CrossFit: The Cure for the Modern Plague
Friday May 4, 2018
Ben Bergeron & Christine Bald
In the Late Middle Ages, Europe experienced the deadliest disease outbreak in history. The Black Death, a pandemic of bubonic plague, was fast and ruthless—once infected, victims died within 10 days.
From 1346-1353, the Black Death killed about a third of the human population. Historians have described it as the “greatest catastrophe ever,” and the human race has gone to great lengths to ensure that something similar never happens again.
But something is happening again, and it is happening right now. We are amid a global plague that threatens our survival as a species. It is, as CrossFit Inc. Founder Greg Glassman has forewarned, the world’s most vexing problem—and the United States is the primary front.
Chronic disease has been accepted as part of the aging process, but it is not, and while the effects of chronic disease are not as fast as those of the Black Death, they are no less ruthless. According to the World Health Organization, chronic disease is responsible for 88 percent of deaths in the United States in the form of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s—to name a few. Instead of killing its victims quickly, chronic disease manifests over a lifetime in heart attacks and strokes, kidney failure, blindness, limb amputations, brain damage, and more, with crippling emotional and financial effects.
Historians estimate the deadliest disease in human history killed anywhere from 50 to 200 million people in the 14th century. Today, chronic disease is poised to eclipse those statistics—in the United States alone, 133 million people (almost half the country) have a chronic disease.
America is getting sicker and sicker, and it is not just a problem for the chronically ill. It is a disaster that will affect us all. People with chronic diseases account for 86 percent of U.S. health-care expenditures (and 99 percent of Medicare dollars), 91 percent of prescriptions (3), and 76 percent of physician visits. By 2023, the annual economic burden associated with chronic disease, including productivity losses and treatment costs, will total $4.2 trillion—more than the entire 2017 U.S. federal budget.
Chronic disease is bankrupting our country, and the day is coming when the number of sick people will outnumber the healthy.
If this sounds like hyperbole, think again. The U.S. Department of Defense has identified health as an existential threat to our country, one that is being discussed in the same terms as nuclear holocaust, biological terrorism, cyber attack and global warming.
Fortunately, chronic disease is a problem with a solution. It is entirely within our power to prevent and reverse it; indeed, a very small part of the population is already doing it. New data from a Boston-based blood-analytics company suggests that Americans participating in CrossFit might be doing more to prevent, reverse and cure the rising tide of chronic disease than anyone else in the country.
Blood Don’t Lie
In January 2018, InsideTracker, a health-analytics company that delivers personalized recommendations for wellness and performance based on blood biomarkers, compared the biomarkers of its approximately 1,200 self-identified CrossFit clients to the national average. Using publicly available data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), InsideTracker did a side-by-side comparison of some of the major biomarkers associated with chronic disease—triglycerides, cholesterol and hsCRP (high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, used to measure total body inflammation).
The findings suggest what CrossFit coaches across the country have been promoting for years: CrossFit doesn’t just make people fitter; it is making them healthier.
CrossFit athletes make up a small percentage of InsideTracker’s user base. The company maintains a database of 250,000 people, and, out of sheer curiosity, it compared the biomarkers of its CrossFit users to those of the rest of its user base and to national averages (NHANES data). It should be pointed out that the kind of people who pay to have their blood drawn and analyzed tend to be deeply committed to health and wellness. They train competitively for marathons. They are serious triathletes and cyclists. They run obstacle-course races on the weekends for fun. In other words, they are active people who could be considered to represent a healthier subset of the American population.
Across the board, InsideTracker’s CrossFit users had significantly better biomarkers than the InsideTracker user base and national averages in several major areas that are important to long-term health. The statistical significance of the data was compelling. InsideTracker looked at data with p-values less than 0.05. Typically, a p-value less than 0.05 indicates a data pattern is statistically significant.
InsideTracker’s initial analysis stratified the data into three different segments: All CrossFit participants (all ages 18-plus, both genders), male CrossFit participants (all ages 18-plus), and female CrossFit participants (all ages 18-plus). The implications found among biomarkers associated with long-term health (triglycerides, cholesterol and hsCRP) held true across the segments. Therefore, to make this data set easier to digest, InsideTracker reported on the category “all Ages 18+, both genders.”
