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The Pros And Cons Of CrossFit: A Physician’s Perspective

I’ve been following (and often participating in) fitness trends for decades. From Jim Fixx’s outdoor running to Jane Fonda’s work out videos, to Conan-the-Barbarian body building, to step aerobics, to Tae Bo, to hot yoga, to Zumba, and now CrossFit… America’s exercise pendulum has been swinging wildly across the spectrum of possible physical activities. So have we finally reached a balanced mix of strength and cardio for optimum fitness? Maybe.

CrossFit is a system of exercise and nutrition (founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman) that claims to “forge elite fitness.” Their Reebok-sponsored annual games boast that the winners have proven themselves to be “the fittest on earth.” CrossFit advocates a mix of aerobic exercise, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and Olympic weight lifting. Workouts are typically short—30 minutes or less—and intense, requiring maximal physical exertion.

I’ve attended multiple regional Cross Fit competitions, watched national games, competed in a CrossFit style competition, and worked out with several CrossFit athletes as well as attempted their work outs (WOD) on occasion, though I am not a member of a CrossFit gym. All this is to say that I’ve spent a good deal of time contemplating the merits of CrossFit, both as an athlete and as a physician trained in sports medicine. And here’s what I think:


Difficulty. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is an effective and highly efficient way to improve muscle strength and cardio-vascular endurance. In my opinion, CrossFit’s greatest contribution to the fitness industry is its emphasis on HIIT, something that has not been sufficiently emphasized in the past.

Nutrition. CrossFit emphasizes the importance of healthy nutrition as part of its fitness strategy. This is sorely lacking in other systems/regimens. While I might quibble with some of the more extreme “Paleo” proponents within the CrossFit community, there’s no arguing that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy oils, and complex carbohydrates (no sugars or refined flours) is a healthy way to eat.

Community. Peer support encourages consistency in participation. CrossFit does a good job in building community and making everyone feel welcome. All levels of fitness (and all ages) are welcome to join a CrossFit gym and participate to the best of their ability in the workout of the day (WOD).

Affordability. CrossFit gyms are relatively inexpensive to outfit (less high-tech equipment) and are easy to scale. For this reason they provide greater access to people at all income levels, which is a huge plus.

Portability. CrossFitters learn how to use their own body weight to create challenging exercise routines anywhere, anytime. There is no longer any excuse not to get a good workout in, whether you are traveling and can’t get to the gym or you are too busy to break free from the kids to do a more formal work out.


Frequent Injury. CrossFit injury rates are substantially higher than most other fitness regimens. Herniated disks, muscle and tendon ruptures, rhabdomyolysis are not uncommon. In fact, most CrossFit athletes that I know presume that “injury just comes with the territory” and I frequently see Facebook photos of bloody/blistered hands as some kind of badge of honor. I myself sustained a low back injury even when carefully observing my technique during a CrossFit workout, and a dear friend actually ripped off one of the heads of his bicep when attempting an Olympic weight maneuver, while another friend fractured her wrist after falling down during a series of box jumps to exhaustion. Trust me when I say that if you do CrossFit long enough, you’re bound to become injured in some way.

Challenging Technique. Correct exercise form is hard to master, and since many CrossFit moves derive from gymnastics and Olympic weight lifting (sports that take many years to perfect), it is incredibly important to perform movements according to correct mechanical form. Although CrossFit experts strongly agree that good form is the key to safe and effective exercise, the fact is that people don’t always follow directions. In fact, most athletes that I’ve watched at CrossFit gyms suffer from poor form in one or more of their moves – sometimes because of inexperience, and other times because they are too exhausted to perform their final rep(s) correctly and their attention has waned. Functional movement is freer than the usual, controlled weight scenarios in a gym’s circuit training machines. And with that freedom comes the benefit of activating more muscles at a time, but the danger of injury, especially for new initiates or older athletes.

