Think CrossFit is bad for your health? Think again.
HEALTH IS MORE THAN A LACK OF INJURY OR DISEASE
The science of health has come a long way in recent years. Like everything else, it takes time for scientific understanding to trickle down to those of us that aren’t doing the research. One area where this is evident is our understanding of health. The American culture still views health as a lack of injury or disease. Literally I just typed in the question, “What is health?” into Google and the first definition is “the state of being free from illness or injury.” Some of us even view healthcare and medicine as synonymous terms. It is an absurd thought that the cure for all that ails us lies in a pill, yet this remains as the overriding ideal of our culture. For some, the thought that the cure for everything lives in some undiscovered biochemical recipe seems advanced and cutting edge. The reality, however, is that this way of thinking is actually quite elementary and expresses a great ignorance of the complexity of the human species.
We do not live our lives as shut off, closed-loop entities. We are living, breathing, perceiving elements of a larger environment. Our health is not the lack of injury or disease. Our state of health is a real time, dynamic reflection of our interaction with all of the inputs that we encounter from the outside world and from within ourself. It is a complex calculation of the total inputs from our environment and from within ourselves that gets put through psychological and physiological filters and spit out of the other side. You see, modern humans like you and I live relatively hectic lives. We are bombarded with inputs both external and internal (self-derived). These inputs can be positive or negative, and take the form of things like relationship dynamics, looming debt, laughter, self-esteem, gratitude, self imposed expectations, externally imposed expectations, injury, and even treatment interventions. All of these inputs will be filtered and the resulting output could be thought of as your state of “overall health.” If you want to effect your output, you can either alter the inputs coming in through behavioral changes, or you can adjust the settings on your filter. One example of how to adjust the filter would be by altering your mindset. Your mindset affects everything. A perfectly calibrated mindset has the power to offset negative inputs, create more positive inputs, and therefore positively affect your overall health.
So how exactly does the outside get inside and effect our health? It’s long been hypothesized that negative events and states of mind effect our overall health, and thanks to neuroscience, we now have a clear understanding of how this occurs. There are essentially three windows that allow the outside to get inside and effect our health. These are: 1) the autonomic nervous system, 2) the hypothalamic pituitary axis, and 3) the neuroimmune system. These systems respond directly to outside stressors to manipulate our internal physiology. The science behind these pathways is outside of the scope of this blog, but it is important to understand that this is not science fiction. This is not “feel good” philosophy. It is a medical fact that our health is largely determined by how our internal physiology is effected by the outside world. These are the pathways responsible for the health benefits of positive inputs like mindfulness meditation, gratitude journals, and laughter. On the flip side, they are also the pathways responsible for the damaging effects of negative inputs such as chronic stress or anger.
THE NEGATIVITY FUNNEL VS. THE POSITIVITY MOUNTAIN
The Negativity Descent
Negative inputs from our own behavior or from our external environment can create a cylce of negativity. What I’ve really come to realize is that if you view this cycle with the added dimension of time, what you get is a funnel. That’s because with each pass through the cycle it becomes tighter and more efficient creating an ever narrowing loop and forming the negativity funnel. With all of the day to day stressors of modern life, descending down the negativity funnel takes zero effort. All that is required is a passive attitude towards your mental and physical well being and you will spiral right down. In much the same way as gravity operates as an external force pulling liquid through the funnel, life’s stressors and our own internally generated negative inputs create a natural force pulling you down the negativity funnel.
The Positivity Climb
The flip side of the negativity funnel is the positivity mountain. We’ve all heard that anything worth doing requires effort and, to a large extent, this is true with your state of health. To summit a mountain takes conscious planning and effort and this is true of your journey up the mountain to optimal health. To ascend the positivity mountain to the summit of good health requires both the cognitive effort of planning and the physical effort required for the journey. This is why it’s an unbeaten path. It’s hard! It’s hard to cut out negative relationships. It’s hard to create positive behavioral habits. It’s hard to give up negative behaviors. It’s hard to shun fear, self-doubt, and negative voices to pursue your dreams. It’s hard to filter out the negative inputs from the environment and keep the positive ones. Accept that living a healthy life requires effort, but understand that the journey is a worthwhile one. If you learn to enjoy the struggle of hiking, then the battle is over. You win! A shift occurs in your mental paradigm and you will immediately begin a path to a higher state of health.
SO HOW DOES CROSSFIT INFLUENCE YOUR OVERALL STATE OF HEALTH?
