for you to commission a an exercise scientist to run a study on you. Just get your hands on a stationary bike of some sort, crank up the resistance, and do it. Set aside 20 minutes or so to complete the whole thing. Puke bucket is up to you.
8. Walk all day long.
Long, long walks are restorative. They’re where you find yourself, where you arrive at solutions to problems you thought were unsolvable.
But they’re also physically harder than you think. Most people just aren’t prepared to walk all day long anymore. Even people with pristine 10k daily step records bow out after a few hours.
You may have to work up to an all-day walk by taking lots of shorter walks (this is my secret trick to get you to walk more frequently).
I recommend a blend of city and country if you can make it work. That way you can stop for coffee, maybe browse a book store, ford a stream, hear a hawk’s cry, climb a tree (see above). You know: do it all.
9. Run a mile for time.
Men, try to break 7 minutes. Women, try to break 8 minutes. Move that number up if you’re older or out of shape. Drop it down if you’re younger or in great shape. But think about keeping it intact if only to motivate you to do your best.
Competition is good, to a point. It drives us to be our best, and it wrings every last drop of quality out of us. It’s also a powerful motivator, helping us ignore pain and suffering in order to perform and beat the other person.
Competition can be formal (join an adult sports league, sign up for a StrongMan or powerlifting competition) or informal (challenge the local bully to a foot race). It can take many forms, but what’s important is that you test your physical prowess against another human.
11. Attain the feat you’ve been pining after.
Everyone has that white whale of exercises, that physical feat that just eludes us. Sometimes it remains out of grasp because we’re not really trying as hard as we can to get it. This month, get it.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.