May 22, 2024
An Expert Weighs In: Can Certain Workouts Be Considered Cults?

An Expert Weighs In: Can Certain Workouts Be Considered Cults?

During my first week at Competitor in June, there was a lot of getting-to-know-you small talk with new colleagues. As you’d expect at a running magazine, the topic of workouts is a popular subject. I mentioned that I did CrossFit in my 20s, but now that I’m 40 I enjoy Orangetheory Fitness as a supplement to running.
“The cult workouts,” joked a colleague.
Though the comment was said in jest, my gut reaction was still self defense. What’s it to you if I enjoy a little camaraderie with my workout? This is my tribe, not a cult.
I’ll show you, my new smarty-pants co-worker. I’m going to find an authority on cults and debunk your shallow-minded insinuation. With that thought, I was officially speeding headfirst down the narcissistic, self-righteous rabbit hole.
I found Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, and an expert on cults, extremism and undue influence. Two minutes into our conversation, I knew I was guilty of displaying cult-like behavior.
“People might make those comments about a workout program because the person has become obsessed with it,” Lalich explains. “That kind of single-mindedness is a hallmark of a cult. They aren’t jealous, they just think the person has gone over the top.”
The word “cult” has taken on hyperbolic undertones through the years. “Drink the Kool-Aid” has become such a common idiom that few recall its mass-suicide roots. Today—especially in sports—it simply means to buy into the hype and mindlessly go along with the hot take du jour.
Lalich breaks down the characteristics of a cult into three categories:

  1. There is a charismatic leader.
  2. There is a transcendent belief system. “You’re required to go through some sort of personal transformation to be on the path to salvation—or weight loss,” she says.
  3. There is conforming to the norms of the group.

Hearing this forced me to take a look in the mirrored gym wall and examine how this applies to my fitness life. I follow a charismatic leader (my OTF coach), I underwent a transformation in my thinking (and my weight, thank you very much) and—especially on social media—I conform to the rules of the group.
If we go by Lalich’s definitions, then there are plenty of elements within these group workouts to classify them as cults. Or at least cult-like.
The difference is these “cults” want to help people live healthier lives. Would you rather listen to a co-worker talk about the 100 wall balls they did in 10 minutes or the spaceship that’s coming in 2028 to destroy the earth?
If working out hard with friends is being in a cult, so be it. Guess I’ll keep drinking the Gatorade.
Originally shared on Competitor.


Dr. Janja Lalich

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. is a researcher, author, and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups, with a particular focus on charismatic relationships, political and other social movements, ideology and social control, and issues of gender and sexuality.