If It’s Monday, It’s Time to Move the Needle!

This is it—the final step forward in this month's Dream Big challenge. Ready to cross the finish line? Get your week four plan, here.

Time flies when you’re having fun—and what could be more fun than getting your fitness, health, and mental wellness in top shape? So here we are, on the final week of our month-long challenge (click here first if you’re new) in which we’re mastering the art of pushups (40 of those suckers in 90 seconds), living the sugar-free life (we see you, agave nectar), and getting enough sleep to keep the brain and body firing on all cylinders.

You’re putting all the pieces together this week, so that by the end you will be ready to test what you’ve learned. This is not your typical final exam—there will be no Fs and no incompletes. This test (get ready for a cliché here) is based purely on your efforts—and if you’re still with us after four weeks of grinding it out, that’s hardcore commitment as far as we’re concerned.

Success in this challenge means that you can do something today that you couldn’t do one month ago. It might not be 40 pushups; it might be 15. Maybe you’ve learned to take your coffee black (but you still stash the gummy bears in your office desk). Maybe you’ve found a way to work another hour of sleep into your life, even if you’re still only getting six a night. This challenge is not about perfection. It's about finding your starting point and steadily moving the needle in the direction of better health.

Get ready to prove to yourself what you’re made of this week—and if you’re feeling like you could use some virtual motivation, head to our social channels to find and and post some inspo! Film your 40 pushups, share your fave sugar-free recipe, and tell us what you’re drinking before bed this week, now that adult bevvies are off-limits (sorry!). Share on Facebook (make sure to tag us @healthcentral) and Instagram (@healthcentraldotcom) and we’ll reshare and cheer you on! Let’s cross the finish line together.

Dream Big: 40 Pushups in 90 Seconds

wide stance push up

Week 4: Mix-and-Match Pushup Styles

Here’s the science: More muscle equals a faster metabolism, and a faster metabolism helps your body burn more calories at rest. While pushups primarily work your shoulders and triceps, a study in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that subtle changes in hand positioning develop different muscles—hence, more muscle mass (and quicker metabolism). Hands closer together strengthens the pectoralis minor (a triangular muscle between your shoulder and chest that makes you look extra-fit in a tank top), while wider apart works the pectoralis major and serratus anterior (the muscle that runs along the side of your rib cage). All of which is to say, with this one basic exercise, you can build a whole lot of metabolism-boosting muscle.

Move-the-Needle Monday: This is the week, folks! You’ve been putting in the work and now you’re going to put it all to the test. “Forty pushups in 90 seconds is a LOT,” says HealthCentral editor and certified group fitness instructor Danielle Gamiz. “You might feel discouraged because you’re not quite there yet, but it’s important to remember how much stronger and more stamina you have now than you did at the beginning of the month.” If you give the full 40 a go and come up short, don’t get down. Try again tomorrow, and the day after that. Forty is an impressive amount but it’s by no means insurmountable as long as you keep at it—remember, by this point you’ve done 40 or more already, just not strung together.

The plan: Doing 40 of anything in a row is monotonous, so this week instead of playing with the clock, you’re going to play with variations. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Monday: Start with a traditional set of 10 pushups. Switch immediately to 10 incline pushups using a chair, then transition right away to 10 staggered pushups (do one with your hands closer together, then one with your hands wider apart; repeat alternating pattern five times). Rest for 60 seconds, then finish with 10 traditional pushups.

  • Tuesday: Repeat this sequence above, shortening the rest period to 30 seconds. At the end, add three sets of 10-rep biceps curls with dumbbells or water jugs.

  • Wednesday: Do 10 traditional pushups, followed immediately by 10 staggered pushups, followed immediately by another 10 traditional pushups. Rest for 30 seconds, then finish with 10 more traditional pushups. (Getting close!)

  • Thursday: Do 10 incline pushups using a chair, then transition right away to 20 traditional pushups. Quickly stand up and do dumbbell biceps curls for 30 seconds. Return to the floor and finish with 10 traditional pushups.

  • Friday: Do 10 traditional pushups, rest 15 seconds, then do 20 more traditional pushups. Rest another 15 seconds, and finish with 10 traditional pushups.

  • Saturday: Today is the day! Stop, drop, and give us 40. Don’t worry about the clock: If you keep a steady rhythm—not too fast, not too slow—you will naturally come in under 90 seconds. If you need to take a break, that’s OK, too. Rest, reboot, and get after it again.

  • Sunday: If Saturday was a success, it’s a rest day! If you didn’t quite get there, this is your backup shot. Here’s the deal: Thanks to a little thing called muscle memory, every time you try to hit 40 in 90, it’s going to get easier. Your muscle fibers remember the drill, and today will feel (incrementally) easier than the day before. As long as you keep at it, you will get there.

Top tip: A week of attempting 40 pushups in a row is no joke. You can help your muscles recover after each session by doing two stretches:

  • Child’s Pose: Kneel, sit back on your heels, bend your chest to the floor and stretch your arms out in front of you.

  • Wall Shoulder Stretch: Stand with the right side of your body against the wall, right arm stretched out against the wall behind you, hand parallel to shoulder. Feel the stretch across your chest and through your arms.

Dream Big: Quit Sugar

hard boiled egg

Week 4: Master the 80/20 Technique

The science: Well, it only took four weeks, but here’s where the fog is finally lifting—as you come out of your sugar detox, you may experience a sense of mental clarity, as many studies have linked the sweetener to poor cognitive function. And bonus: You might also notice your jeans are less snug, as a meta-analysis of 77 studies in the British Medical Journal found that several weeks of reduced sugar intake—without any other dietary changes—resulted in measurable weight loss.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your focus this week is on making sugar a once-in-a-while thing, not part of your daily diet. The key? Stick to an 80/20 rule (meaning 80% of the time you choose healthy foods and 20% from the not-so-great-for-you category). “This allows you a little bit of flexibility. Total restriction isn’t sustainable in the long-term,” says Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C.

