TIME fitness

Sitting All Day Isn’t As Bad If You Do This

African American businessman using laptop
Jetta Productions/Blend Images RM/Getty Images

Getting to the bottom of sitting on your bottom: the latest study shows that fitness matters

There’s a growing drumbeat to get all of us out of our chairs and off our bottoms. Some studies, including the most recent analysis, suggest that something about being sedentary can lead to poor health outcomes, including heart disease and things like obesity, diabetes and overall “fitness”—which, in technical terms, is a measure of how strong the heart and respiratory system are. Those studies found that even people who exercised weren’t immune to the dangers of sitting—though exercise did help.

But were the effects of sitting actually independently lowering fitness and causing health problems, or was the sitting just a reflection of the fact that people who sat more spent less time being active?

MORE: Sitting Can Increase Your Risk of Cancer By Up to 66%

Kerem Shuval, a research specialist in nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society, and his colleagues wanted to address that question. So they turned to the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, an ongoing trial of white men that measures how lifestyle behaviors affect disease and longevity. They asked the men about how many hours they spent in a car or watching TV (the sedentary part) and then put them on a treadmill to record their fitness levels, as well as tested their blood for cholesterol and blood sugar. The scientists also calculated the participants’ body fat percentage, their waist circumference and their body mass index (BMI).

When they adjusted for the amount of physical activity that the men reported, they found that those who spent more hours each week in a car or watching TV showed higher triglyceride levels, a higher BMI, waist circumference and more body fat compared to those who reported less than nine hours a week of sedentary behavior.

MORE: An Hour of Exercise Can Make Up for a Day of Sitting Down

But when Shuval then factored in the mens’ fitness levels, he found that most of the interaction with negative health outcomes went away. “Once we controlled for fitness, the effects of sedentary behavior were a lot less pronounced on health outcomes,” he says.

So there’s no question that people who are fit, which means they are physically active, and those who exercise regularly, enjoy better health. The question is whether you can get fitter not just by becoming more active, but also by sitting less. “The jury is still out in my mind about what to do about decreasing sitting,” says Shuval, who published his results in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

There are some studies that follow people over time that found that more sitting time is linked to a higher risk of early death. But that could be due to the fact that people who sit more are less physically active, so sitting is displacing exercise. Shuval found, for example, no strong association between how much time people spent sitting and their risk of metabolic syndrome – the constellation of risk factors connected to heart disease – nearly nine years later. That suggests that physical activity, and not something unique about sedentary behavior, may be the driving factor in that syndrome.

MORE: Now There’s Another Reason Sitting Will Kill You

That’s supported by a study published in PLOS ONE in January 2014 in which researchers from the U.S. and Australia found that when they included all levels of physical activity – not just moderate or vigorous activity, but even the light forms that make up most of what people do during the day – the negative effect of sitting on adverse health measures like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar and waist circumference disappeared. In other words, how active people are – and the more active they are, the less they sit – likely has the strongest effect on health.

Shuval, however, admits that his results likely aren’t the definitive ones that will resolve the question of how sitting affects our health. The men in the Cooper study, for example, were only asked about the time they spent in their cars or watching television; they didn’t account for time spent sitting at their jobs, for instance, so the sedentary time could have been underestimated. They also only asked about sedentary habits once, so the study couldn’t account for any changes the participants had in the amount of time they spent in chairs.

The uncertainly probably explains why there aren’t yet any guidelines about healthy and unhealthy amounts of sitting time, as there are for physical activity. “We haven’t established yet by how much we need to reduce sedentary behavior and how to do it,” says Shuval. But one thing is clear – sitting less means you are probably more physically active. And there is plenty of evidence suggesting that’s good for your health.

 

TIME Exercise/Fitness

An Hour of Exercise Can Make Up for a Day of Sitting Down

It's not just how much exercise you get, but also how much time you spend off your bottom that keeps your heart healthy

Another day, another study that confirms the dispiriting reality that sitting is bad for you. Fortunately, says that same study on heart health published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, it doesn’t take much to offset the harmful effects of sitting.

