Push it real good

17:00, Jul 13 2013
HOT: Christchurch-based Bikram yoga instructor Kate Burford practices in a heated room at least six days a week.

The call to worship sounds at exactly 4.50am. Rhys Freeman doesn't hesitate - he kicks off the covers and laces up his shoes. He won't be late for the morning ritual. He's devoted to the cult.

They call it CrossFit.Three years ago the Auckland accountant was 30kg heavier and on the verge of getting diabetes. He lost the weight by going to daily boot camps and cutting the junk from his diet. But a year ago he crossed over to the "new craze" after being introduced to it by his trainer.

"I've never looked back. I wanted to specialise in heavier lifting because I wanted to get more strength.I was fit and I'd lost a lot of weight, but I wasn't getting any stronger," he says. The WODs (workouts of the day) are not for the faint-hearted. It takes "every day, functional movements" and turns them into exercise by adding weights. A lot of weights.

CrossFit's benchmark workout has been labelled the regime's 100m sprint, where participants have to complete three rounds of 21, 15 and nine barbell thrusters and pull-ups as fast as humanly possible. It is intense and exhausting, but CrossFitters will tell you - you won't even have to ask - that the rewards are bountiful.

"I have photos of me three years ago when I was chubby - okay, extremely overweight -and now I look at them and think, 'How did I allow myself to look like that?'" says Freeman. "Doing CrossFit helps me maintain the level I'm at now, rather than slipping into old habits."

Freeman "lives and breathes" CrossFit. He'd do it seven days a week, twice a day, if he could. He can't, though. His gym in Mt Eden is closed on Sundays and he coaches his son's rugby team on Saturdays. So five days a week has to cut it. And when he's not sweating through it, he's talking about it.

"I have an addictive personality, so for me this thing comes quite easily. My wife gets a bit sick of me talking about it; I refer back to it all the time," he says."I even dress CrossFit. I don't often go out without some form of CrossFit clothing on nowadays - T-shirts, jumpers or hoodies. I'm always talking to people from CrossFit on email... texting them - just teasing each other about it. If I go onto Facebook it's to chat to them."

HEAVY: CrossFit enthusiast Rhys Freeman works out in the Health 101 gym in Mt Eden, Auckland.

Sweating it out five days a week is a long shot for most Kiwis. According to Richard Beddie, chief executive of the New Zealand Register of Exercise Professionals, most of us only manage to drag ourselves to a gym an average of two to three times a week. Once there, we manage between 30 to 60 minutes of exercise. And that's only the Kiwis who have a gym membership - about 13 percent of the country's population.

"If someone is training as an elite athlete then obviously they would spend more time training, but the reality is that the majority of gym users are not elite athletes," says Beddie. But we're all "somewhat gullible" when it comes to trends that promise to trim and tone our midsections, according to New Zealand Olympic Team psychologist Gary Hermansen, because they have a structure and shared identity among their followers.

The types of fads we follow might change over the years, but they're all based on the "increased knowledge about what will make a difference".

"Sometimes it's based on some individual charismatic figure who comes to light to gather a following and turn their thoughts into a pretty structured and somewhat well-publicised routine, which people then follow," says Hermansen.

"Once you get into that domain, especially if you're driven more by anxiety and a need rather than by desire and choice, then it's pretty easy getting absorbed in that and then finishing where your identity is encompassed in those settings, rather than your own personal identity."


That anxiety can lead to an unhealthy addiction, where the compulsion to exercise narrows down the balance in life and puts the body under immense stress. But, if the addiction is merely a healthy fascination, it could have immense benefits.

"One extreme [of becoming obsessed] is that you lose judgement and become obsessive. The other extremeis you can be working on a level where you're getting ordinary healthy benefits, you're making choices and you're able to read your own body and exercise in a way that is balanced and in harmony with what yourbody and mind requires at the time," says Hermansen.

"Also, there's an identity that goes with that inrelation to social benefits that come as well. You geta passionate group of people who get together and some of the benefits of a shared identity, a shared language and a shared goal. It's not just that sense of belonging that drawsin devotees - it's also about how the exercise can "re-set the body".

Kate Burford, a Christchurch Bikram yoga instructor, freely admits that the system she follows has "definitely got a little cult thing going on in certain communities". It has all the traits of a trend - the structured workout and a shared identity. Bikram yoga is practised in a room where the temperature is raised to 40 degrees - as well as being exhausting, it's "exhilarating".

"I like that it's the same sequence every time. When people know what to expect, they are able to be completely present in one space," says Burford. "And when people can focus on themselves in the mirror, see their reflection and look into their own eyes, they are able to begin a form of meditation as opposed to being distracted by the likes of music or ever-changing postures, which can leave people feeling lost."

The 32-year-old has been practicing the flexible art for eight years and immerses herself in the heady heat at least six days a week, giving herself just one day of rest. If she "felt like it", she'd roll out the mat on the seventh day, too. "For me, yoga is a healing modality. It's healing for my mind and for my body so it's something I do everyday," she says.

"I think it's important to have a day of rest and sometimes the body needs more than one day of rest. You've got to do what's right for your body." Choosing which type of fitness regime to follow is not a paint-by-numbers exercise. While some become briefly obsessed with passing fads and others learn the art of something new, some people are born into it.

From a young age there was never really any doubt professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and trainer Steve Oliver would enter the ring. He used to play around his grandfather's boxing gym as a kid and as he grew older he started lifting heavy weights in his father's West Auckland gym.

After suffering a few injuries he took up Brazilian jiu jitsu and moved to the United States in the early'90s, where he started training in MMA full time for eight years. At 42, Oliver admits he's "100 percent" addicted and trains seven days a week. "I think guys that are really cult-like are arm chaircritics, to be honest. We've got a healthy interest in the sport. I don't study what the top guy out there eats for breakfast and what his training regime is - I've met those guys; they're only human and I don't care about that stuff," he says.

Oliver keeps the sport in the family. Both his sons, in their early 20s, and his 15-year-old daughter are professional fighters. "A lot of kids lose connection with their parents and older generation and what I found with our family is it's bonding time. We do all the normal things but we also hit the mat together. So I'll teach them something and they'll show me what they're working on. Then we'll roll around and try to take each other out. You know, it's just fun. It's fitness and it's quality time. And you're learning a skill that could save your life."

Once the gym gets locked up for the day, Oliver doesn't press the subject on his social circle because, by that time, he's "sick of it". But he admits the MMA lifestyle does put restrictions on his life. Healthy restrictions. "I can't go out and drink beer for three days in a row because I know if I go out and drink like that I'm going to come in [to the gym] and feel horrible and I'm probably going to get beaten up. So I'll have a couple, but I know that I've got training so I better not get carried away. With my diet it's the same thing. I like normal food but 90 percent of my food diet is clean eating."

There is one thing Oliver doesn't like about the sport- the stereotype that the fighters are "violent, carrying around a meat axe", because the guys who actually do MMA "are really humbled because they get their ass handed to them every day in the gym".

Whether it's a cult-like obsession or ingrained practice, there isn't a one-size-fits-all requirement when it comes to exercise. And one isn't necessarily better than the other, according to Hermansen.

"I don't believe there is any clear-cut indication you must do this, you must do that. But what we're hoping is that people will do enough to remain active and physically healthy and people have to work that out themselves a wee bit... sometimes with assistance from experts in terms of getting advice, rather than getting drawn into a formula that demands things from you." 

Sunday Magazine