Peer Pressure. The flip side of having a “strong community” that encourages participation, is that the same community may push participants to engage in unsafe exercise practices. I’ve often seen well-meaning CrossFit instructors encourage people to pick up heavier weights than they feel comfortable with in order to push them to become stronger. There is a fine line between healthy encouragement to challenge yourself, and dangerously heavy weight lifting. It’s normal to want to “keep up with the Joneses” to your right and left during a WOD, but when Mr. Jones is a 250 pound tower of muscle, you might not want to be lifting the same weights.

Glorification of the mesomorph. There’s no doubt that committed CrossFitters develop enviably lean, muscular bodies. However, I wince a bit at the tendency for CrossFitters to promote the idea that their way is “THE best way” to be fit, and the bravado surrounding their competitions for “fittest on earth” is exclusionary and unfair. Just because an athlete was born with a different body type, ill-suited to Olympic weight lifting for example, doesn’t mean they can’t be fittest on earth (a rather subjective measure – why not an Ironman as the fittest?) There’s not much variation in the body types of those who are at the top of the CrossFit heap (i.e. large muscle mass, not too short or tall), which speaks to the fact that ultimately this sport is not optimal for all-comers (nor is the position of linebacker on a football team).

My bottom line: CrossFit must be approached with caution, though it provides some excellent HIIT and nutrition principles that can optimize one’s health. If you enjoy strength training (more than cardio or yoga for example) and like camaraderie but can resist the temptation to push yourself into the injury zone, then CrossFit may be for you.

I personally recommend (and participate in) what I would call “CrossFit light” – meaning workouts of similar CrossFit intensity but without extreme weight/maneuvers, and scaling up slowly (especially when new to exercise or a Masters athlete), adding additional cardiovascular training, and eating a diet slightly higher in complex carbohydrates than is generally recommended by strict “paleo” type CrossFitters. And of course, I do not believe that my way is the best or only way to be fit. If you like running, cycling, yoga, Pilates, or even step aerobics – good for you! Aim to be active for an hour/day – and add a little strength training in as you can. If you do that much, you may not be the “fittest on earth” but you’ll be doing more exercise than 96% of Americans!

Is Extreme Dieting And Exercise Worth It? My Personal Journey – With Photos

Dr. Val "After" Photo #1

I just completed 8 weeks of what I’d call “extreme dieting and exercise.” I don’t mean dangerous starvation and constant exercise, I mean the hardest “medically safe” amount of diet and exercise possible. It involved about 3 hours of exercise per day (6 days/wk), along with a calorie-restricted diet of 1500 calories/day (no refined carbs, only healthy fats, relatively high protein). My exercise consisted of heavy weight lifting, kettle bell sets, kickboxing, and sprints on the bike, summit trainer, and on an outdoor track, with long walks each afternoon. Trust me when I say – I pushed myself to the very limits of what my body could handle without becoming sick or injured. I did this with the help of my dear friend and trainer Meredith Deckert.

Why on earth would I do something so extreme? Well, first of all, I wanted the “right to bare arms” on my wedding day. I just woke up and realized I was getting married in 8 weeks and that I’d have photos of the event memorialized for my future kids and grand kids… so the “bat wings” had to go (you know what I’m talking about, ladies), and the time till “lift off” was pretty short – hence the need for maximum effort.

Secondly, I was scientifically curious to know what a “best case scenario,” two month, physique optimization strategy might produce. I knew I wouldn’t cheat on the diet or fall off the exercise wagon, so at least I could be sure that results were based upon strict adherence. Self-reports of diet and exercise regimens are notoriously inaccurate, so this doubting Thomas had to see for herself! (Of course n=1 in this experiment and won’t correlate exactly with others’ experiences due to differences in starting fitness, body fat, age, genetics and gender).

And Thirdly, I wanted to experience (first hand) what is possible so that I could empathize with my patients who were trying to lose weight, and provide personal anecdotes of encouragement. Since America’s biggest health challenge (pun intended) is obesity, I feel obliged to do my part to model lean living. Otherwise, what right do I have to teach others what to do? (Note that heavier physicians are less likely to educate overweight patients about weight loss).

