Open heart, clear mind, killer abs: How fitness communities build deeper meaning for their members

A study by the Harvard Divinity School found that members of fitness groups like CrossFit and SoulCycle have found more than a way to get a hot bod. It's become their church of sorts, offering a close-knit group of friends that work through their struggles — physical and spiritual — together.

'Very religious things are happening in these very secular places,' says Casper ter Kuile

A fitness instructor leads a SoulCycle class in New York on April 13, 2011. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

When Oliver Pacheco suffered a back injury last year, he wanted to retreat from the world.

He and his wife were physically active, so the impediment, however temporary, felt like a major hurdle in his life.

Then they found the perfect setting for both physical and emotional rehab: a CrossFit gym — or box — in Toronto.

In Pacheco's past experience, going to the gym was a largely solitary experience. CrossFit was different.

"It is one of the few places ... where you meet real people and you go through real struggles together, and then you can kind of create bonds by doing that," he said.

People train at Crossfit TO in Toronto. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

To Pacheco and other CrossFit devotees, the box has become more than a place to hammer out a killer bod. It's become their church — of sorts.

"We've ended up in this really interesting place where very religious things are happening in these very secular places," Casper ter Kuile, ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School, told Tapestry's Mary Hynes.

Ter Kuile, who is also the "director of possibility" at the podcast On Being, co-authored a 2015 study titled How We Gather with Angie Thurston. It examined several secular communities that offered their members "meaning-making" aspects one might associate with religious congregations.

Casper ter Kuile is the ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School and director of possibility at the podcast On Being. (Submitted by Casper ter Kuile)
The rise of meaningful connections in secular spaces appears to coincide with a decline in people's association with traditional religious communities, ter Kuile said.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, about 7.9 million Canadians, or 23.9 per cent of the population, reported they have no religious affiliation. That's an increase from 16.5 per cent a decade earlier.

Similarly, a 2012 Pew study found that one-fifth of Americans, and one in three adults under 30, describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, representing an increase of just over four per cent from 2007 to 2012.

Parallels between CrossFit and Calvinism

Two of the 10 groups ter Kuile and Thurston's team followed were fitness-based: CrossFit and the spin class chain SoulCycle.

He wasn't surprised to see parallels between faith and physicality.

CrossFit's intense workouts combine elements of weightlifting, gymnastics and calisthenics. A sample workout on CrossFit TO's page includes handstand push-ups, burpees, pull-ups and multiple barbell lifts.

"If you go to a CrossFit box, you will see elements of Calvinism very strongly in the sense that there's this kind of never-ending discipline towards perfection," ter Kuile said.

SoulCycle, in particular, appears to have embraced the idea of the spin class as providing philosophical exercise, if not an explicitly liturgical service.

"I mean, SoulCycle literally has the word soul [in the name]," said ter Kuile.

Instructors take their place in front of the class on a raised platform, sort of like an altar. Members sit on rows of stationary bicycles, not unlike pews in a church.

"The instructor is not just saying, you know, bike faster or go slower. They're really asking you reflective, meaning-making questions: What do you need to leave behind today? What do you want to remember? Who are you riding for?"

The flow of questions about life, the universe and everything goes both ways.

Crossfit TO co-owner Machiko Emoto, right, speaks with members during their workouts. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

Ter Kuile told Hynes that one SoulCycle instructor he spoke to has received texts from members on days off asking questions like, "Should I divorce my husband?" He's spoken to CrossFit instructors who hosted both funerals and weddings at their CrossFit boxes.

"These communities are where people are spending three, four, five days a week of their lives … so it's no wonder that these become the centres of their community and their meaning-making life," he said.

Since most fitness instructors "have zero theological training," they may not be prepared to take on the more pastoral role they find themselves in.

To that effect, ter Kuile is part of a team at Harvard Divinity School who partner non-religious community leaders with "wise elders … often across religious identity lines" to provide the support and advice they may need.

Profit versus pastoral

Ter Kuile cautioned that prospective members should be wary of how and whether these companies — like SoulCycle, which boasts 88 studio locations across North America — monetize people's desire for meaningful congregation.

His "biggest worry" is that brands may shirk the responsibilities that comes with it.

"Companies are absolutely seeing this as an opportunity to make money," said ter Kuile.

Words of inspiration and motivational quotes can be read on the walls of SoulCycle's Union Square location in New York. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"When you engage with people's souls, you have to be ready to really support them," he said. "And that's not always going to be a profit-making endeavor."

Of course, ter Kuile notes that religious communities aren't immune to this.

"Any religious community has had to engage [with] money in some way. So it's not as if there's a bad corporate model and a purely ethical religious model," he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Arman Aghbali.


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