How CrossFit Helps Combat the 19 Major Causes of Premature Death and Disability

CrossFit for health, CrossFit for fitness or CrossFit for performance?

The evolution of CrossFit has seen the emergence of an identity crisis of sorts. Is it an exercise program? A sport? A corporation? A brand? This crisis exists not so much within the community itself – we get it – rather, it exists outside the sanctum of affiliates.

The varying identities of CrossFit have spawned varying motives for individuals. Nowhere is this more common than in the (perceived) conflicting intentions of people to treat CrossFit as either an exercise program or a sport.

CrossFit for health, CrossFit for fitness or CrossFit for performance?

These motives are not mutually exclusive. The CrossFit prescription can service all three goals. There is no doubting the performance and fitness benefits – these are more than adequately demonstrate by measureable and observable increases in weight and repetitions or a reduction in time for a set amount of work.

Health changes can be less instantly gratifying, and thus, often less noticeable in the short term. In the long term however, the results are dramatic, and the impact on longevity and quality of life considerable.

We can measure the impact of disease and injury on life by examining DALYs, or disability adjusted life years. A DALY can be thought of as one lost year of ‘healthy’ life. The sum of these DALYs across the population, or the burden of disease, can be thought of as a measurement of the gap between current health status and an ideal health situation where the entire population lives to an advanced age, free of disease and disability. We can calculate DALY by adding years of life lost due to disability (YLD) and years of life lost due to premature death (YLL).

By examining both leading factors causing disability and leading causes of death, and then exploring the effects of CrossFit style exercise on these factors, we can extrapolate the effect of CrossFit style exercise on health.

Top factors causing loss of life years due to disability (in order):

  1. Low back pain
  2. Major depressive disorder
  3. Iron-deficiency anaemia
  4. Neck pain
  5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  6. Anxiety disorders
  7. Migraine
  8. Diabetes
  9. Falls

Top factors causing loss of life years due to premature death (in order):

  1. Ischaemic heart disease
  2. Stroke and other cerebrovascular disease
  3. Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers
  4. Alzheimer and other dementias
  5. Lower respiratory infections
  6. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  7. Colon and rectum cancers
  8. Diabetes mellitus
  9. Hypertensive heart disease
  10. Breast cancer

 

Let’s examine these factors individually, and the benefit that CrossFit style exercise has on them.

Top Factors Causing Loss of Life Years Due to Disability:

Lower back pain: 
Chronic, long term, non specific lower back pain is not primarily related to ongoing tissue damage but to an existing pathology. Because of this, there is a limitation in how much pain can be used as an indicator of exercise. Exercise should form a major part of the treatment strategy for such a condition. The major benefits revolve around the prevention of deconditioning and debilitation that may otherwise be caused by avoiding exercise. These increases in muscular strength and exercise tolerance should be paired with postural corrections to ensure neutral spine is maintained during all movements.

Major depressive disorder: 
Research has shown sedentary populations have higher levels of depression, suggesting a link between physical inactivity and this debilitating disease. This improvement can be attributed to an increase in general wellbeing, through increases in energy levels, alertness and the ability to think clearly, and a reduction in fatigue, anger and tension. Exercise also encourages social interaction, further developing positive psychological health. As discussed in relation to anxiety, one of the biggest factors psychological factors is the fact that exercise acts as a ‘time out’ from any events which may cause, stress, anxiety or depression. It is this distraction that has the greatest psychological effect.

Iron-deficiency anaemia: 
The benefits of exercise for individuals with anaemia relates primarily to improved cardiorespiratory endurance. This increases the efficiency of the red blood cells to transport oxygen from the lungs to skeletal muscles.

Neck pain: 
See ‘Lower back pain’ above.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: 
There are numerous benefits of exercise for sufferers of COPD, including: Cardiovascular reconditioning; Improved efficiency of the ventilatory process; Increased muscle strength (ventilatory and general) and reductions in dyspnea.

Anxiety disorders: 
Specific to anxiety, the benefits of exercise can be separated into two categories, short term acute effects from a single bout of exercise, and longer term chronic benefits from a sustained exercise program. The short term benefits are temporary, though important none the less. It has been speculated that the biggest reason for this short term reduction in anxiety levels is the distracting effect of exercise. If you are exercising, you have less time to worry about the stressors which lead to anxiety. In addition, changes in blood chemicals and reductions in tension contribute to this short term effect. This short term exercise benefit has been found to last up to 24 hours. A longer term exercise program creates longer term changes, with not only a reduction in stress, but improvements in the ability to deal with stress. Reductions in resting heart rate and lower levels of stress hormones in the blood contribute to this long term change. These effects last long beyond the 24 hour benefits of a one off bout of exercise, and eventually lead to permanent reductions in anxiety. A combination of both short and long term factors makes exercise an effect method of preventing, treating and controlling stress and anxiety.

