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Richson: The dangers of CrossFit

BY BRIANNE RICHSON | OCTOBER 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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The adage “less is more” generally isn’t applied to exercise in our society. The norm presented by the media is to value, admire, and constantly pursue fitness as an ideal, often at extreme costs. The latest manifestation of extreme pursuit is the workout craze CrossFit, a military-style group-fitness blitz.

Recently, a variety of media outlets have caused a stir by linking CrossFit with a fatal medical condition known as exertional rhabdomyolysis, occurring when high levels of myoglobin enter the bloodstream. The side effects of “rhabdo” are unpleasant, including darkened urine, muscle swelling, and possibly even ultimate renal failure. Potassium leaking into the bloodstream could also lead to an irregular heartbeat or muscle spasms. (Rhabdo famously afflicted 13 Hawkeye football players in January 2011.)

With the risks of CrossFit on the table, people should ask themselves if they view the rush of CrossFit as worth it. (Those who think the risks are, in fact, worth it should check out the terrifying “Uncle Rhabdo” bleeding clown cartoon to study up on the disease.)

According to the Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group, the exertional rhabdomyolysis associated with CrossFit often occurs under circumstances of “excessive, unaccustomed exercise.” Oddly, rhabdo has a similar effect on workhorses who take a Sunday off and return to labor on Mondays; thus, it has come to be known in horses as “Monday Morning disease.”

CrossFit’s official website, CrossFit.com, provides a nearly laughable opening sentence to its mission statement: “CrossFit begins with a belief in fitness.” The problem is that CrossFit almost seems to take the belief too far. The emerging trend seems to be that “rhabdo” occurs in beginner CrossFitters, which is problematic in itself because we might assume that everyone has to start as a beginner. Additionally, at the heart of rhabdomyolysis is the problem of overexertion, which anyone and everyone is prone to in a group exercise setting in which no one wants to be perceived as weak or inferior.

From a less pessimistic perspective, that CrossFit-induced rhabdomyolysis stems from overexertion might imply that if people would just be smart about their CrossFit workout, the condition could be avoided. But in the intensity of the CrossFit environment, people likely have a difficult time differentiating between so-called “feeling the burn” and indications that your skeletal muscle is literally degenerating, also known as, “you should probably stop.”

The growing awareness of rhabdomyolysis shouldn’t necessarily be viewed by avid CrossFitters as an attack on their sport (yes, it is a sport as well as a workout, CrossFit has its own “CrossFit Games”). In fact, all athletes should be aware of the looming threat of “rhabdo,” particularly in the preseason time frame after any breaks from an athlete’s normal level of fitness activity. In 2010, members of an Oregon high-school football team were hospitalized because of the disease.

There are many positives to the drive that athletics and general physical fitness require, as well as the confidence that succeeding in a tough workout instills. No one can tell CrossFitters to tone it down (although the extremely pregnant woman who posted a picture of herself doing overhead squats to CrossFit’s Facebook page should probably — definitely — re-evaluate her priorities), but participating in CrossFit, much like any other high-level athletic endeavor, is about being smart to stay safe.


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