CrossFit is a global phenomenon: 12,000 locations, hundreds of thousands of diehards, and a full-body workout that can make you look like a superhero, 60 Minutes said on Sunday.
“In just 15 years, the king of CrossFit has created the largest gym chain in history,” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi reported for 60 Minutes.
Alfonsi captured a fascinating moment in CrossFit’s growth. Its many supporters swear it’s transformative; its few, vocal critics call CrossFit a cult. And the company is trying to walk a tricky line: Continuing to build popularity, but avoid becoming mainstream and generic.
There are a lot of things to like about CrossFit. It packs a big workout into a short timeframe. It’s built around interval training and weights, which are known to challenge muscles and build fitness.
And given America’s problems with obesity, we should celebrate any movement that’s getting people moving.
But the glowing 60 Minutes profile — a nearly 15-minute interview with CrossFit founder Greg Glassman — frequently felt more like an infomercial than an investigative report.
(Clearly, CrossFit loved its 60 Minutes appearance; the company’s notoriously combative social media team heavily promoted the interview on Twitter across the weekend.)
For full disclosure, I’ve personally seen the health benefits of intense, CrossFit-style workouts — I know how powerful, rewarding, and habit-forming they can be.
But for balance, here’s a look at three of the biggest health criticisms around CrossFit that 60 Minutes overlooked.
1. The Paleo Diet Is Overrated
One reason why CrossFit has been so successful: It promises more than just a workout.
It gives you a lifestyle.
In workouts, CrossFitters compete with and motivate each other. Out of their box — CrossFit’s term for a local gym — CrossFitters bond with and date each other.
“Perhaps more than disciples of any other type of exercise, people who participate in CrossFit can’t help being drawn to people who do the same,” Courtney Rubin wrote in the New York Times last year.
A key part of the CrossFit culture is built around how to eat right, too.
“To keep their energy up, [CrossFitters are] encouraged to follow something called a Paleo diet: heavy on meat and vegetables – food fit for a caveman,” Alfonsi said.
Yes, the Paleo diet can help you quickly lose weight. Scientists like that it gets people to abandon processed foods like white bread and potato chips.
But blindly believing that the Paleo diet is the answer to our nutritional needs is, well, prehistoric.
“The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years,” Ferris Jabr writes at Scientific American, “it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their — often brief — individual life spans.”
For instance, some supporters of the Paleo diet claim that sticking to ancient-style foods will avoid modern-day health problems, like heart disease. But evidence suggests that many Paleolithic-era humans actually had heart disease too.
The Paleo diet also can be exceptionally restrictive; many adherents try to avoid dairy, beans, and other common foods, because ancient humans didn’t have access to them.
But scientists note that there was no one-size fits all diet in the Paleolithic era; our ancestors, living all over the world, subsisted on a wide range of flora and fauna. And given our evolving nutritional needs, human diets should evolve too, some say.
“We were designed, from an evolutionary perspective, to nourish ourselves and live long enough to reproduce and raise our young to the point where they could be self-sustaining, which, back in the day, would have been the teenage years,” Michael Zemel, chief scientific officer for the biotechnology company NuSirt Sciences, told Metro Pulse in 2013. “This notion of eating for what we were designed to do — our design is a moving target. The goal of science and medicine is to optimize what we do, including what we eat, to maximize our health span.”
In a U.S. News & World Report meta-review of 35 diets, the Paleo diet was ranked #34 — tied with the Dukan diet as the worst on the list. The magazine noted that it lacked sufficient nutrition, among other problems.
“There are no responsible studies to support the healthfulness of a modern Paleo diet,” Tufts University researcher Susan Roberts wrote to the New York Times last week.
2. Critics Say Crossfit’s Injury Risk Is Higher Than 60 Minutes Acknowledged
Ever since it emerged, with its high-intensity weights and non-stop pace, CrossFit’s been dogged by safety fears.
Blame a mix of concerning factors. While trainers at CrossFit are certified, it’s unclear how many only attended a weekend course. Some new participants are out-of-shape homebodies who probably shouldn’t be jumping into intense workouts.
