How a Half-Century-Old Exercise Plan and 12 Minutes a Day Could Make You Your Fittest Yet

You can do this quick-fire old-school daily workout regime at home without any special equipment

Everything new is old. And everything old is new.

The talk these days is of new research saying you need to exercise for just five minutes a day. No need to hit the weights, the track or the rowing machine for half an hour or more a day to stay fit and healthy. And, better yet, build exercise into your daily routine to make it less sedentary.[slideshow:1066]

All of which got us at The Active Times trawling deep into our memories for an old exercise regime that seems to fit the bill perfectly for time-pressed modern lives.

This work-out took no more than twelve minutes a day, could be done at home, comprised familiar calisthenic exercises like push-ups, leg-lifts and arm circling, and required no special equipment. Indeed, it required no equipment at all.[slideshow:1065]

Back in the day — well, back in the 1950s — the Royal Canadian Air Force introduced two sets of exercises for its air staff devised by the pioneering sports physiologist Dr. Bill Orban. They were intended for air crew who needed to keep fit but had been posted to remote bases with no gym.

The set for males was called the 5BX because there were five basic exercises. This was the military, after all, so there had to be an acronym.

The set for females was called the XBX because there were ten, X being the Latin numeral for ten. Both sets are a combination of stretching, sit-ups, back extensions, and push-ups with running in place providing an aerobic exercise component. A walk or run could be substituted for the last if preferred.

Here is a summary of each set.

XBX (for women)
2 mins Warm-up (Toe touching, knee raising, lateral bending, arm circling)
2 mins Partial sit-ups
1 min Chest and leg raises
1 min Side leg raises
2 mins Push-ups
1 min Leg lifts
3 mins Running in place
5BX (for men)
2 mins Bend and stretch
1 min Partial sit-ups
1 min Leg lifts
1 min Push-ups
6 mins Running in place


The underlying principle for both regimes was to work all your muscle groups for a short time, gradually increasing the intensity of the workout as you got more fit while keeping the length of time you took to do the set the same. You raised the intensity by increasing the number of reps to be done in the time allotted for each exercise.

So, for example, you'd start off by having to do four sit-ups in two minutes, but by the time you got to the highest level, you'd have to do 48 reps in those two minutes, having steadily increased the number of reps as you progressed through the levels.

Once you could achieve a certain number of reps in the time allotted for each exercise and could maintain that for a given number days in a row, you moved up a level of intensity: more reps and, after every twelfth level, each exercise became a bit more challenging.

Descriptions of the exercises and an easy-to-follow table for the required number of reps for each one at each level start here for XBX and here for 5BX. Or follow the links to the left of this article.

XBX simply ran from level 1 through 48 with the exercises changing slightly every 12 levels. 5BX, for reasons that were never clear, had six levels, each with 12 sub-levels lettered D- to A+.

There were age-dependent target levels to reach and designated numbers of days to spend at each level before progressing to the next. The age groups went as young as 7 to 8 years and up to 51+. And believe us, as we speak from experience, the highest levels were challenging: 40 push-ups and 50 pike sit-ups in 2 minutes, for example.

Follow this link for a table of goal levels by age for 5BX and this one for XBX.

The beauty of the regime is that anyone can do it, regardless of age or starting level of fitness. It takes just 12 minutes a day to run through the series of exercises. You can fit them into your daily schedule at whenever is most convenient, but try to stick to the same time every day. And you must run through the exercises in the same sequence each time.

Actress Helen Mirren recently told Hello! that she had followed the regime on and off for years. "It just very gently gets you fit," she said. "Two weeks of doing that and you think, 'Yeah, I could go to the gym now'."

Unless you are very unfit, you zip through the early levels. But you must start at the bottom with Level 1; resist the temptation to go straight to the level of which you think you are capable. You won’t progressively build your base fitness if you do. Take a few easy days at the start as a bonus. They won't last, be assured.

Hitting the time goals gets more difficult as you progress up the levels. It starts to take longer to put together the run of consecutive target-hitting days you need to move up. But it also means you can progress at the pace that is appropriate for you. When you hit the target for your age group, you can drop to three sessions a week to maintain your fitness or continue to progress up the levels.

As always, be sensible about doing that, especially if you are at either end of the age scale. Challenge yourself by all means but don't push yourself beyond your limits, especially as this is unsupervised exercise.

Twelve minutes a day to fitness, old school? Try it. You may be surprised.