Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Defense of Your Crossfit "Cult"

I regularly hear the argument that "Crossfit is bound to fail".  As a coach at Crossfit Pittsburgh, I'm obviously not jumping on that band wagon anytime soon.  I think a more relevant question would be, why did Crossfit succeed as a company in the first place?

The answer is simple: Crossfit has been successful for many reasons that cults are successful.  In fact, if you are an avid Crossfitter, you've probably heard Crossfit compared to a cult at least once before.  Now...before you lose your temper, think about what a cult truly represents: community.  As one might find in a cult, the members of a Crossfit gym support the leaders, the leaders support the members, and the members support one another.  There is of course a financial contribution to help maintain upkeep of the physical environment of the "tribe", but financial obligations don't exist between members.  If you're not willing to play nicely, you are asked to leave.  The foundation of any successful lifestyle modification program is community, and Crossfit does this better than most.  
The tribe at Crossfit South Hills

The Evolution of Community

Our species evolved to support community, and the structure of our current society struggles to fulfill this genetic need.  It's difficult to argue with evolution. Everything that we see around us is the product of evolution, which is merely to say that things that work best persist while things that are less effective gradually fall by the wayside.  

For example, let's imagine that at one point in time the majority of people on earth didn't have fingers on their hands.  If suddenly somebody was born for whatever reason with fingers, this person would have a much high chance of survival than their compadres that lacked fingers. Longer survival leads to reproduction, and, if you don't survive to reproduce (i.e. raise children), your genes will die with you.  If, on the other hand, you are blessed with some trait (fingers, in this example) that confers a higher likelihood that you'll survive to reproduce, this trait will gradually become the new norm across your species.  Genetic mutation doesn't usually work this dramatically, but hopefully you get the point.  In reality, teeny weeny changes over billions of years and millions of generations ultimately resulted in the evolution of all species of biological organisms that we observe on the planet.  

When one trait (fingers) helps an organism survive over other members of its species (no fingers), this is known as natural selection.  Traits that help you survive to an age where you can reproduce will thus be selected for over others.  There are an infinite number of combinations of traits that have been tested over the ages, and the best combination is the one that remains at any given point in time in a specific environment.  This applies to physical attributes, cognitive abilities, and instincts.  If a tribe raises a child that refuses to work with others or share resources, that will mean the death of the tribe and its members, so natural selection also has shaped social dynamics.  This is important to understand. 

From community to cults...

"A few steps of the dance, performed just three or four days a month, 
enriched their lives greatly and took almost no effort.  As here on earth, 
the people of this planet were not a single people but many peoples, 
and as time went on, each people developed its own approach to the dance.  
Some continued to dance just a few steps three or four days a month.  Others 
found it made sense for them to have even more of their favorite foods, so they 
danced a few steps every second or third day.  Still others saw no reason why they 
shouldn't live mostly on their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every single 
day.  Things went on this way for tens of thousands of years among the people 
of this planet, who thought of themselves as living in the hands of the gods."  
-Daniel Quinn, 'My Ishmael'

In his novels Ishmael and My Ishmael, Daniel Quinn discusses at length the evolution of the genetic need for community.  The process of evolution, which, as I've already discussed, was important ubiquitously in the development of all domains of our persons and culture, also selected for the way that we interact with one another.  

It's not difficult to imagine that early hunter gatherers operated in much the same way that modern apes organize themselves socially.  There was and often still is a hierarchy based on gender, sex, or age.  This hasn't changed.  What has changed is that now we live our lives for the purpose of acquiring resources that were available for free and in abundance prior to modern civilization.  In the past, basic necessities like food and water weren't locked up by a few.  But now, this simple concept separates us into two groups: the "haves" and the "have-nots".

We live in a system which forces us to work long hours to achieve basic financial stability.  If you observe the behaviors of hunter gatherer groups (or groups of lowland gorillas), there is no rush to acquire resources in order to achieve a worry-free future.  They are worry-free from day one.  Up until the dawn of modern civilization, which was a little over 10,000 years ago, we didn't have to worry about locking away resources for the future.  Resources abounded.  Nature was left intact, not fenced off on minimal reserves.  It wasn't sold at market.  Our food was a free resource.  

"But how else can you maintain a civil society?!!!  If everything was free, people would greedily just devour everything in their path!!!"  Are you sure?  This doesn't occur in modern day hunter gatherer groups.  It worked for our species until someone realized that if, instead of grazing casually on the resources that surround us they focused the majority of their waking hours on hoarding it and selling these resources, they could control the behavior of others in their tribe.  This led to sub-specialization of basic tasks in tribes of people so that others could hoard different resources and sell those.  What resulted was a system in which everybody had to work endlessly to keep up with the cycle in order to acquire basic resources...the same resources that modern apes, modern hunter gatherers, and our human predecessors collected for free in their environment.  