Of course, regular CrossFitters readily admit that they like being pushed to the edge. Even CrossFit’s founder embraces the sport’s danger.
“It can kill you,” Glassman said in a 2005 New York Times story. “I’ve always been completely honest about that.”
60 Minutes acknowledges one challenge in figuring out CrossFit’s risks: there haven’t been many studies into its safety.
“The few that exist found [CrossFit] to be about as safe as gymnastics or weightlifting and less likely to cause an injury than running,” said Alfonsi.
But writing at Vox, Julia Belluz took a different tone: She points out that several studies “have revealed alarming trauma rates” among CrossFit athletes.
For example, Belluz says:
This 2013 study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, was designed to look at the frequency of injury in CrossFit athletes during routine training. Of the 132 people who responded to the survey, 97 (or nearly three-quarters) reported getting hurt during CrossFit training, and most injuries involved the shoulders and spine. These respondents reported a total of 186 injuries; nine led to surgeries.
Similarly, a study in Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that shoulder and low-back injuries were most common, followed by knee injuries.
Whether or not the workouts are good for you, it’s clear that crossing CrossFit hasn’t been good for scientists. In an infamous case, Ohio State researchers that investigated CrossFit’s effects on health and fitness are now facing multiple lawsuits, even though their findings were mostly positive for CrossFit.
One epidemiologist at the American Sports Medicine Institute told ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada that he worries the lawsuits will lead to less willingness to investigate the workouts in the future.
3. The Actual Health Benefits Of Intense Workouts Aren’t Clear
There were many striking moments in Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview, but one of the most memorable was this exchange between Alfonsi and Glassman.
Sharyn Alfonsi: To that person who’s sitting in their living room saying, “This all sounds interesting, but I– you know, I’ve heard things and I don’t wanna get hurt”?
Greg Glassman: Stay in your chair where you’re sure to get hurt, and you’ll become one of the 300,000 people that will die next year from sitting in their chair doing nothing.
Glassman may be exaggerating — it’s possible to be concerned about CrossFit without dying on the sofa — but he’s articulating the increasingly popular belief that sitting down is hiking up America’s death rate.
And a range of interventions are trying to get people moving. More offices are introducing standing desks. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has even said the Apple Watch will help cure sitting, which he calls “the new cancer.”
The problem is that we don’t know if extreme workouts are the way to go, either.
Writing at the New Yorker, cardiologist Lisa Rosenbaum last year examined the evidence into whether intense workouts are linked to risk of heart attack and stroke. She notes that one of the biggest truisms in health and diet is that too much of anything can ultimately backfire, and that some scientists believe moderate exercise is the best approach.
“Moderate” doesn’t fit with the CrossFit mentality, though.
One challenge, which 60 Minutes didn’t mention at all, is a condition called rhabdomyolysis. It’s generally rare, but involves muscle fibers being pushed to the point that they break down, enter the bloodstream, and lead to life-threatening kidney damage. And there have been a number of anecdotal examples tied to CrossFit, Kent Sepkowitz writes at the Daily Beast.
CrossFit disputes that the risk of rhabdomyolysis is higher among its clients. But on some level, they have acknowledged the danger, with a bloody “Uncle Rhabdo” cartoon clown designed to warn athletes from pushing themselves too hard.
It’s an unusual tactic to address a serious safety risk — but it fits with CrossFit’s style. Lifesize statues of another cartoon clown, “Uncle Pukey,” show up across CrossFit’s headquarters, too.
Mascots for exhaustion and kidney failure have struck some as ill humor. “Why would anyone want to work out until you puke?” The Atlantic‘s Julie Beck asked last year.
But reporting the story, Alfonsi was mostly amused.
“So critics say, ‘look, Crossfit will make you sick, if you work out too much you’re going to puke and vomit,’” she says, in a bonus 60 Minutes video posted to the website.
“[But] rather than kind of shy away from that, they decided to embrace it,” Alfonsi adds.
“And that tells you everything you need to know about Greg Glassman.”
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