InsideTracker’s data provides a number of health insights into the CrossFit population as a whole. Most strikingly, both male and female InsideTracker users who do CrossFit had lower triglyceride levels than the non-CrossFit participants in the InsideTracker population, and their levels were also more than 50 points lower (in both men and in women) than levels in the general U.S. population (see Graph 1, above). Fifty points can be the difference between a triglyceride level that is optimal and one that is not.
Lower triglyceride levels might reduce the risk of developing heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. In other words, if CrossFit training is correlated with lower triglycerides, the people doing it are mitigating a very real health risk.
Additionally, male and female CrossFit participants had higher levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) compared to both the non-CrossFit participants in the InsideTracker population and the general U.S, population. They also had similar levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) compared to the non-CrossFit participants in the InsideTracker population, yet those levels were still significantly lower than those in the general population (see Graph 2 at right and Graph 3, below).
Excess LDL can be responsible for depositing harmful fat onto the walls of blood vessels and stimulating the plaque formation associated with heart disease, while HDL is responsible for removing the excess fat from the walls of blood vessels to inhibit that plaque formation. Therefore, optimal levels of both HDL and LDL are powerful complements to optimal triglyceride levels when it comes to mitigating the risk for developing heart disease. As with triglycerides, the apparent associations among CrossFit training and better LDL and HDL levels suggest an immunization against heart disease.
InsideTracker’s data also indicated that CrossFit participants have lower levels of hsCRP compared to those who do not do CrossFit, and these levels were even more significant when compared to those of the general U.S. population (see Graph 4, below).
Optimal hsCRP levels are associated with a healthy heart and circulatory system, including blood pressure and blood-glucose level. Many aspects of chronic diseases are driven by systemic inflammation. Heart disease, for example, is caused by inflammation in our blood vessels, while Type 2 diabetes is aggravated by both obesity and inflammation. Alzheimer’s, too, is an inflammatory disease caused by an insulin-resistant brain. Optimal hsCRP levels are paramount to long-term health and longevity.
While CrossFit participation appeared to have a positive impact on multiple biomarkers generally accepted by the medical community as being associated with disease, it should be noted that it also had some expected negative impacts on markers associated with muscle damage.
Specifically, ALT (a liver enzyme that indicates muscle damage when it appears together with creatine kinase, which was also indicated), was higher in both male and female CrossFit participants over the age of 35. While temporarily elevated levels of these markers after a period of heavy training are normal, chronically elevated levels can be associated with training-related injury. (For more information on this topic, see “When Your Blood Work Concerns a Doc Who Doesn’t Lift” by Dr. Sean Rockett.)
Viewed through the lens of long-term health, this data provides scientific validation to something CrossFit has touted for years: CrossFit athletes are not only fitter than everyone else in America but they are also among the healthiest. CrossFit, more than any other exercise regimen, seems to be the secret to living a long, healthy, disease-free life. Although data cannot prove causality here, the weight of the correlations provides us with a good sense of how we should be addressing the huge issue of chronic disease in America.
A Broken System
We are on the brink of the greatest health catastrophe of our time, and the most expensive health-care system in the world has failed to confront it at every turn. As Chris Kresser argues in his book “Unconventional Medicine,” this is because our current medical paradigm is based more on managing disease and suppressing symptoms than it is on preventing or reversing disease or promoting health (3). In a typical visit, a patient arrives in a doctor’s office with diet-related issues such as obesity and/or diabetes and walks out with armful of prescriptions. And while insulin and drugs that lower blood sugar might help these patients live with their conditions, they are the opposite of a cure—they are shackles that create “patients for life.”