Because exercise has a more powerful effect in helping the heart than sitting does in harming it, one hour of physical exercise could counteract the effects of sitting for six to seven hours a day, according to researchers led by Dr. Jarett Berry at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

(MORE: It’s Lack of Exercise — Not Calories — That Makes Us Fat, Study Says)

The data Berry and his team reviewed came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an ongoing series of health studies maintained by the Centers for Disease Control. The 2,223 participants between the ages of 12 and 49 wore accelerometers for seven days (except while showering or swimming) to measure their activity levels and sedentary behavior, and the result showed that sitting, regardless of the total amount of physical activity the people did, was linked to lower heart fitness.

But it also found that men and women who logged less time sitting had better fitness, as measured on a treadmill test, than those who spent more hours in a chair or on the couch. So instead of focusing on working out, those worried about their health might think instead about sitting less. “Even people who exercise regularly spend the vast majority of their time not exercising,” says Berry. “And it appears that what we do when we’re not exercising is relevant to our health. Understanding this has the ability to shift the paradigm of thinking about exercise more dramatically than anything else in the field of exercise.”

(MORE: Exercise Snacking: How to Make 1 Minute of Exercise Work Like 30 Minutes)

In general, Berry says, any movement, from walking to taking the stairs and even fidgeting if you absolutely have to be in a chair, is likely better than sitting relatively motionless. “Much more work needs to be done, to develop small scale trials to test the impact that lifestyle changes have irrespective of volitional physical activity,” he says. “We spend so much of our time sitting and doing non-exercise-related activities that it’s relevant for us to understand that better.”

 

TIME Exercise

It’s Lack of Exercise—Not Calories—That Make Us Fat, Study Says

Low section of woman exercising on treadmill
Low section of woman exercising on treadmill Maskot/Getty Images

One study says American diets have remained the same for the last 20 years

A new study published yesterday in the American Journal of Medicine reported over the last 20 years there has been a sharp drop in Americans’ physical exercise, and an increase in average body mass index (BMI), but that average caloric intake has remained the same.

The Stanford University researchers looked at NHANES data over the last 20 years, and found that the number of U.S. women who reported doing no physical activity went from 19.1% in 1994 to 51.7% in 2010. For men, the number increased from 11.4% in 1994 to 43.5% in 2010. During the same time frame, the average BMI of men and women also went up.

“At the population level, we found a significant association between the level of leisure-time physical activity, but not daily caloric intake, and the increases in both BMI and waist circumference,” said lead study author Dr. Uri Ladabaum, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in a statement.

The drop in physical activity is worrying, but it’s worth taking a closer look at the reseach. The dataset in this study did not show that Americans were consuming more calories over the 20 year period—but it should be noted that USDA data shows that Americans are consuming about 500 calories per day more than they did in the 1970 and 800 calories more than Americans in the 1950s.

It’s certainly true that Americans are more sedentary than they used to be, but when it comes down to it, calories are a major component when it comes to weight gain. And though the researchers report that calorie intake hardly changed, they did not look at the makeup of the participants’ diets. Therefore, they have no idea where people were getting their calories—home cooked meals, fast food, processed food?

It’s true that we’ve started relying too much on calories, and the simple advice of eat less exercise more isn’t always the answer. Well-respected researchers in the nutrition community argue what’s more important is avoiding the refined carbohydrates like white bread and sugary processed foods which have become staples in our diets. Instead, we should focus on better food quality, and of course, getting more physical activity.

The obesity epidemic is caused by many factors, and it’s solution will have to incorporate many different strategies. At this point, we know that, and pulling out one cause ultimately isn’t productive—or accurate.

What we should take away from this new study is that Americans are moving less and less—and that’s bad news.

TIME Exercise

5 Reasons to Drink Coffee Before Your Workout

Coffee cup and pot
Tammy Lee Bradley—Getty Images/Moment Open

Half of Americans start their day with coffee, and according to recent study, working out after downing a cup of java may offer a weight loss advantage. The Spanish study, published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, found that trained athletes who took in caffeine pre-exercise burned about 15% more calories for three hours post-exercise, compared to those who ingested a placebo. The dose that triggered the effect was 4.5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. For 150-pound woman (68 kg), that’s roughly 300 mg of caffeine, the amount in about 12 ounces of brewed coffee, a quantity you may already be sipping each morning.

If you’ve always thought of coffee as a vice—one you’re simply not willing to give up—you’ll be happy to know that it’s actually a secret superfood. And if you exercise, caffeine can offer even more functional benefits for your workouts. Here are five more reasons to enjoy it as part of an active lifestyle, along with five “rules” for getting your fix healthfully.

