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Boom & Bust: Will the Fitness Industry Ever Capture the Attention of Most Americans?

As part of our week-long series on booms and busts, Jamie Wiebe looks at the surprising popularity of P90X, CrossFit, and themed races. Never before in the history of the industry have so many things been designed to make your average Joe—or Jane—feel like being fit is within their grasp.
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(Photo: lbtn/Shutterstock)

(Photo: lbtn/Shutterstock)

Workout trends have never been terribly taxing: Zumba will make you sweat, but it’s really just dancing. Same goes for Jazzercise, or Barre. All are exercise, and while they might be help you lose weight, they’re just that—trends, not long-term lifestyle changes.

In terms of food, we’re increasingly familiar with the idea that crash diets don’t work. Instead of Atkins or The Zone, we eat more fruits and vegetables and swap our white bread for brown. We kind of get it, now, that trends won’t lead to long-term weight loss and maintenance. But we’re just coming around on that idea when it comes to fitness.

The elliptical is the white bread of working out: You’ve got to swap it for strength training in order to see results.

Nerd Fitness, one of the pioneers of the “You can do it, no matter who you are” approach to weightlifting and fitness, explains in their introduction to strength training why the practice is so beneficial to long-term health. When you’re lifting, you’ll retain muscle and look toned, not anemic, as you lose weight; one weight training session can temporarily increase your metabolism for up to 38 hours; and most importantly, over the long-term, it can permanently raise it.

All great things, but cultural understanding of what it means, fitness-wise, to make lifetime changes seems to be about five years behind our understanding of food and health.

WHEN I WAS A 13-year-old with LiveJournal, we had thinspiration, or thinspo: Tiny, skinny girls with visible ribs, blog-bragging about how little they ate or how many times they purged. I won’t pretend the trend hasn’t disappeared, but on a mass level, on Pinterest boards and Tumblrs run by teenage girls looking to shed the baby fat, it’s warped into fitspiration—fitspo. Waifs have been replaced by bodybuilders; diary entries listing the calories in carrots replaced by pinnable workouts. The Core Challenge, for example, superimposes a list of 12 moves, including 150 crunches, 30 push-ups, and three different types of planks, over a blonde, athletic women and her exposed six-pack stomach, with sinewy muscles that look toned—that look sexy.

"I’ve always been interested in quick fixes. I’m very impatient, tried a lot of diets and fad workouts and gave up because they aren’t long-lasting. I used to go in and grab 10 pound weights and do a few curls and think I was weightlifting."

Toned is the new skinny, and Pinterest and Tumblr are the new fitness magazines, ready to sell women the step-by-step process to a tight butt or a flat stomach. It’s nothing new, but in some ways, it’s everything new—these little postlets on their own won’t get you fit; you can do the Core Challenge every day ’til you’re 80 and that five to 10 minutes of exercise won’t really get you very far.

They’re a gateway drug to the harder stuff, fitness for serious people: Weight lifting, which is enjoying its biggest renaissance since Arnold Schwarzenegger's prime, the days of Pumping Iron and Gold’s Gym.

To get from browsing fitspiration on Pinterest to lifting heavy in the weight room requires a few leaps of faith and plenty of willpower, but there are more stops along the way, with instructors ready to hold your hand (and kick your ass) than ever before.

IT MAKES SENSE THAT all of this started with P90X. The $120, 12-workout DVD set has sold more than 4.5 million copies since it launched in 2004. Hawked by celebrity fitness guru Tony Horton on late-night infomercials, it grew quietly for many years, then suddenly achieved megastar popularity in 2011 and 2012. Paul Ryan, our fittest vice presidential candidate ever (sorry, Sarah) is a fan; Ashton Kutcher is too. My mother, in Wichita, Kansas, called asking about “this P90X thing.”

In many ways, it was just another fitness fad, hyped with misleading before-and-after photos and promising quick results. It was also something totally new: Horton and his muscle-bound, tank top clad companions said that working out was really freaking hard. Its infomercials advertise “extreme yoga” and jump routines. People were lifting weights—sometimes, even heavy ones. To a bodybuilder, the routine might have seemed, well, routine, but to an ordinary person looking to cut a little chub, it was an entirely new concept. It was no jazzercise.

“It was different from everybody’s perception of what exercise was supposed to be. ‘Easy, it stores under your bed! Only takes six minutes a day!’ Now P90X comes along and tells you that exercise is supposed to be hard,” says Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength.