The plan: Now that you’re on a low-sugar track, start shifting your focus to adding fiber and protein—the two elements, Roberts says, are key to feeling satisfied with a low-sugar lifestyle. (Hint: hard-boiled eggs, cheese, roasted chickpeas, and nuts hit both buckets and are good pick-me-ups). This is also the week you can test out the 20% part of your plan by, say, having a ½ cup of ice cream on Wednesday and perhaps splitting a dessert with someone on Saturday. You’re also in the clear to add a glass of wine over the weekend, especially if it’s red—a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found red wine is naturally low in sugar and carries heart-healthy benefits to boot. Before you know it, it will be Sunday and you will have made it—have a little dance party to celebrate your major win.

Top tip: When you want something sweet, reach for 70% dark chocolate with nuts, says Roberts. “It’s got a touch of sugar, sure, but it’s also got all these other components, like the protein and the healthy fats, that will help satisfy the craving,” she says. Also, dark chocolate comes with its own set of healthy heart benefits.

Dream Big: Sleep 7 Hours (or More) a Night

cup of coffee

Week 4: Wean Yourself Off Coffee (and Kahlua)

Here’s the science: Did you know your afternoon coffee—even if you drink it right after lunch—can mess with your body’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep well into the night? Caffeine can linger in your body for at least six hours, according to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Alcohol similarly lingers in your body well after you down that pre-dinner cocktail, though not quite as long—about two to three hours—and that can interrupt your sleep, too.

Move-the-Needle Monday: You don’t have to give up your caffeine fix or happy hour to get better sleep, but it does make sense to be more strategic about when you indulge. It’s OK to have caffeine up until 2 p.m., though noon would be a more ideal cutoff point, says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a sleep medicine physician and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Dr. Ramar also recommends enjoying your evening cocktail well before bedtime; ideally, you’ll be finishing your last drink at least two hours before you plan to hit the sack. Even though alcohol has a sedative quality that makes you feel drowsy and might help you fall asleep initially, that alcohol lingers in your blood for several hours. Later in the night alcohol raises the body’s level of the stress hormone epinephrine, which increases your heart rate and stimulates wakefulness. It also can make you have to pee, and we all know how hard it can be to get back to sleep after a bathroom run.

The plan: Make some personal rules around caffeine and alcohol consumption and stick to them every day this week. Starting on Monday, have your last cup of joe around 2 p.m. If you like to nurse a beer or glass of Scotch (or pina colada—who are we to judge?) after dinner, set the cut-off time around 9 p.m.—sooner if your bedtime is before 11 p.m. If these two drinks are staples in your daily routine (we relate), you’ll deal better with this change by having a list of substitutes on hand. Instead of coffee, try chamomile or peppermint tea. Not much is going to take the edge off the way alcohol can, so don’t pretend. Instead, sip on seltzer with a dash of bitters or add a twist of lime and remind yourself that this sacrifice is in the name of the greater good: your health.

Top tip: If you’ve been getting more sleep, but you’re not feeling any less sleepy, there could be something more going on. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 70 million Americans live with some sort of sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Here’s Dr. Ramar’s advice: “If you try these things and you’re still having difficulty falling asleep or you have difficulty maintaining sleep—or your partner says you’re snoring, moving around, and having unrestful sleep—even after trying these measures after a month or so, I’d recommend seeing your doctor.”

Well, that sure went fast! Four weeks have come and gone—and what do you have to show for it? Hopefully more strength, a healthier diet, and/or better sleep habits. But really, we’re hoping you’ve got more confidence, less self-doubt, and a greater belief in your ability to keep moving the needle in the right direction as you pursue your healthiest life—whatever that means for you. Goal-setting is daunting, setbacks are intimidating, and failure is most certainly discouraging. But if you’re here and you’re reading this, it means you’ve hung in there and given things your best shot. And that’s a win in our book all year long.

Hope to see you in April when we’ll be challenging you to a two-minute plank, daily meditation, and eating the entire food pyramid (that’s no April Fool’s joke). Stay healthy!

Contributors: Julia Savacool, Beth Shapouri, Danielle Gamiz

  • Pushup Variations and Muscle Development: The Journal of Physical Therapy Science. (2016.) “Effect of the Push-Up Exercise at Different Palmar Width on Muscle Activities.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4792988/

  • Sugar and Cognitive Function: Clinical Interventions in Aging. (2019.) “Habitual Sugar Intake and Cognitive Impairment Among Multi-Ethnic Malaysian Older Adults.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31413554/

  • Body Weight and Sugar Reduction: British Medical Journal. (2013.) “Dietary Sugars and Body Weight: Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses of Randomised Controlled Trials and Cohort Studies.” bmj.com/content/346/bmj.e7492

  • Red Wine Benefits: Annals of Internal Medicine. (2015.) “Effects of Initiating Moderate Alcohol Intake on Cardiometabolic Risk in Adults with Type 2 Diabetes: A 2-Year Randomized, Controlled Trial.” acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M14-1650?articleID=2456121&

  • Caffeine’s Impact on Nighttime Sleep: Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. (2013.) “Caffeine Effects on Sleep Take 0, 3, 0r 6 Hours After Going to Bed. doi/10.5664/jcsm.3170

  • Sleep Disorders: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) “Sleep and Sleep Disorders.” cdc.gov/sleep/about_us.html