When you consider how the system is set up, this is hardly surprising. In the U.S., primary care providers (PCPs) often see patients for just 10-12 minutes (4), with interns spending as little as eight minutes with patients. As Kresser wrote, “It is impossible to deliver high-quality care in eight to twelve minutes when a patient has multiple chronic health problems, is taking several medications, and presents with new symptoms. Such brief appointments leave little to no time to dig into the important diet, lifestyle and behavioral issues that are causing the patient’s symptoms. And with an average of 2,500 patients per provider, it’s difficult for PCP’s to develop the kind of relationship with patients that would support meaningful changes.”
Instead, the opposite is happening. In “Fixing the Primary Care Crisis,” Dr. Stephen Schimpff outlined the problem: “Many PCPs feel they are ‘on the clock.’ Instead of maintaining a professional attitude, they begin to act, as one PCP said to me, like a ‘Home Depot mentality.’ Instead of high quality, the concept is to see how many patients they can fit in during one day.”
Let’s stop calling this health care and call it what it really is—disease management.
Resource: “Disease Pays the Fees”
What these patients really need is a lifestyle change. Good doctors know and advise this, but the vast majority are not trained in nutrition and do not make specific prescriptions for either diet or exercise. A look at the medical community’s physical-activity guidelines is disheartening. The American Heart Association’s number-one tip for getting fit is walking, and getting the right clothes to wear is apparently quite important.
The CDC, for its part, defines exercise as anything that gets your heart beating faster than when you’re completely at rest. “From pushing a lawn mower, to taking a dance class, to biking to the store—all types of activities count,” it advised, dubiously.
The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition comes close to actually discouraging the public from joining a gym: “Being active doesn’t require a gym membership,” it stated. It goes on to recommend “fitness” activities that more closely resemble a list of first-date ideas than exercise. According to the federal government, walking the dog, washing the car, taking dance lessons, and raking leaves and jumping in the piles will help you “start working towards your fitness goals to jumpstart or maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
No wonder Americans are getting sicker. The people they rely on to improve their health—the experts—are giving them spectacularly bad advice. It’s the food pyramid all over again, but with exercise instead of nutrition.
In this sea of misinformation, CrossFit is a lifeboat. We now have statistically significant data that suggests the CrossFit stimulus is a powerful vaccine against chronic disease. The data from InsideTracker is compelling evidence that most Americans can significantly improve their health by adopting this lifestyle—exercising with constantly varied high-intensity functional movements while eating meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no refined sugar.
Many people believe heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer and other diseases are caused by aging and genetics, but the WHO states that elimination of known risk factors would produce dramatic reductions in disease rates—up to 80 percent in the case of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Do our genes play a role in determining which diseases we are predisposed to developing? Yes. But the choices we make about diet, physical activity, sleep, stress management and other lifestyle factors are far more important determinants of our health. CrossFit affiliates across the country have provided proof that chronic disease can be treated with lifestyle changes. By showing people how to exercise, teaching them how to eat and providing them with the support they need to make those things part of their life, CrossFit is helping people prevent conditions the medical system claims are inevitable, and it’s doing more to promote long-term health than the entire U.S. government and its health-care system combined.
Reference: “Diabeating It”
Reference: “CrossFit Lifeguards: The Browns”
Reference: “I’m Not Wipin’ Your Fuckin’ Fat Ass”
Reference: “How Ron De La Torre Won at Life”
Reference: “Adding Years to Her Life”
The data from InsideTracker suggests that you can get a pass on chronic disease by getting as fit as possible. That the biomarkers of the CrossFit group were better than the active, non-CrossFit group suggests that when it comes to your health, not all exercise is created equal. CrossFit stands alone in the fitness ecosystem because it is the only program that incorporates constantly varied functional movement at high intensity. Every other exercise regimen or trend—from yoga to Pilates to kickboxing to P90X— lacks at least one element of that prescription, and most lack two or all three of them.
The combination of functional movement, constant variance and high intensity is required to increase your work capacity, which is, in turn, required to improve your health. Exercise that does not increase your ability to move large loads over long distances quickly might burn calories, but is not as potent an investment in your long-term health. As CrossFit becomes more and more mainstream, there will be a growing understanding that if you want to be as fit as you can possibly be, you should do CrossFit. The data from InsideTracker suggests something far more powerful: If you want to be as healthy as you can possibly be, you should do CrossFit.