Health.com: 12 Surprising Sources of Caffeine

Improved circulation

Recent Japanese research studied the effects of coffee on circulation in people who were not regular coffee drinkers. Each participant drank a 5-ounce cup of either regular or decaffeinated coffee. Afterward, scientists gauged finger blood flow, a measure of how well the body’s smaller blood vessels work. Those who downed “regular” (caffeinated) coffee experienced a 30% increase in blood flow over a 75-minute period, compared to those who drank the “unleaded” (decaf) version. Better circulation, better workout—your muscles need oxygen!

Less pain

Scientists at the University of Illinois found that consuming the caffeine equivalent of two to three cups of coffee one hour before a 30-minute bout of high-intensity exercise reduced perceived muscle pain. The conclusion: caffeine may help you push just a little bit harder during strength-training workouts, resulting in better improvements in muscle strength and/or endurance.

Health.com: 15 Natural Back Pain Remedies

Better memory

A study published this year from Johns Hopkins University found that caffeine enhances memory up to 24 hours after it’s consumed. Researchers gave people who did not regularly consume caffeine either a placebo, or 200 mg of caffeine five minutes after studying a series of images. The next day, both groups were asked to remember the images, and the caffeinated group scored significantly better. This brain boost may be a real boon during workouts, especially when they entail needing to recall specific exercises or routines.

Muscle preservation

In an animal study, sports scientists at Coventry University found that caffeine helped offset the loss of muscle strength that occurs with aging. The protective effects were seen in both the diaphragm, the primary muscle used for breathing, as well as skeletal muscle. The results indicate that in moderation, caffeine may help preserve overall fitness and reduce the risk of age-related injuries.

Health.com: 14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

More muscle fuel

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a little caffeine post-exercise may also be beneficial, particularly for endurance athletes who perform day after day. The research found that compared to consuming carbohydrates alone, a caffeine/carb combo resulted in a 66% increase in muscle glycogen four hours after intense, glycogen-depleting exercise. Glycogen, the form of carbohydrate that gets stockpiled in muscle, serves as a vital energy “piggy bank” during exercise, to power strength moves, and fuel endurance. Packing a greater reserve means that the very next time you work out, you’ve upped your ability to exercise harder and/or longer.

But this news doesn’t mean you should down as much coffee as possible—your good intentions may backfire. In my work with athletes, I recommend five basic rules to best reap caffeine’s rewards:

  • Don’t overdo it. The maximum amount of caffeine recommended for enhancing performance with minimal side effects is up to 6 mg per kg body weight, which is about 400 mg per day (or about 16 ounces of coffee) for a 150-pound woman.
  • Incorporate it in healthy ways: doctor up coffee with almond milk and cinnamon instead of cream and sugar, or whip coffee or tea into a fruit smoothie, along with other nutrient-rich ingredients like almond butter and oats or quinoa.

Health.com: 11 Ways to Boost Your Energy With Food

  • Be consistent with your intake. Research shows that when your caffeine intake is steady, your body adjusts, which counters dehydration, even though caffeine is a natural diuretic. In other words, don’t reach for two cups one day and four the next.
  • Keep drinking good old H2O your main beverage of choice.
  • Nix caffeine at least six hours before bed to prevent sleep interference, and listen to your body. If you’re relying on caffeine as an energy booster because you’re tired, get to the root of what’s causing fatigue. Perhaps it’s too little sleep, overexercising, or an inadequate diet. If something’s off kilter, you won’t see progress, and you’ll likely get weaker rather than stronger. Striving for balance is always key!

Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Big Picture

Where Wearable Health Gadgets Are Headed

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A person wearing a Fitbit fitness band types on a laptop Getty Images

Every once in a while, I’m shown a tech product and I can’t figure out why it was created. One great example of this was a two-handed mouse I was shown at large R&D-based company many years ago.

I was asked to review it to see if they should bring it to market. After trying to use it and viewing the complicated things you had to do to make it work, I told them it would never succeed. However, the engineer behind it was convinced he had created the next great mouse and was determined to try and get it to market. Thankfully, the management at this company killed it, as it would have been a complete failure and provided no real value to any customer. However, the technology was available to create it and this engineer did it because he could.

In the world of tech, most successful products address serious needs that people have. This is very much the case behind the current movement to create all types of wearable devices designed to make people healthier.

