Skepticism

Crossfit isn’t a Cult…it’s a Religion! Starring Marjorie Taylor Greene

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Transcript:

Marjorie Taylor Greene is probably best known as one of America’s battiest elected officials, which is really saying something! We have a lot of kooks. For the most part, we keep the kooks in the state government or lower and only let the horrific sociopaths into our federal government, but Greene managed to make it into the US House of Representatives representing Georgia’s 14th District. Here’s a rundown on Greene’s past and present stated beliefs: she thinks that no plane ever hit the Pentagon on September 11th 2001, she thinks Obama hired MS-13 gang members to murder a DNC staffer in 2016, she thinks laser beams from space started the 2018 Camp Fire in California, she thinks the mass shootings like the 2017 Las Vegas Harvest Festival massacre are fake “false-flag” attacks by masterminded by Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi to restrict Second Amendment rights, she thinks Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a body double, she thinks she thinks QAnon is real and that there’s a “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles” like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks engaging in the ritual torture, sexual abuse, and cannibalism of children in the basement of a pizza joint (who will be destroyed by Donald Trump), and she thinks Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from Trump. That last one got her temporarily suspended from Twitter. Thanks, Twitter, great job.

But she’s back now, spreading misinformation about COVID and the vaccine, posting this incredible video along with the text, “This is my Covid protection ?

#MakeAmericaHealthyAgain

It’s time to #FireFauci”

Okay, so a few things. First of all, being “healthy” is not sufficient to stop the spread of COVID-19. Second of all, this is not a very good demonstration of “healthy.”

For those not in the know, Greene is demonstrating Crossfit. Yep, it turns out that in addition to all her insane beliefs, she is a fervent proponent of Crossfit, which apparently is the “Sport of Fitness.” Crossfit, as it so happens, is no longer a big proponent of her, but apparently that hasn’t stopped her from spreading the good word.

She even owned a gym, purchased with the money she got from the company her dad gave her.

Considering that Greene is clearly batshit, this has renewed some common questions and concerns about Crossfit, like, for instance, whether or not it’s a cult.

Crossfit was incorporated in the year 2000 by former gymnast and personal trainer Greg Glassman and his wife Lauren Jenai — when they got divorced in 2012, Glassman ended up as the sole owner. The idea behind Crossfit is to combine heavy weight-lifting with high-intensity interval training (HIIT, which is just what it sounds like: short but brutal workouts with rest periods in between). There’s also a competitive aspect in that people are encouraged to complete exercises in certain times and post their results online, and a community aspect in that people are encouraged to cheer one another on.

Glassman promoted Crossfit as a way to push the limits of a person’s body regardless of injury, eschewing the fitness “establishment” that insisted on good form and safety, which made it attractive to people like cops, firefighters, military personnel, and, well, Libertarians like Glassman himself. Crossfitters, working out at the 15,000 affiliated gyms worldwide. tend to get super serious about their hobby, despite the fact that injuries appear to happen so frequently they’re considered a badge of honor, and the unofficial mascots are two clowns: “Pukey,” who represents working out so hard you vomit, and “Uncle Rhabdo,” who represents working out so hard you get rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdo is what happens when you tear apart your muscles so badly that they leak into your bloodstream which quickly poisons your kidneys. Prior to Crossfit, doctors only saw rhabdo in patients who were crushed in car accidents. Yeah. Yikes.

So you can see why, when the New York Times describes a man getting out of intensive care after Crossfit gave him rhabdo and going right back to Crossfit, people might start to wonder if this is a cult. Especially when the same article quotes another Crossfitter saying “We are all drinking the Kool-Aid.”

But a lot of people make jokes about that kind of thing, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cult. Cult expert Rick Ross summarizes three generally accepted traits of cults as originally delineated by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton: a living charismatic leader, “a process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called “brainwashing”],” and “economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.”

Crossfit’s leader up until last year was Glassman, who was frequently described as “charismatic.” Like, it came up in nearly every profile I read of him. That said, he sold the company after coming under fire for saying that he didn’t really care about Black Lives Matter and didn’t mourn for George Floyd. The backlash was so severe that affiliated gyms were ending their relationship with Crossfit and popular Crossfitters were dropping out of the annual Crossfit Games, so Glassman stepped down. The new CEO is Eric Roza, and it’s a little too soon to figure out how charismatic he is.

The second point is indoctrination, and this is where things get tricky. Of course Crossfit is coercive — it’s a business operating in a capitalistic society, and it would not be successful if it wasn’t persuasive. That also means that it checks the box for the third point: “Economic…exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.” Yes! Of course these people are being exploited economically because that’s what we do in this society. Crossfit costs more than regular gyms, at an average of $186 a month (ranging from $140 to $299 depending on location).

But let’s get back to point #2, brainwashing. Ross writes “The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest,” and, okay, yes, Uncle Rhabdo. It is in no way in your best interest to continue doing something that literally puts you in the hospital. But can we say that this happens “often”? This is a really tricky area, because as you can see in the Marjorie Taylor Greene video, Crossfitters do not adhere to proper form that weightlifting experts insist prevent injury. But it’s hard to say whether or not that means Crossfitters are injuring themselves at a significantly higher rate than other sports or fitness programs.