So what did I learn? Each of these probably merits its own blog post, so I’ll summarize briefly and dig into the details with you soon…

1. Calorie math doesn’t necessarily work with the bathroom scale. We’ve all heard that a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so that if you decrease your calorie intake (or increase your calorie burn) by that much, you WILL lose a pound on the scale. That has not been my experience (I lost an average of only 30% of what the scale should have shown based on the math). I have some theories as to why that might be (which I’ll share later), but suffice it to say that if you are “doing everything right” and the scale is not rewarding you – take heart!

2. Weight training improves how you look MUCH more effectively than cardio. Before my extreme diet, I was running 1/2 marathons and spending hours on the spin bike. I was in excellent cardiovascular shape, but I had a relatively high percent body fat (about 30%) and I was certainly not getting “skinny” from all the running. I was actually losing muscle and looking softer and more “out of shape.” Dialing down the cardio and increasing the weight training had a rapid, visible impact on how athletic I looked.

3. Your leaner self may not look the way you think it will. When I first began my weight loss journey, I imagined that I would slowly melt away all the excess fat to reveal a lovely ballerina inside. What I found was that after the fat was gone, I wasn’t a ballerina at all. I looked a lot more like a wrestler! People really have different genetically determined body types – and no amount of diet and exercise will make us look like someone else. We’ll just look like our best selves, which is ok! Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that success only looks like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. After all, Olympic athletes all have very different bodies, and are at the top of their respective games! (This fun, height and weight database shows how you compare to recent Olympians.)

4. Clothing size is the most helpful measure of success. After 2 months of intense diet and exercise the scale only changed by about 6 lbs. The body impedance analyzer told a little different story (the InBody 520 estimated that I had lost about 10 lbs of fat and gained 5 lbs of muscle with an overall percent body fat loss of about 4%.) But the truth is, that nothing measured my success as well as clothing. I dropped nearly two dress sizes and had to buy a new wedding dress a week before the event!  So if your scale isn’t showing you love, what are your jeans saying? Listen to them.

Conclusion: In my experience, the best a slightly overweight, middle aged woman can do (safely) in 8 weeks is lose 10 lbs of pure fat and gain 5 lbs of muscle. It is extremely difficult to achieve that much, and I would highly recommend doing it over a longer period of time. Is the pain worth the effort? Here are my “before” and “after” photos. What do you think?

Before: (151 lbs)

After (145 lbs):

Why Pumping Iron Is Great For Brain Cells

In my last post I told you that I would reveal the one thing you can do to have a significant, positive and lasting effect on your brain health as you get older. See if you can spot it in the following list:

a) Learn to dance Gangnam style
b) Join a choir
c) Catch a wave
d) Pump some iron

Ok, that was a trick question. All of these answers are somewhat correct, but I was looking for the “most” correct answer (flashbacks to undergrad, anyone?): Pump some iron.

I realize I sound like a broken record – I’ve already written about how aerobic exercise can promote healthy aging here and here, and I’ve even already written about resistance training, or lifting weights, here.

So why am I at it again? Because it’s important!

I’m fresh out of the 2012 Aging and Society Conference, where researchers came together to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to healthy aging. It turns out everyone pretty much agrees that exercise is hands down the most effective intervention to keep your brain cells happy into old(er) age. All sorts of different types of exercise, ranging from simply walking to attending resistance training classes, are associated with different types of improvements in cognition, memory, and even brain size.

Of course, there are different levels of effort involved with different types of exercise, or even when talking about a single form of exercise. When my friend Jess asks me to go for a walk, she means a power walk: it usually involves going up hills, sweating like a pig (even though pigs, ironically, don’t sweat much), and barely having enough breath for girl talk (though somehow we always seem to find it). When my friend Al and I go for a walk, what he means is a “mosey”: we stop to look at the view, pet the dog, chit chat with strangers, and have more than enough breath for lengthy discussions about life, work, and the possibility of alien lifeforms. When it comes to brain health, whether you’re walking or pumping iron, a little sweating and effort can go a long way. For example, resistance training has been proven to be most effective when the load, or how much weight you are working with, increases over time. So kick the intensity up a notch: there will still be plenty of time for chit chat around a post-exercise, antioxidant-rich mug of matcha (my new obsession – stay tuned).

