Opinion: In Defense of the Middle-Aged, Suburban CrossFitter
I felt compelled to write this piece after reading the New York Times Magazine essay, “Why Are Americans So Fascinated with Extreme Fitness?”
In it, the author describes CrossFitters as pitiful lemmings willing to jump off an athletic cliff due to an inability to think for themselves: “Despite the inherent risks of hundreds of thousands of people dabbling in Olympic weight-lifting techniques at their local strip malls, CrossFitters seem utterly dedicated to their hard-core workouts. …And the path to this world is necessarily lined with E.R. visits.”
She continues, in a quest to answer her headline question:
CrossFitters represent just one wave of a fitness sea change, in which well-to-do Americans abandon easy, convenient forms of exercise in favor of workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom.
I couldn’t disagree more.
I have long been a student of fitness cultures. Inspired by the Urban Athlete column in the New York Times, I went on a pilgrimage last year to try virtually every fitness and yoga studio in my area. At the end of my journey, I had taken 54 different classes at 18 different studios. Viewing each studio as akin to a church or synagogue, I wanted to see the type of people who made up the congregation of each fitness regime. I also wanted to understand how the charismatic leaders of each fitness or yoga studio inspired and motivated their members.
After my exhaustive (and insanely fun) research was completed, many people asked me, “Which studio is the best?” and “What type of fitness is the best?” To me, the answer lies in how your mind, not your body, is wired.
In my mind, there are two types of individuals who love exercise:
1. The zen thinker:
This person seeks exercise to help them to focus and calm themselves. The zen thinker is drawn to pilates, yoga, or barre classes. He or she enjoys the quiet and the inner sanctuary of the calm studio. Marathoners, in many ways, fall into this category as well. Long distance running is meditative for many individuals.
2. The over-thinker:
This person seeks exercise to drown out excessive thinking. The over-thinker is drawn to intense, gritty, exercise that involves very loud music. He or she gravitates toward CrossFit, boot camp, spinning or boxing. Though runners are a diverse group, I think that shorter distance runners fall into this category.
I am, and always will be, an over-thinker. My mind is wired like a CNN newsroom. There are one hundred television screens on at all times. Each screen is broadcasting a different idea or thought and these screens are on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Here is a glimpse into my mind:
“Will I get cancer from chewing sugar-free gum?”
“Do I call my parents enough?”
“What will I do if Howard Stern doesn’t renew his contract?”
“Am I running out of bananas at home?”
“Why won’t my daughter eat Brussels sprouts? I mean, I practically deep fry them and then salt them like French fries. It makes no sense.”
“How are the Real Housewives simultaneously so vile and yet so entertaining?”
In the days before smartphones, I could escape my over-thinking by climbing onto a cardio machine and cranking music through my headphones. Over time, however, I found myself routinely trying to climb stairs and answer emails. Or hopping off the treadmill to take an “urgent” phone call. The invention of the smartphone had ruined my ability to unplug at the gym.
The allure of CrossFit is that it’s a place where time stands still, even if just for one hour.
There’s no technology, no cell phones, and members tend to be very social. From the moment I walk through the door and hear Eminem blaring, I am immediately grounded. At CrossFit, I am able to remember who I was before I had kids, before I had a mortgage, or even before I knew how to use email. The workouts are very technique-driven (I don’t think anyone is born knowing how to do a Sumo Deadlift), and focusing on learning the technique prevents me from thinking about the fact that I may or may not only have three bananas left at home.
I’ve learned that when you tell someone that you do CrossFit, you need to brace yourself for a lecture. You might as well tell them that you just started cage fighting. Many people, with the obvious inclusion of the New York Times writer, believe that CrossFit involves flagrantly dangerous activities.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, CrossFitters are not athletic morons or lemmings that will do anything they are told to do. When I see that a workout includes handstand pushups, I just chuckle. Not because my handstand push-ups are mediocre but because I couldn’t imagine doing either a handstand or a push-up. I might be an over-thinker, but I’m not a glutton for punishment.
As I enter my forties, I sometimes wish that I were drawn to gentler forms of fitness. And, frankly, I’m jealous of individuals who can go to a yoga class and leave feeling renewed and relaxed. When I exercise in a silent room my mind starts making to-do lists and wondering if my sunscreen from last summer will expire before next summer. Yoga actually increases the speed and irrationality of my thoughts.
At the end of the day, you can’t fight how your mind is wired. The best exercise for you is the one that calms your mind and engages your body. Whether that’s yoga, barre, CrossFit or cage fighting (kidding), I think you need to do what makes you happy.
Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and in private practice in Bryn Mawr, PA. To learn more about her practice, go here.