In addition to a high level of fitness, the superior health of CrossFit athletes is almost certainly related to diet. CrossFit’s prescription for fitness also comes with a nutrition prescription—a diet that is naturally anti-inflammatory, high in nutrients, and low in sugar and calories. The modern American diet, by contrast, is pro-inflammatory, low in nutrients, and high in sugar and calories—it is a prescription for obesity, metabolic problems and all kinds of other chronic diseases. And while they undoubtedly think otherwise, Whole Foods-shopping, marathon-running, health-conscious Americans are not immune to it. There is a booming market of low-fat, sugary “health” products—such as granola bars, yogurt, Gatorade, whole-wheat bread, protein bars, orange juice, cereals and coconut water—that is kept alive by health-conscious people who simply don’t know any better. Despite the best efforts of these people, their lifestyle will make them sick. They are trying, but this data suggests there is a better way.
The Way Forward
“The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
Thomas Edison said that in 1903. Unfortunately, we’ve moved in the opposite direction. But it’s not too late to change course—the interventions we need to address the chronic-disease epidemic are within reach, and no prescription is required.
CrossFit is doing more to promote health than our current health-care system. The data from InsideTracker is empirical evidence that the high level of fitness associated with CrossFit training provides the greatest level of protection from the things that are killing the majority of Americans. By simply getting fit, we can inoculate ourselves against a lifetime of suffering and a premature death.
Why aren’t we as afraid of chronic disease as we would be of the bubonic plague? Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease are worse than a death sentence—they rob us of our life. Most people are under the impression that these diseases are a natural part of aging; indeed, the National Council on Aging said, “Age, family genetics, and gender make it nearly impossible for older adults to avoid becoming a chronic disease statistic.” This is simply not true. There’s a big difference between what’s common and what’s normal. It’s not normal for human beings to develop Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It’s not normal for us to suffer from Alzheimer’s and heart conditions and be in pain for years, much less decades. It’s not normal for us to have to take a fistful of medications just to function at a sub-par level.
These conditions can be controlled—and often eliminated—with the proper combination of diet and exercise.
How do we know? Because we’ve seen it, time and time and time again.
And now we have proof.
- DeVol R, Bedroussian A et al. An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease. Santa Monica, California: The Milken Institute, 2007. Available here.
- National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2016: With Chartbook on Long-term Trends in Health. Hyattsville, Maryland, 2017.
- Kresser C. Unconventional Medicine: Join the Revolution to Reinvent Healthcare, Reverse Chronic Disease, and Create a Practice You Love. Austin, Texas: Lioncrest Publishing, 2017. Pp. 50, 68.
- Schimpff S. Fixing the Primary Care Crisis: Reclaiming the Patient-Doctor Relationship and Returning Healthcare Decisions to You and Your Doctor. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. P. 27.
- Rogan J. “#1027—Chris Kresser.” The Joe Rogan Experience (podcast). Nov. 8, 2017. Available here.
- Ncoa.org. Top 10 Chronic Conditions in Adults 65+ and What You Can Do to Prevent or Manage Them. Feb. 2, 2017. Available here.
All links accessed May 3, 2018.
About the Authors:
Ben Bergeron, CF-L4, is the owner of CrossFit New England in Natick, Massachusetts. Ben has been coaching for more than 15 years and has served as a member of CrossFit’s Level 1 Seminar Staff. He has coached multiple CrossFit Games champions, including Katrin Davidsdottir (2015-2016), Mat Fraser (2016-2017) and the CrossFit New England affiliate team (2011). He is the bestselling author of “Chasing Excellence” and the founder of Project:Elevation, which helps owners turn their boxes into world-class affiliates.
Christine Bald, CF-L3, has been coaching CrossFit for five years. She is currently a coach at CrossFit New England in Natick, Massachusetts, where she also doubles as the director of media for CompTrain. She has degrees in foreign affairs and Middle Eastern studies from Syracuse University and has lived and worked in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Morocco. Her passions include rebounding box jumps and font selection.