Folks behind products like the Jawbone Up, Nike Fuel, Fitbit and others have solid backgrounds in exercise and exercise science. They wanted to create stylish wearable products that could be used to monitor steps, count calories and track various other fitness metrics. Other products such as ones from iHealth, which has created a digital blood pressure device and a blood glucose testing kit that are tied to smartphones, were designed by people close to the health industry who saw a need to create products that could utilize digital technology to power new health monitoring tools.

At a personal level, I’m pleased that these folks are utilizing key technologies like accelerometers, sensors, Bluetooth low-energy radios and new types of semiconductors to create products that aim to impact people’s health. Readers of this column may remember that two years ago I suffered a heart attack and had a triple bypass. As you can imagine, this provided a serious wake up call to me about taking better care of myself. Since then, my Nike Fuelband has been my 24-hour wearable companion: I check its step-monitoring readout religiously to make sure I get the 10,000 steps in each day that my doctor has required of me as part of my recovery regimen.

While I would like to think that these tech folks are doing it for the altruistic reasons, the bottom line is that there is a lot of money to be made in health-related wearables. The folks from IHS published a good report last year on the market for wearables, which are mostly driven by health-related apps.

Most researchers that track this market believe that the wearable health market will represent at least $2 billion in revenue worldwide by 2018. In many developed countries around the world, people are becoming much more health conscious. Reports seem to come out daily, talking about the good or bad effects some foods have on our lives. And more and more, we hear that we need to exercise to either maintain our health or to improve it.

So a combination of the right technology becoming available and an increased awareness for better health has created this groundswell of health-related wearable devices and digital monitoring tools designed to help people have healthier lives. But there is another major reason that we are seeing more and more health-related wearables and digital monitoring products come to market now. This is driven by most healthcare providers and is one of their major initiatives: In simple terms, it’s cheaper to keep a person healthy than to cover their costs in the hospital when they’re sick.

Almost all the major health care providers have created web sites with all types of information about managing one’s health. These sites have information and programs for cancer patients, diabetics, and many other health issues that help people better manage these diseases. Health insurers are also really getting behind the various digital monitoring tools and health wearables, too, viewing them as vital tools that can help their customers stay healthier and keep them out of the hospital as much as possible.

Interestingly, as I talk to many of the executives of these health-related wearable companies, many of them claim to be on a mission. Yes, they admit there is money to be made, but most I speak with are serious about giving people the technology to help them keep themselves healthy. In fact, in at least two cases, the executives I have talked to have special funds they personally set aside to donate to major health causes as part of their personal commitment to using technology to make people healthier.

While there is some chatter about the market for wearable technology not being a sustainable one, I suspect that it will stay on track to eventually become integrated into everyday objects such as watches, hats and even clothes, becoming part of a broader trend called “self-health monitoring.” This trend basically says that people will want to have more and more information about calories the number of calories they’ve burned, the number of steps they’ve steps taken, their pulse and other metrics. Thanks to these new technologies, this data would be available to them in a variety of ways.

Of course, not everyone may want to know these health-related data points, but the research shows that at least one-fourth of U.S. adults have these types of health-related wearable monitoring devices on their personal radars. The fact that this market is growing around 20% or more each year suggests that we could continue to see growth for at least another three years. As these devices become part of our wardrobes, they could eventually fade into the background while still providing health-related info that many people may need to stay motivated. This is the goal that the tech world has embraced wholeheartedly, providing more and better tools for this purpose.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

TIME health

How Dieting Changes Friendships

Dinner table illustration
Illustrated by Sydney Hass

Diet, whether we like it or not, plays a role in our social lives. Think about the culture of your office lunch — there’s the gluten-free faction, the microwave Easy Mac-ers, and those February Fridays when everyone just goes crazy and orders burgers because it’s snowing again?? Remember that one group dinner when no one could tell if anyone else wanted dessert, so you all just stared each other in silence while the waiter stood, clutching menus, hating you harder by the second? And, how about the dietetic minefield that is brunch?

