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CrossFit: Redefining Fitness Inside and Outside the Box

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This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the London 2012 Olympics.

What if the night before the Olympics, Michael Phelps traded his swim goggles for a bike helmet, gymnast Gabby Douglas handed over the uneven bars to Serena Williams, and sprinter Allyson Felix had to compete in a triathlon? While this scenario may sound absurd, just one month earlier, elite athletes at the2012 Reebok CrossFit Games embraced this sort of versatility in the name of being crowned "Fittest on Earth." Preparing for the unknown and the unknowableis a central tenet of CrossFit, on display recently at the 5th annual CrossFit Games in Carson, CA. This competition comprised 14 workouts, including a surprise triathlon over treacherous terrain at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton.

In almost every way, CrossFit has turned the conventional wisdom of fitness on its head. This is largely because the big picture in CrossFit is overall well-being, achieved through nutrition and fitness, coupled with a philosophy of incremental improvement and sense of community.

With its prescribed method of "constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement", CrossFit's approach is not to specialize, but to improve each person's competency at all physical activities. This is achieved through carefully programmed Workouts of the Day or "WODs" that combine Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics (rings, pull-ups), and running, rowing, biking and swimming -- performed in a high intensity sprint that lasts anywhere from an excruciating five minutes to an agonizing 30 minutes. Especially grueling "Hero WODs" are held periodically to honor fallen heroes and remind CrossFitters to think beyond themselves.

Workouts are held at no-frills warehouses called "boxes," low on charm but rich in community spirit, personalized coaching, and palpable camaraderie. Unlike "Globo gyms," CrossFit affiliates are owned and run by coaches themselves, giving them a vested interest in each client's progress. CrossFit can be scaled and adapted to anyone, from fitness novice to advanced athlete.

Founder and CEO of CrossFit Greg Glassman describes the philosophy of CrossFit as "the belief in the improvability of ourselves and each other." Within their communities, CrossFitters are taking this philosophy beyond "the box" in ways that are achieving real impact.

What follows are four examples of how CrossFit, while not yet mainstream, has become a vehicle for mobilizing a small, yet dedicated, community of athletes to reach outside themselves to help others.

In 2007, CrossFit trainer Steve Liberati launched the first Steve's Club in Camden, NJ, using CrossFit as a platform for fitness and personal development of at-risk youth. Operating on a national scale today, with 10 Local Steve's Clubs across the country, the Steve's Club National Program is funded through Steve's Original Paleo Kits; these healthy snacks were first created to address nutritional needs of kids in the Program, and are now widely popular in the Crossfit community, with the operation partly staffed by the kids themselves. Steve Liberati describes the impact: "By providing the right tools and encouragement, we are making a difference in the lives of individual kids and beginning to create change on a larger scale."

Wounded veterans represent another target group with much to gain from CrossFit, evidenced by the early impact of CrossFit Walter Reed. Responding to interest from two injured veterans, co-founders Brian Wilson, owner of Patriot CrossFit, and Dillon Behr, a wounded veteran who employed CrossFit for his own rehabilitation, teamed up to launch the military non-profit affiliate in April 2012. The co-founders mobilized support from the CrossFit community, including equipment funded through CrossFit Headquarters and coaching time gifted by a host of area "boxes." Brian Wilson describes the impact, "We have significant evidence that a measured dose of constantly varied functional movement will improve overall health and mental well-being of severely injured athletes."

As CrossFit coaches step in and address needs in their communities, CrossFit members are joining the charge in droves. On June 9, 2012, thousands of CrossFitters nationwide participated in CrossFit for Hope, raising over $1.5 million for cancer research at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Unlike larger athletic charity events, CrossFit for Hope fundraising was accomplished online and within a few months, an extraordinary feat for such a small community.

Outside the U.S., CrossFit Headquarters is launching a new initiative in Kenya that will connect interested CrossFit affiliates with local communities outside Mombasa to tackle basic needs like the construction of schools. The vision is a long-term community-to-community partnership that extends the values of CrossFit and mobilizes the resources, time and goodwill of the broader CrossFit community.

With the continued explosion in new CrossFit affiliates and members -- from just 500 "boxes" in 2008 to over 4,000 today -- it remains to be seen what this grassroots fitness movement is capable of achieving on a larger scale. What is clear is that the unique fitness methodology can be a vehicle for mobilizing a community with common interests in self-improvement to make measurable impacts inside and outside the "box."