If we view negative inputs as a funnel and positive inputs as a mountain, then you can consider joining a CrossFit box to be akin to hiring a sherpa for your mountain summit. The health benefits are much more substantial than just the improved physiology created by exercise. Through the formation of positive and supportive relationships, positive behavioral modifications (exercise and nutrition), and a more positive self-image, athletes gain a helping hand on their climb up the positivity mountain. There is much discussion regarding the safety of CrossFit, but what is missing from the discussion is proper perspective. If overall health is the true issue, than a minor musculoskeletal injury is akin to spraining your ankle during your ascent up the mountain. It is insignificant if the net gain leads to a higher state of health.
You see, the problem is that despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in medical school, we are graduating doctors that do not have a sufficient enough knowledge of what constitutes true health. Due to this lack of knowledge, they have a warped perspective that prevents them from even asking the right question. We continue to ask the question, “is CrossFit safe?” , but we are really hinting around at the larger question of, “is CrossFit good for your health?” But as I mentioned earlier, our culture views health as a lack of injury or disease. So we continue to view CrossFit only in the context of whether it leads to an increase in your risk of having a musculoskeletal injury. We are coming at an extremely complex question with many variables and reducing it through a dichotomous thinking strategy that is inherently fallacious. Whether any single activity is good or bad for you health must be looked at from a global perspective. Musculoskeletal injury is one of the many inputs that is possible through participating in CrossFit, but so is increased muscle mass, increased aerobic capacity, increased social support, an expanded community focused on health, increased self-esteem, healthier eating behaviors and so on.
You see, injury is only one small piece of the total health puzzle and deserves no more weight than any other piece. If you are unable to get past the whole injury thing, then allow me to make another point. I actually believe that if you have a movement-based physical therapist or Chiropractor on your team, then injury becomes a net positive event. That’s right, injury can be a good thing. I am not just saying that to be combative. I truly believe that a minor musculoskeletal injury in the hands of a movement based medical provider is only an input of the positive kind. I’ll explain why in the next paragraph.
WHY INJURY IS A POSITIVE IN THE CROSSFIT POPULATION?
In my years of providing non-surgical treatment for musculoskeletal complaints, I have had the opportunity to work with a widely varying demographic of patients. I have treated chronic pain patients, car accident victims, professional baseball players, NFL players, CrossFit games competitors, elderly patients with compression fractures, morbidly obese patients, etc., etc. I have seen just about every type of patient imaginable. One of the more powerful moments in my career thus far was the epiphany that I had a year or so ago. The epiphany was that for the CrossFit population, minor musculoskeletal injuries are not representative of the typical negative input that we discussed earlier. These injuries become undeniably positive events.
How so? Well, you see, CrossFitters are pursuing a unique goal. Their end goal is greater functional capacity. Because my role as a medical provider is always to facilitate the patients pursuit of their own intrinsic goals, and because my expertise is treating musculoskeletal injuries through a similar, functional movement model, this allows myself and the athlete to operate on a level of alignment that is unheard of within traditional doctor/patient relationships. Injury becomes opportunity. The traditional doctor/patient relationship goes out the window. We are on the same page. We are no longer dealing with a negative input. We are working to create an athlete that is more functional, an athlete that will move better and therefore perform better. Pain becomes secondary. Pain will dissipate. The athlete will graduate from treatment with a greater understanding of their body, their capabilities, their weaknesses, their strengths, and a knowledge of what went wrong and how to avoid it. The injury morphed from a set back to progress. That is powerful.
A MESSAGE FOR MEDICAL PROVIDERS
If you are reading this and you are a medical provider, then listen up! If you truly think a case of tennis elbow is reason enough to tell an athlete to quit CrossFit, then you are clearly lacking perspective. It’s high time that medical providers quit catastrophizing simple musculoskeletal injuries. As a doctor, you are entrusted with great influence. Don’t dispense advice if you’re ignorant on the topic. It is your responsibility to either educate yourself on the topic or admit you don’t know and refer the patient to a medical provider that does. You must understand that you are not just asking your patient to quit CrossFit. You are asking them to leave a community of health seeking, self-esteem building, supportive relationships. You are not just asking your patient to quit CrossFit, but instead you are effectively removing an entire suite of positive behavioral changes associated with CrossFit that will have a huge positive impact on their overall health. You see, CrossFit is not just exercise. It’s well rounded exercise. It’s healthy eating. It’s social pressure of a good kind. It’s a relatively cheap monthly membership for a sherpa to guide your patient up the mountain and to the summit of optimal health. Don’t be the avalanche that sends them crashing back down. That is your oath. Above all do no harm.