Almost everything the federal government has told the public about healthy diets over the past three decades may have been wrong. The U.S. Surgeon General suggested avoiding saturated fats and prioritizing grains and other carbohydrates. Low-fat products started filling the aisles at grocery stores, as families tried to follow the government's infamous food pyramid. Obesity rates continued to climb, and some dissenting scientists and started questioning the consensus. The U.S. government and major health organizations were slow to react, but in recent years have finally started updating the official recommendations.
Is the exact same scenario about to play out in the fitness industry?
"All of these government agencies, all of our universities, they've all sat silent through one of the worst declines in health the modern world has ever seen," says Greg Glassman, who's the founder of Crossfit, which runs more than 14,000 gyms around the world. "And their response is still exactly wrong." (Crossfit is a corporate donor to the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.)
Crossfit's explosive growth was made possible in part by the lack of regulation in the fitness industry. While many states require licenses for occupations as innocuous as trimming trees, tending bar, braiding hair, or even arranging flowers, personal trainers can work without government oversight. Crossfit was free to run its own certification program, which flouts most of the conventional nutrition and exercise advice championed by government and academia.
The company regularly spars with fitness credentialing organizations with different exercise philosophies, like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Several of them have united under the banner of the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREPS), an industry group that regularly lobbies for regulation of the fitness industry. The fight is occuring largely behind-the-scenes at state legislatures across the country, where licensing laws have been introduced on 26 separate occasions since 2005. Crossfit supporters have pushed back just as hard, at times showing up in person to speak out against the bills.
The one place Crossfit lost is Washington, D.C., which passed the nation's first fitness trainer licensure law in 2014.
"It's an attempt to silence Crossfit on the subjects of nutrition and exercise," says Glassman.
Mark Rippetoe, a weightlifting coach and creator of the fitness program Starting Strength, has also been fighting licensure efforts. While Starting Strength differs from Crossfit in important ways, there are some commonalities, like promoting training with barbells and encouraging movements that aren't approved by establishment players in the fitness industry.
"The state legislature that would adopt a statewide licensure program for exercise is composed of people who do not understand anything about the squat," says Rippetoe, who advocates a "full squat" where participants dip below parallel as opposed to the less dramatic version promoted by ASCM.
Rippetoe and Glassman both believe that their unorthodox training methods would be imperiled by licensing regimes.
"The intersection of policy and politics is a very problematic one," says Holden MacRae, a professor of sports medicine at Pepperdine University and a Crossfit member.
In 1995, the U.S. Surgeon General shifted the emphasis from vigorous, high-intesity physical activity to moderate-to-low intensity activity in the early '90s based on shaky scientific evidence. In 1995, it issued a report that shifted the recommendations away from vigorous activity towards low-to-moderate intensity and de-emphasized certain fitness markers like strength, agility, speed, power and coordination while emphasizing cardiorespiratory fitness.
The guidelines were adopted by the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American College of Sports Medicine. The current version of the National Physical Activity Guidelines, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week.
"[The activity guidelines] were an experiment run on the U.S. population with very little evidence to support it, similar to what we had with the dietary guidelines," says Macrae. "And I don't think there's enough transparency with conflicts of interest, the involvement of big soda for example."
Recent work out of the University of California San Francisco has uncovered evidence that the sugar lobby paid off researchers to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease, with the author of the very first paper that placed the blame on saturated fat having clear ties to the sugar industry.
There's some evidence that the same special interests that used the government and universities to influence nutrition science for the past several decades is employing similar tactics in the fitness industry to promote the message that it's lack of physical activity, rather than sugar consumption, causing obesity and other chronic health problems. Once such example is the now-defunct Global Energy Balance Network, which shut down under public pressure after revelations that it was largely funded by Tthe Coca-Cola Company.
The American College of Sports Medicine's newest venture, Exercise is Medicine, is an attempt to create a credentialing system to have doctors "prescribe" fitness trainers to patients and was underwritten by the Coca-Cola.
The company didn't reply to requests for comment, and the American College of Sports Medicine declined to participate in this story. But ASCM's website does say that it only advocates licensure for trainers working with clients with "medical conditions that require minimal to advanced clinical support."