Food has a way of drawing lines between friends, and it sucks. How many times have you started a diet with a friend in the hopes that you’d support each other and keep each other honest? Sometimes it works, and you spend a few weeks hitting the gym together, reporting every froyo skipped and every cocktail made “skinny.” And then, someone starts to deviate. Here’s a semi-true text I’ve both sent and received on more than one occasion: “My back is really bugging me. I think I need to skip yoga tonight. I’m so, so sorry! Are you mad?!” (Side note: My 30th birthday present to myself and all my friends was to quit it with the “are you mad” stuff.) Sometimes their response is “Thank God, I WANT WINE NOW PLEASE,” and then you just bring your mats to the wine bar and everyone is happy. Other times, you’re not on the same page. That’s when you’re no longer cheating on the diet, you’re cheating on your friend. At least, that’s what it feels like. And, it feels like that because that’s how you set it up.

(MORE: 10 Buzzy Superfoods That Work)

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. (Man, is anything fair with this food stuff?) Even when we’re not doing the buddy-diet thing, the way we eat always seems to be a part of the conversation. It’s a natural social inclination to discuss this kind of stuff, but it’s certainly been perverted by the diet-centric culture in which we live. Our great-great-grandparents might have sat around each other’s kitchens discussing food in different terms — the best recipes, the nutritional content, the economic value — and we might as well, to a degree. Goodness knows I get pretty excited when I find an avocado for less than $3. But, I’m pretty sure my great-great-grandmother never boated ‘cross the fjords to tell her bestie she’d found a sick recipe for low-carb smørrebrød.

(MORE: The Mindful Eating Trick That Saves Me)

People often say that it’s hard to have a social life when you’re on a diet: You can’t go out for cocktails because of the cals, you go home early so you can hit the gym early, you opt out of your own birthday cake. It sucks. The rude awakening I’ve had over the last six months is that giving up dieting is the opposite side of the same sucky coin. Have another cocktail, sure. Have a mudslide, if that’s what you really want! But, be prepared for raised eyebrows — even if you’re only imagining them.

 

Dinner table illustration
Illustrated by Sydney Hass
Illustrated by Sydney Hass

Food-related socializing can be challenging now. Even trickier? I’m finally realizing just how many of my social interactions are food-related. In the old days, I had friends with whom I was “bad” — those friends I’d associate with cheeseburgers and a back-up bottle of wine in the fridge. Then, I had friends that spoke the language of food-fear, and together we made guilt-free soups and counted out portions of baked chips. In all these relationships, we had more in common than food, thankfully. Though, because food was the axis I spun on, it became the center of these interactions, too.

(MORE: The Science of a Perfect Relationship)

But, the more I become an intuitive eater, the less food is my anchor. I don’t “cheat” anymore, and so gone is the thrill of the “cheat night.” I don’t constantly crawl the internet for low-point guacamole recipes, and now guacamole is just the thing we eat while we hang out, not the entire reason for hanging out (spoiler: that’s kind of the goal). Sometimes it’s as simple as not being hungry at the same time as my friend. I know, call Dr. Phil, how will we ever get through a crisis of this magnitude?

When you go against the grain, you will be challenged. Your usual support system might take a while to adjust. The one in your own head is what you really need to focus on. Because there will always be naysayers. There will always be moments when a friend might set you off on a diet-minded tailspin with her no-cheese, no-yolk omelet, accompanied by salad with the dressing firmly on the side. Faced with your perfectly acceptable pancakes in those moments, there’s no other back-up but you. And, you, if you’re me, is the toughest nut to crack.

My friends have been there for me from day one, but some of them didn’t necessarily get it. If I’m honest, I think some of them still don’t. But, what a relief to discover that that’s okay. My friends, my coworkers, my boyfriend and I don’t necessarily need to be on the same track about absolutely everything. Just because I’ve jumped off the bridge doesn’t mean my friends have to, too. This feels like something I should have learned in middle school, but I’m glad I’m getting it now.

This post originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

TIME Music

This Is Spotify’s Ultimate Workout Playlist

The perfect jams to keep you motivated

Need some new tunes to listen to while attempting to fulfill your summer fitness goals? Well, here’s a handy playlist brought to you by the folks at Spotify and Billboard.

Billboard explains the not-super-scientific methodology that led to the curation of the list:

In order to put this list together, we at Billboard asked Spotify and their data science wing the Echo Nest to poll their 24 million users, and the one-and-a-half billion playlists those users have created, to generate the top songs people place in their exercise-related digital mixtapes.

