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Eva M. Selhub, M.D. Headshot

CrossFit Bashers, Can You Be More Constructive?

Posted: Updated:

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Apparently people like Erin Simmons, who hate CrossFit didn't read my article on how CrossFit saved my health, nor have they considered the broader implications of how this fitness program may be helping tens of thousands (and maybe more) of people get healthy and happy.

Erin is just one among many who have made headway bashing CrossFit as being a sport that causes too many injuries, is overwhelmed by poor coaching or thoughtless programming, and, oh yes, for being a cult. And though there is some validity to some of what I have read, and I am happy to stand corrected on any point, it seems to me that these opinions are personal, ego-based vendettas written by people who feel the need to shout out warnings on subjects that are not completely substantiated by research or fact.

It's really incredible to me. Really. I've been practicing medicine for close to 20 years and none of us have figured out a way not only to get people motivated to exercise and get fit, but to stick to it. CrossFit is not the problem folks, obesity is. We have an epidemic of obesity that is not only propelling the rising costs of healthcare, but also morbid problems like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars. The medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

I remember this time last year, I spent a weekend going to watch the CrossFit Northeast Regionals competition. It was truly an amazing experience. I couldn't decide where to feast my eyes, the athletes competing, or the athletes in the spectator stands. The entire Reebok CrossFit One field was swimming with fit people. It was such a thrill for this doc to witness, especially since the night before I found myself walking amongst an ocean of obesity in the streets of Boston's North End.

In my two years of being part of CrossFit, I have witnessed more couch potatoes getting fit either because of CrossFit or because they were influenced by my or a friend's change in fitness level from participating in CrossFit. My friends and parents, for example have stopped eating high levels of grains and sugars and have started exercising regularly. Do you have any idea how many years I have been trying to get them to do so? This time around, I didn't push them to do anything. They merely started because they saw how much healthier and fitter, not to mention happier I became.

Now why would you want to shut down something that is getting people to exercise by the droves? No program is fail-safe, especially when it gets to be this big and popular. But rather than bashing something that is working to get so many people fit, maybe we can put our minds together to fix any flaws, unless, that is, you feel the program is threatening your business or way of life.

How about I'll start. I am going to list the top three factors that seem to get bashed most frequently and offer my opinion to meet yours. Maybe we can come up with some solutions.

Let's start with bashing factor number one: CrossFit (CF) is dangerous because of the injuries:

This seems to be the most popular, though there is no current literature that validates that CF causes more injuries than any other sport. You can get injured skiing, running marathons, playing football and yes, the new research is pointing to injuries from yoga.

I personally am more worried about the broad health implications of the increased morbidity and mortality associated with poor fitness and not being able to get up from sitting on the floor.

Perhaps it is more important to shine a light on the notion that injuries are occurring because people are actually exercising and talking about it? I don't know about you, but in my clinic, I hear more complaints of injuries people are sustaining from walking up the stairs because their knees can't handle carrying the heavy weight of their body.

If people actually like to run, do gymnastics, play basketball or become active in any sport, you are going to see more widespread injuries because being active and inactive come with risks, risks which can be avoided with proper education and learning to be mindful of one's abilities and the body's needs, instead of allowing the ego to run the show.

So if I were to pull out the value of this argument, I would surmise that the real concern is that novices and people who don't know their fitness levels are pushing too hard, too fast and getting injured. It seems to me that the solution is asking people to be more mindful and educated, to put their egos aside and understand their fitness level and set appropriate goals, and take into account that the fitness program also involves days of rest and recovery, appropriate sports and life nutrition, and self-care.

Oh wait a minute, CF already advocates that.

Which brings me to bashing factor number two: poor coaching and thoughtless programming:

The claim that CF coaches are under-qualified, as they need only a weekend certification course to teach, which means they are not trained adequately to offer good or safe programming or training to participants, is an important one, though I am not so sure how prevalent.

I am not sure how many CF gyms the "bashing" authors have been, too, but I have never had this experience. In the two gyms I belong to, nothing we do is random. The coaches spend days coming up with specific programming that sometimes seems boring because we work on building strength or getting a form right for a long time.

I have, on the other hand, experienced poor coaching from at least three different personal trainers who did not take my back injuries into account when prescribing exercise routines for me, that left me injured and out for the count for six months to a year. From my understanding, one can get a personal training degree from doing an online program, so I am not so sure pointing a finger at CF is the answer.

It seems to me the answer is education and the need for all teachers, coaches or leaders to understand that pupils, students and participants take your words very seriously. As a doctor I face the same problem, which is why I am very careful about what I recommend and I am constantly staying on top of new literature and my own education.

To pull from the value of this argument, I would suggest that clients, students and coaches should continue to stay educated and programs or classes can be initiated to enable everyone to do so, whether this involves classes on injury prevention, nutrition, stress management, or importance of form. Anyone joining CF or any other exercise program can be smart by doing their own research, getting to know the coaches and seeing for themselves how qualified they are to teach.

My favorite, bashing factor number three, is the CF is a cult:

Calling CrossFit a cult holds with it the implication that people who choose to engage in this sport do not think for themselves because they have been drinking some kind of "Kool-Aid", and that the members are "a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister."

I am sure most of the people in my gym -- lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, firemen, plumbers, mothers and fathers -- might take offense to this belief, but most of us would more likely just laugh. It's true, CrossFitters are very excited about CF and they have a tendency to talk about it too much to anyone that will listen. But let's look at the big picture, which is that this so called "cult" is really representative of people who are experiencing a strong sense of belonging, something that is actually vital for a human being's sense of well-being and happiness.

Studies, in fact show that our happiness, motivation and health are tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community.

Studies also show that individuals are more likely to stick to a fitness plan when it is social or there exists social support.

As I have mentioned before, I am one of those people who has a hard time motivating to go to the gym on some days and I go because I know my friends will be there and I have someone and something to be accountable to. In addition, coming together with the larger community to cheer and watch competitors, whether it is the Northeast Regional's competition or a rumble with a nearby gym, is beyond thrilling and motivating, not just because the athletes are so inspiring, but because the sense of togetherness and belonging is fun and inspiring too.

In all honesty, if I could get more of my patients to jump on this healthy bandwagon I would. Instead, I will advocate that though a sense of community and belonging is important, people also need to still think for themselves and make wise decisions based on their own needs and fitness levels.

So for all of the CF bashers out there, I am not bashing you, but asking you not to put something down that offers a solution for many people to get off their butts, and instead, help me encourage people to take responsibility for their own health, more educated, mindful and smart.

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