Now that the obvious has been (re)stated, I want to take this opportunity to discuss the idea that perhaps lifestyle interventions such as exercise could be prescribed by your doctor. We know that exercise can improve cognition in aging but also conditions like depression. Should physicians prescribe lifestyle changes? Or are diet, exercise, and other lifestyle activities choices we should make ourselves? How would you feel if your doctor prescribed you exercise instead of pills? Would you be more motivated to exercise if the prescription came from your doctor instead of from your friendly Internet science blogger? Your thoughts in the comments!


Dr. Julie Robillard is a neuroscientist, neuroethicist and science writer. You can find her blog at

The Primal Games: My Life Outside The Comfort Zone

This weekend I accidentally stepped way outside my comfort zone. A friend of mine had invited me to compete in the Primal Games – an event that she described as a “fun time for all fitness levels with some guys dressed up as cave men.” Sounded innocent enough. And it appealed to my sense of whimsy, so I signed up without a second thought. A couple of weeks prior to the event I decided to do a little more research and discovered that this competition *might* be a bit more challenging than I had originally thought. The event website was somewhat vague, but alluded to things like “Atlas balls,” climbing over walls, obstacle trail run, military crawls, and medicine ball tosses. Hmmm. I’d never attempted to scale a wall in my life, nor was I too thrilled about the idea of hoisting around beach-ball-sized cement objects. I was getting nervous.

I soon discovered that my nervousness was more than well-founded. As I arrived at the event, the temperature was rising above 90 degrees Fahrenheit as I was greeted by shirtless male competitors (see photo above). Apparently, almost everyone at the Primal Games was on a team of some sort already, and many had prepared for the event for over a year (mostly at CrossFit gyms). As I gingerly approached the registration tent a well-muscled woman wrote a number in permanent marker on my arm and calf. I was branded and there was no turning back, so I decided to spend some time watching the other athletes warm up. I was astonished by some of their capabilities.

Take this guy for example (photo at left). He was able to hurdle the “women’s wall” that I struggled to scale and climb over. I stood there, staring aghast at the fellow like some kind of animal in headlights. I realized that I belonged on the sidelines as a spectator, not a competitor – but alas, I was in it for the duration.

The women at the event were only slightly less intimidating. Some looked like Olympic weight lifters, others were lean, mean, muscle machines. Very few were as old as I was. My fantasies of a day tossing water balloons back and forth with people in spandex and super-hero capes were fading fast.

And so the games began – three individual events arranged in heats, requiring a whole lot of “hurry up and wait.” My first challenge was a 1.5 mile trail run with obstacles. The distance seemed fairly innocuous so I took off at full tilt when they blew the air horn for my group. About a half-mile in I began passing members of the group that started ahead of mine. I wondered if I had misjudged my pace, but figured I’d deal with that later. I navigated jumping over some hay bales (no problem for a former dairy farmer), threw myself into the Army low-crawl and bolted across a boardwalk to come into the finishing stretch. And that is when I hit the wall. Literally.

I had never scaled a wall in my life and apparently there’s some technique to it. I ran up to the 6-foot obstacle, jumped up and grabbed the ledge and then hung there like some kind of limp towel. Nope, that was definitely not the right way to do it. Race officials tried to explain more successful strategies to me as I failed to scale the wall in a second embarrassing attempt. I opted for the penalty Burpees and crawled under the wall… only to face the next, slightly shorter wall. There was no way around it this time – I had to do it. A miss was a disqualification on the shorter wall.

Panting, sweating, and wearing all black in the midday sun, I somehow muscled my way over the short wall in the least elegant way known. I jogged ahead to the water slide, took a hard dive onto my chest and bolted to the finish line with no energy to spare. That performance was good enough for an 11th place finish in my age group (the “Masters women” – which hardly seemed a fair category title considering my lack of mastery of this challenge!)