With the data Spotify provided, Billboard created playlists for everything from crossfit to tae bo, but the above playlist is the ultimate roundup of general workout songs. Surprisingly, it does not exclusively consist of Top 40 hits. Here’s a breakdown:

Billboard

 

TIME psychology

The 3 Reasons People Are Obsessed With Crossfit

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CrossFit Training Push Ups ferrantraite—Getty Images/Vetta

The cult fitness program has primal appeal

If someone in your life does CrossFit, the high-intensity fitness training favored by Marines and first responders, you’ve ribbed them (out loud or in your mind) about being part of a cult. This is a natural response to their relentless insistence that CrossFit has changed their life, and that it will change your life, too! “The first rule of CrossFit,” the quip goes, “is always talk about CrossFit.”

So why are CrossFitters so wrapped up in this movement that’s grown from one fringe gym in a California industrial park to 10,000 independent “boxes” and the CrossFit Games, an international competition with over 200,000 participants? It’s not a cult of personality, although CrossFit founder Greg Glassman can rattle sabers with the best of them. There’s not much celebrity glitz-and-glamour. The facilities where people do CrossFit are bare bones, often in converted auto body workshops and defunct manufacturing spaces. There are no mirrors, and none of the conventional health-club amenities. And unlike bargain cardio-machine farms with monthly fees of twenty dollars or less, CrossFit isn’t cheap. Those people alternating Olympic weightlifting movements with handstand pushups and rope climbs are paying $150-$200 a month to throw themselves into their chosen ordeal.

They do it for three reasons. The first and most obvious is the physical result. High intensity exercise yields results that differ in kind from moderate-intensity efforts, not just in degree. In a peer-reviewed study in which one group exercised at moderate intensity for 45 minutes on a stationary bike and the other group did high-intensity intervals for 20 minutes and burned the same number of calories, the high-intensity group lost nine times the fat. Human growth hormone (HGH) and other compounds cascade into the blood of people who sprint as though a monster is chasing them and lift heavy objects as if earthquake survivors are trapped underneath. These hormones signal the body to burn fat and build muscle. The grim trudge-to-nowhere on a cardio machine, or miles of brisk walking, does not unlock this chemical cascade.

The second reason for CrossFitters’ passionate adherence is social. These gauntlets are run as a pack of between half a dozen and 20 people. Doing something physically intense and difficult binds a group of people. Military trainers have known this for thousands of years. But CrossFit is the first modern-day phenomenon that allows Jo-Anne from human resources to feel something like the fierce kinship of Marines. The workouts are scaled (weaker athletes modify the movements, or do them with less weight). But everyone gives 100% effort. There is a primal magic in going physically all-out with a dozen people. It’s not just a sense of accomplishment, the modern clock-punching virtue of exercise. It’s victory, the way you feel when your team beats the other team. Wrapped up in that sense of victory, as in any pack victory, is gratitude: that you’re getting stronger, and that you’re part of a pack that can move their own weight quickly and literally carry each other, that together you can leave all that energy out on the floor, three or four times a week.

The ritual sacrifice of human energy, argues classics scholar David Sansone, is the bedrock definition of sport, and the genesis of sport. When paleolithic hunter-gatherers sacrificed animals to their gods, they were also sacrificing the energy it took to hunt those animals. When those hunters became farmers, they continued to sacrifice animals. But because the animals were domesticated, there was no way to sacrifice the energy it would have taken to hunt that animal. This is when athletic rituals – foot races and field games – became part of religious practice. Freed from the constraints of a literal hunt, that ritual sacrifice of human energy could take a thousand forms, from Native American lacrosse to Meso-American ball games, tribal competitions in Africa and the Olympic Games, in honor of the ancient Greek’s pre-eminent god. The winner of the Olympic foot race was given a torch, and carried that torch up the steps to light the burnt offering to Zeus.

Rituals persist, even when we forget why we perform them. Sport, at its root, is sacrifice. This is why it bothers us so much when athletes take performance-enhancing drugs. We don’t feel the same way when singers or actors take performance-enhancing substances. But deep down, we know there’s something qualitatively different about sport that is sullied by steroids or EPO. Sacrifice demands purity – doping destroys the purity of the ritual.

As participation in sports declines, and is displaced by the fitness industry – the infomercial devices, the ellipticals, the gyms that profit because members don’t show up – intensity is leached out of athletics. Ritual becomes habit. Sport becomes exercise. What was meaningful, vivid and shared becomes mindless, boring and socially isolated (Bowling Alone at Bally’s). This is why most people think of physical exertion as a chore.

