By Ken Reed
Anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows I’m a strong advocate for cardiovascular-based physical education in our schools, and regular exercise and sports participation for adults. In general, people who are physically fit are healthier, perform better cognitively, and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems.
So, today, the fact I’m questioning the tactics of an organization that promotes exercise for adults is certainly an unusual development.
CrossFit, according to its own literature, is a “fitness regimen developed by Coach Greg Glassman over several decades … CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective.”
And why it can be so dangerous.
The CrossFit culture is one of push your body to the point of exhaustion. It is built on peer pressure. Exercisers push fellow CrossFit members beyond the point they want to go. To a certain point this is okay. It’s why we all like to join health clubs. The club atmosphere helps us exercise a little harder than we would at home, where the TV, couch, and snacks loom nearby.
But in the last decade, there have been way too many cases of CrossFit-induced rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is a “serious and potentially fatal condition resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells.” In rare cases, it’s come about due to workouts led by overzealous football and/or strength and conditioning coaches.
Rhabdomyolysis, or Rhabdo for short, is a well-known condition in CrossFit circles. CrossFit trainers talk about it on a fairly regular basis. CrossFit even has an unofficial mascot named “Uncle Rhabdo.” An Uncle Rhabdo cartoon depicts a muscular clown, standing in a pool of blood, hooked up to a dialysis machine next to some workout equipment. Uncle Rhabdo has Rhabdomyolysis, a far from funny medical condition.
Here’s a quote from a fit, young physical therapist who was a CrossFit advocate and member before being stricken with Rhabdomyolysis:
“I didn’t want to not match my partner. Normally, I may have rested a little, but the partner workout kept me going.”
There’s that infamous CrossFit group pressure again.
Eric Robertson, a physical therapist, wrote a piece called “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret.” In it he writes, “Rhabdomyolysis isn’t a common condition, yet it’s so commonly encountered in CrossFit that they have a cartoon about it, nonchalantly casting humor on something that should never happen.”
CrossFit’s founder is quoted in the article saying, “It [Rhabdo] can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that.”
A former CrossFit member who quit said, “In a culture that drives you to go as hard and fast as possible, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the hype. You’re supposed to push yourself to the limit ….”
“CrossFitters, largely unaware of the Rhabdo risk, will continue to charge ahead, pressured and happily coerced into exercising to depletion and exhaustion. My prediction: in a few years, the peer-reviewed scientific literature will be ripe with articles about CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis. Health providers will be there to scoop up the pieces, but who is there to protect those people unknowingly at risk?”
It’s important to note that for people who just enjoy exercising on a regular basis in order to stay physically fit and feel sharper mentally, Rhabdo is a very rare occurrence. One study reported the annual incidence of Rhabdomyolysis is only 0.06%.
Exercise is critically important to the health of all Americans. The vast majority of us need to work out harder and more often. The key takeaway here is that if you decide to get your exercise through the CrossFit program it’s important to know that the motivation that comes from the “communal aspect” of CrossFit can become very dangerous if taken to the extreme.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
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Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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