The second event appeared deceptively straight forward. I had three minutes to launch 6 medicine balls backwards over a wall. But for every 7 feet closer to the wall you got, you had to do increasing numbers of penalty Burpees. I figured I’d be pretty good at this since I’m built more like a water buffalo than a gazelle, but no dice. This event was 70% technique, and figuring out how to get the ball to make the correct-shaped arc (so it cleared the wall) had a steep learning curve. Even the strongest-looking women often missed the wall because their ball ended up going straight up and down instead of backwards. I opted to get as close to the wall as possible and just “gut out” the high reps of Burpees.

I was relieved to see a familiar face in the crowd as I approached my med ball toss challenge. The owner of my home gym had arrived, video phone in hand, to memorialize my event. She was my only fan, and asked if I’d mind if she yelled out encouragements during my event. I agreed hesitantly, both nervous about the permanency of the video that was being made of my potential “flailings” and unsure if her shouts would induce panic or perseverance. Luckily for me it turned out to be the latter. And here’s the video to prove it:

The final event was a true soul-sucker. I watched some of the men compete, and they made it look easy. It was a combination of cement (aka Atlas) ball carries (up and down a field) and tire rope pulls. Again, as a “water buffalo” I figured I’d have an advantage on this one, but here is where I crumbled. As they started the timer, I ran out to the end of the tire pull rope and started dragging it towards myself, hand-over-hand. The weight of the tractor tire was startling, and it moved at about 1/5 the speed of the men’s pulls as I realized that this event was MUCH harder than it looked. I finally got the tire across the line and had to drag it back to the start. I was the slowest in my heat and could tell this wasn’t going to go well.

And then the race official pointed to the Atlas ball that I needed to pick up and put on my shoulder. I had never even touched one before. I squatted down, got my arms under it and used my quads to get it on my lap. The weight (75lbs) took my breath away. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to get this thing up and down the field and I lost heart. Somehow I managed to muscle it up to my shoulder, where it perched on my clavicle ominously. I started taking steps across the field. The weight was crushing. I marveled at the women in lanes next to me who were managing to make it down the field. Time stood still in the 95 degree heat with no shade and no relief anywhere in site.

By some miracle I got that ball all the way up and back, and made it through the next tire pull. Then back to the start again where the official instructed me to pick up the same Atlas ball and do a second lap. I felt the will drain out of my body. There was just no way I could do it. I struggled to get it on my shoulder again and made it on my third attempt but then got about 20 feet down the field and dropped the ball. I tried to get it up again but couldn’t. I tried to carry it like a baby in front of me but it broke through my arm hold. I asked the official if I could take a penalty and get a lighter ball. Nope. That was not an option. So I spent the last few minutes in a futile effort to move the ball down the field and then finally the merciful timer signaled the end of the heat. I was the only woman who couldn’t get the ball back the second time.

And it was at that point that the infamous words of Dirty Harry Callahan came to me, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I had certainly found mine, and the humble pie was bitter-sweet. On the one hand, I was pretty amazed that I had not given up and gone home at any of several understandable points during the day. On the other, I was keenly aware of my physical limitations – and had to bow the knee to the truly gifted athletes who won the day. Would I do this again? Hmmm. Ask me once my cuts and bruises are healed. All I can say is that other competitions seem less frightening now, and maybe that’s the best gift that the Primal Games has given me.

In the future when I’m asked to join friends for a half-marathon or similarly grueling event, all I need to ask is, “does it include Atlas balls?” And if the answer is, “no” then I’m in! Thanks to the Primal Games my comfort zone has permanently expanded. I hope you’ll join me in the zone sometime, my friends! Misery loves company, after all. ;-)

P.S. The team winners of the Primal Games:

About Weightlifting And Breast Cancer

Last August, Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH and colleagues published the results of their study Weightlifting in Women with Breast-Cancer–Related Lymphedema (BCRL) in the New England Journal of Medicine. They have now published a similar study in the Archives of Internal Medicine (see full reference below).

While the NEJM article focused on breast cancer survivors with lymphedema, the Archives article focuses on breast cancer survivors without lymphedema. The new study adds weight for the need to change historic dogma which cautions breast cancer patients to avoid weight training after a mastectomy and or axillary dissection. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Suture for a Living*

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