CrossFit’s ritual intensity reverses these polarities: it’s tribal, it’s intense, it’s never the same workout twice. It replaces cosmetic aspirations (six-pack abs, buns of steel) with an emphasis on function – mastery, progress, work capacity. It replaces the ease and comfort of gym machines with a demand for all-out effort and an archaic stoicism.

In so doing, CrossFit reconstitutes the ritual sacrifice of energy that made sport important to our ancestors – that makes it important to this day, though we’ve forgotten why. In that way, it’s more cultic than even the most pestered co-worker can guess.

J.C. Herz is the author of Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness.

TIME Saving and Spending

Your Gym Membership Is a Waste of Money

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Hero Images—Getty Images

It’s bathing suit season again, and that means gyms are shedding dollars from their membership prices faster than we’re ditching long pants and sleeves. According to Charles Tran, founder of credit card comparison and personal finance site CreditDonkey.com, June is a good month for gym discounts, especially on daily deal sites. “I’ve been seeing discounts of about 35% to 60%,” he says. “In June, you have more negotiating power when everybody else wants to enjoy the outdoors.”

Since most gyms offer memberships to couples at a discounted rate, it might seem like joining with your partner would be the best way to score a good deal.

Weirdly, it isn’t, and you’re probably throwing money away as a result.

A new study finds that when couples sign on to do something together — start a savings account, diet, get fit and so on — their level of commitment defaults to the least-motivated member of the pair. A lot of people probably think the more conscientious partner would set a good example for and inspire their boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse, but it turns out they’re not the one wielding the primary influence in these situations.

“Self-control is essentially a social enterprise,” writes Hristina Dzhogleva, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College and lead author of the new paper. In a series of experiments with both real couples and lab simulations, the researchers found that the people with higher self-control tend to cave and give into the more indulgent preferences of their partners in order to keep peace in the relationships.

Given that opposites attract, Dzhogleva points out, it’s likely that there are a lot of couples out there with this dynamic of mismatched motivation levels. People with more self-control have that higher level of discipline because they focus on the long-term rather than immediate gratification.

Ironically, this tendency makes them more likely to give in under pressure from their partner. For one thing, they’re thinking about preserving the relationship long-term; they also have the self-control to squelch what would make them happier in order to please their partner.

But the upshot of these good intentions is that otherwise-motivated people wind up blowing off the gym yet again for takeout and a Netflix marathon, Dzhogleva concludes. Unless both people in a couple are both motivated to hit the weights or the treadmill, neither is going to be using that couple’s membership that seemed like such a good deal at the time.

“Higher self-control individuals should be wary of partnering with low self- control individuals,” the paper says. “[It] may negate their innate advantages in pursuing long-term goals.”

Dzhogleva’s findings also hold true for personal finance activities like making a budget or splurging on a vacation, so if your sweetheart is a spendthrift, it could pay to take a close look at how your financial decisions are impacted by that relationship.

 

TIME cities

Washington D.C. Is The Fittest City In The U.S.

Lower death rates, ample parks and a healthy appetite for fruits and vegetables are just some of the factors that vaulted the nation's capital to the top of the list

Washington D.C. has topped a ranking of America’s 50 largest cities, arranged from fittest to flabbiest.

The new study, released on Wednesday by the American College of Sports Medicine, ranked the cities by two broad measures of public health: Personal health indicators such as prevalence of smoking and diabetes and the average city-dweller’s intake of fruits and vegetables, and environmental health, which included measures such as access to public parks, bike lanes and farmer’s markets. A panel of 26 health experts weighted the measures by importance, and voila, a health index was formed, allowing whole metropolises to size one another up like competitive weightlifters.

Washington D.C. topped the list, knocking Minneapolis-St. Paul’s off of its three-year winning streak (though the Twin cities came in a close second). Oklahoma City, Louisville, and Memphis rounded out the bottom of the list.

The authors stress that some of the rankings capture marginal differences between cities and that they all have areas of strength worth emulating and weaknesses worth addressing.

“We have issued the American Fitness Index each year since 2008 to help health advocates and community leader advocates improve the quality of life in their hometowns,” said Walter Thompson, chair of the AFI Advisory Board.

In other words, they’re all beautiful in their own way, and they all could use some work.

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