“We’re a television society,” Rippetoe says. “You’ve got a whole bunch of people watching commercials on TV in markets all over the country—30-minute infomercials telling you that exercise is supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to get sweaty, and it’s fun to get hot and sweaty. It’s fun to do hard things. That laid the groundwork for this whole thing today.”

CrossFit came next. Greg Glassman actually founded the company in 2000, well before P90X meant anything to anyone, but it wasn’t until 2011 that CrossFit mania really hit a fever pitch. March 2011 was the first month more people searched for CrossFit than 24-Hour Fitness; today, more people search for CrossFit than 24-Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Planet Fitness—combined.

It’s influence spreads far beyond the States: On a 2012 trip to Colombia to visit my friend, she complained that one of her acquaintances had been sucked in to the local “box” (what CrossFitters call their gym). It felt like a cult: She ate what they told her to eat and spent her weekends at the CrossFit Games. She even had a CrossFit boyfriend.

In the two years since, the international obsession with everything CrossFit has crossed over into a fever pitch of sorts, sparking a backlash, a backlash-to-the-backlash, and a few more rounds of back-and-forth beyond. Nay-sayers—including Rippetoe—have a legion of valid complaints, including increased injury rates and random, scattershot lifting with no end goal. But it’s hard to ignore the basic facts: Thanks to CrossFit, it’s finally OK to lift heavy.

What do you do when you’ve outgrown CrossFit? In Rippetoe’s blog post, “CrossFit: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly,” he says right at the top that CrossFit is “the greatest thing that has ever happened to barbell training, bar none, unequivocally and absolutely,” citing specifically what he calls the “post-novice trainee.” Once you’ve outgrown CrossFit, the only way to go is to dial back from the workouts of the day, the random weightlifting, and the “muscle confusion” that both CrossFit and P90X promise will make each workout more meaningful. According to Rippetoe, when CrossFitters realize what their body can do and begin quantifying the gains they’re making week after week, they’re quitting the box and going solo.

“It doesn’t seem like the momentum has abated—CrossFit is growing faster than ever, and I think that with continued growth there are gonna be more people spinning off and looking for a competitive venue for their efforts,” Rippetoe says.

The progress made by CrossFit—making weightlifting cool for everyone, not just bodybuilders—extends far beyond the boundaries of the box, even to those who would never in their life set foot in a CrossFit gym.

“Crossfit felt very haphazard. I’m not a huge fan,” says Sara Wells, co-founder of Our Best Bites, a food blog whose recipes err on the side of comfort food. But in late February, she published something with very little to do with food: The results of her two-year weight loss effort, during which time she dropped five sizes and 50 pounds thanks to weight-lifting and the work of a dedicated trainer.

“I’ve always been interested in quick fixes. I’m very impatient, tried a lot of diets and fad workouts and gave up because they aren’t long-lasting,” Wells says. “I used to go in and grab 10 pound weights and do a few curls and think I was weightlifting.”

Wells wrote two posts about her journey, hoping to inspire women like her—mothers who never really thought strength training was an option—to step off the treadmill and pick up the weights. “I think most women are intimidated, because they don’t really know their way around a weight room,” she says. “Maybe they want to go in there, but don’t know how to use the machines and what to do.” Same went for her when she started out: She says she used to perch herself on a stair climber that overlooked the weight room at her gym to watch other people use the machines, so she could suss out how they worked and what she needed to do.

“When I learned to use every muscle in my body and lift, I wasn’t just losing weight, I was seeing muscle definition,” Wells says. “I felt stronger. I felt so much healthier.” Ultimately, she’s an advertisement for moderation: Lifting weights is hard, but it’s the best way to see serious, long-term changes without sacrificing dessert forever.

“It’s impossible to ignore the fact that hard works and easy doesn’t. Even stupid people see that,” Rippetoe says. Training hard, in a weird twist, actually makes it easier for the rest of your life to stay relatively normal.

The interest in fitness is there, and the means are there—it’s easier than ever for newbies to pick up the weights and get started making some serious changes. And it’s thanks to people like Wells—and organizations like CrossFit, no matter your opinion—that the weight room has become more accessible.

We’re telling stories all week on the theme of booms and busts. What’s on the edge—of becoming a big thing, or of falling off the radar? Read the entire series here.