"Come on, DUDE!  We wouldn't have developed iPads had we not embraced our current societal structure!!"  Are you sure?  Granted, technologic advancement was slow 10,000 years ago, but early man was just as innovative as we are.  They simply had less on which to model their inventiveness.  Over time, information technology increases at a faster rate, which is described by the singularity curve below.  It's perfectly reasonable to assume that we would still have developed our contemporary technologies without creating a system that required us to forsake community.

Singularity curve

Rather than investing the majority of their waking hours working harder to accumulate more money to buy things while simultaneously destroying the delicate ecosystem that provides safe harbor to the resources that we need (clean water, nutritional food, and unpolluted air), these "primitives" were going along well-nourished and happy as can be, "progressing" as quickly as time permitted and resource availability necessitated.

What does this have to do with my health?

One thing that we can probably all agree on is that 99% of the people on our planet suffering from some degree of anxiety.  Our need for attention and belonging has led to excessive Youtube commenting, cell phone abuse, and social media psychopathy.  People would prefer to Instagram, Vine, or GoPro their lives instead of simply living them and enjoying the moment.  We all want to be embraced by our tribe, but we are too busy working to make money to buy the stuff we need, because the stuff that we need has been locked up and called "commodities".  

We were a true
community that day...
We crave this tribal sense of belonging.  I don't need data to back this up.  Evidence can be found at any large gathering of people.  Every Sunday millions of Americans dress up in NFL jerseys with the name of their favorite player emblazoned on the back.  Each summer, thousands of people show up at the National Furry Convention in Pittsburgh (not going any further in that explanation).  Star Wars.  Comicon.  City pride.  People holding up signs behind news anchors.  The feeling that we all had immediately after 911.  The layout of bars.  Political rallies.  Fitness programs that make you puke regularly.  Every. Single. Social. Movement. Throughout. History.

The lack of community required by our perpetual desire for more stuff has left us craving better connections.  Those of us without a real community are lonely.  The secret of our predecessors, which is still experienced by modern day hunter gatherers, was that they invested in people, not stuff.  Their primary currency was support for one another.  In our current society, those without financial success perish.  In hunter gatherer society, members of the tribe pay their dues by supporting others.  The same goes for alcoholism support groups, cults, places of worship, or simple nuclear families.  Would these groups be successful if not for some inherent desire for belonging?  It's in our genes thanks to natural selection, and we find that communities like those provided by Crossfit fill the void.    

For all of the reasons I've mentioned, it's no surprise that those communities that regularly produce a high yield of centenarians reportedly have extensive social ties.  Nor is it a surprise that cancer patients with support groups have a better chance of survival.  The world's centenarians are not the richest or most powerful, they simply live on what they've got, and they're happier, older, and healthier than the rest of us.  

Embrace It.

The takeaway here is that we should embrace community, not condemn it.  Our world would benefit if more time were invested in relationships and supporting our tribe mates than spending so much time in the rat race.  Journalist Emile Gauvreau summed this up nicely: "[We are] part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don't want, to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like.”  After all, the attitude that more is better isn't making us healthier or happier.  

What does do the trick is finding a group of people that support you in order that you'll support them in return.   This explains the appeal of fantasy football leagues, yoga studio loyalty, cliques in middle school cafeterias, and the increasing popularity of your favorite barre class. The stronger your tribe, the happier and healthier you are.  This is what the Crossfit community has done right.  After they've picked their lungs up off the floor, Crossfit gym members will cap off their workout of the day (WOD) by planning a gym potluck, organizing shindigs at local bars, and making memories together.  Community is something we advocate for at Sweat and Butter.  It's possible to make incredible lifestyle changes on your own, but it's easier with the support of others.  This community can be comprised of friends, family, or Crossfit buddies.  The time invested in healthy relationships will outlast the new TV for which you've been moonlighting in order to afford.  That thing will be outdated in three weeks anyways!

Hopefully this piece provides some justification for why being involved in these ventures feels so good, leads to better goal-driven performance, and makes you happy.  It's because you belong.  Spend less time surfing your Facebook news feed, and get out there to spend time with your people.  Lastly, don't let haters bring you down about your new obsession with Crossfit or the new bikram studio that just opened up down the street.  They are just annoyed that you haven't invited them along...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm meeting a friend at the gym for a partner WOD.  Then we're meeting some friends for grub.  I can't wait!

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+.

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  1. Hey,I highly appreciate your writing.I'd like to share few point with you.Exactly Its the ones that dont know what their doing that makes everyone think the crossfit community have no idea what their doing. I myself arent a dedicated crossfit trainer, but I just do it to help my swimming as its one of the few other methods with weightlifting that actually help. I agree that its the post that spread the negativity along with the weightlifters. From many I know, they think its the only way to get "fit" and think its unnecesary and stupid. Everyone has a opinon though.Thanks to all!!!!!
    Crossfit Clothing


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