The research is mixed and messy. Back in 2013 and 2014 there were several studies done on Crossfit, with one finding a shocking injury rate of about 74% (among 132 people surveyed, with no instances of rhabdo) and one finding an injury rate of about 20% (with 386 people surveyed).

Another paper from 2013 claimed that nine participants had withdrawn from the study due to injuries, and a Crossfit gym launched a lawsuit to have it retracted, while Crossfit themselves sued the publisher of the paper. Classic cult behavior, suing to prevent scientific criticism, right? Well, the lawsuits revealed that only one subject withdrew from the study and it had nothing to do with injuries from Crossfit. That study was eventually retracted because it turns out they also lied about having approval from their university’s institutional review board.

Other studies have been better, but not by much. A review of the literature in 2017 found that the rate of injury in crossfit was comparable to other exercise programs, but a 2018 meta-analysis found that out of 31 Crossfit studies, only two “had a high level of evidence at low risk of bias. Scientific literature related to CrossFit has reported on body composition, psycho-physiological parameters, musculoskeletal injury risk, life and health aspects, and psycho-social behavior. In the meta-analysis, significant results were not found for any variables.” In other words? Injury risk wasn’t a big deal, but they also didn’t find that the workout was any good at most of the good health outcomes it promises, either. They did, however, find that there was “preliminary data” that suggests Crossfit MIGHT be good for community, satisfaction, and motivation. You know, the cult-y things.

Since then, there have been a few other studies. In 2020, this paper found that ADVANCED Crossfitters did tend to have less body fat, more lean mass, some extra strength, and better aerobic capacity than physically active people who didn’t do Crossfit. But those people were also better on all those metrics than the majority of casual Crossfitters, who showed no difference compared to the non-Crossfitters. So, sure, the people who are competing at the top of Crossfit are, in fact, fitter than average by some metrics. And unfortunately, that study didn’t look at injury rates at all.

While it’s easy to point to Crossfitters proudly posting videos of themselves doing things that are known to cause injury and say “See? They are definitely hurting themselves,” we just don’t have enough research to be able to say that it is happening with a frequency greater than we see with other exercise programs like weightlifting, swimming, or running, which by the way has an injury rate somewhere between 30 and 75%.

So while Crossfit probably fits at least two of Robert Jay Lifton’s three cult traits, I don’t think we can say that it’s actually a cult. Rick Ross included some other traits to look out for in potentially unsafe groups, and Crossfit doesn’t come anywhere close to hitting any of these:

 “Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

 No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

 No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.

 Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

 There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

 Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

 There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.

 Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

 The group/leader is always right.

 The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.”

Instead of saying it’s a cult, I think it’s safer to say that Crossfit is a somewhat dangerous activity enjoyed by people who are attracted to “cool,” “underground,” “anti-establishment” trends. Many of those same people will be attracted to things like QAnon. Marjorie Taylor Greene illustrates this well when she told an Atlanta radio show about her introduction to Crossfit back in 2015: ““(A friend) asked me, ‘Do you want to do this crazy underground cult fitness thing called CrossFit?’ And I was like ‘Um, OK!’”

As psychology professor John Ehrenreich writes in Slate, people who fall into conspiracy theories tend to “have a strong desire to feel unique and special, and an exaggerated need to be in an exclusive in-group,” which would be satisfied by joining a little known “underground” club. “They have lower self-esteem than nonbelievers and have a need for external validation to maintain their self-esteem,” which would be satisfied by a community that cheers when you beat your previous times, either in person or when you post them online for the world to see. And “proneness to belief in conspiracy theories is also associated with religiosity,” which allows me to mention that at least one study from Harvard has found evidence suggesting that Crossfit is replacing church for millennials who are looking for community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.

That’s right, Crossfit isn’t a cult. It skipped straight to religion.

Okay, I’m kidding, kind of. That Harvard paper was really just a discussion of how various organizations and businesses are satisfying these themes that used to be satisfied by religion, now that more and more Americans are identifying as non-religious. But it is worth thinking about how religions have worked themselves into our daily lives to the point that they serve all these good and bad roles, and once we realize there’s no such thing as a god many of us have trouble finding other ways to satisfy our wants and needs.

Crossfit has succeeded because it scratches that itch. It’s not a cult or a religion, really — it’s just another success story in a capitalist society where we have a huge population yearning for fulfillment and connections that are so hard to find that they will pay $200 a month and risk hospitalization to get it. The “fix” for Crossfit isn’t teaching people better weightlifting form — it’s building better communities that support people and all of their physical, mental, and psychological needs.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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One Comment

  1. I’ve been a member of a Crossfit gym (now technically de-affiliated I think?) since 2015 and you nailed a lot of it on the head. And Glassman can step on a thousand legos. It’s been weird liking my local gym and absolutely abhorring the “brand.” Greene’s endorsement of it certainly isn’t helping.

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