Migraine: 
Research points to the importance of regular and consistent exercise as a long term approach to reducing the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. This is attributed to the release of endorphins and enkephalins, and increases in cerebral blood flow resulting from exercise.

Diabetes: 
The effect of exercise on blood glucose levels, and therefore type two diabetes as a whole is considerable. Benefits include: The prevention of the disease in individuals currently undiagnosed; Improvement in the control of blood glucose levels; Improved insulin sensitivity, leading to a reduced requirement for insulin based medication; Reduction in body fat resulting in increased insulin sensitivity; Reduced chance of developing cardiovascular disease, a common partner to diabetes; Stress reduction, therefore balancing hormone levels and contributing to healthy blood glucose levels.

Falls: 
Poor lower limb strength and balance are the two highest predicators of falls. Exercise targets both variables. In addition, the increases in bone mineral density resulting from weightbearing exercise mean that even when falls do occur, the likelihood of a fracture is reduced.

Top Factors Causing Loss of Life Years Due to Premature Death:

Ischaemic heart disease: 
Clients who have suffered a previous myocardial infarction may experience the following long term exercise effects: Increased oxygen consumption; Increase in the sensitivity of the ventilatory response to exercise; Reductions in angina symptoms due to reductions in resting heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen demand; Increased variability of heart rate; Favourable changes in body composition, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride levels and low density lipoproteins; 20-25% reduction in total and cardiovascular related mortality.

Stroke and other cerebrovascular disease: 
There is a strong relationship between individuals who have suffered a cerebrovascular accident and high levels of deconditioning. The potential for improvement is therefore very large. Exercise can result in improvements in any lost motor function and increases in the ability to perform activities of daily living, particularly ambulation, balance and independent mobility. Reduced levels of depression and reduced cognitive symptoms have been identified in individuals who undertake an exercise program post- stroke. The treatment of associated conditions and risk factors such as hypertension, poor glucose regulation, poor blood lipid profiles and reduced body fat levels can play a major role in reducing the chance of secondary strokes.

Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers: 
The research on the effects of exercise on cancer is currently growing at a considerable rate. Effort is being put into the investigation of exercise as a prevention for cancer. This has been suggested for several major forms, including lung, prostate, breast and colon cancers. The biggest benefit of exercise for cancer patients though is the effect on the immune system, the ability to maintain functional abilities through treatment and an improvement of mood and quality of life. In essence, exercise increases the body’s coping resources and aids them in dealing with cancer. More specifically, exercise plays a major role in reversing the negative effects of various exercise treatments. Many treatments increase the risk of such conditions as coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and hyperlipidemia. Exercise combats these side effects at every step.

Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias: 
The major benefits of exercise for this class of conditions are the increase in functionality participants can experience, and the enjoyment the exercise brings. Depression and other psychological conditions are commonly associated with Alzheimer’s. Exercise helps to counter this by encouraging social interaction, further developing positive psychological health.

Lower respiratory infections: 
Due to the asymptomatic nature of milder forms of infections, an individual with the condition can often experience the full benefits of exercise. More severe forms see relatively diminished levels of physical improvement. Benefits to the condition include: Improved exercise tolerance; Cardiovascular reconditioning; Improved efficiency of the ventilatory process; Increased muscle strength (ventilatory and general).

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: 
There are numerous benefits of exercise for sufferers of COPD, including: Cardiovascular reconditioning; Improved efficiency of the ventilatory process; Increased muscle strength (ventilatory and general); Reductions in dyspnea.

Colon and rectum cancers: 
See ‘Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers’ above.

Diabetes mellitus: 
The effect of exercise on blood glucose levels, and therefore type two diabetes as a whole is considerable. Benefits include: The prevention of the disease in individuals currently undiagnosed; Improvement in the control of blood glucose levels; Improved insulin sensitivity, leading to a reduced requirement for insulin based medication; Reduction in body fat resulting in increased insulin sensitivity; Reduced chance of developing cardiovascular disease, a common partner to diabetes; Stress reduction, therefore balancing hormone levels and contributing to healthy blood glucose levels.

Hypertensive heart disease: 
Research shows that cardiorespiratory based training may elicit a drop in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and reduces the expected increase in blood pressure in individuals predisposed to hypertension. For these reasons, exercise is effective as both a stand alone, and adjunct treatment for the condition.

Breast cancer: 
See ‘Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers’ above.

Dan Williams's picture

Dan Williams

Dan Williams is the Founder and Director of Range of Motion. He is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Exercise Scientist with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science. Dan is a CrossFit Coach (at CF Games Level) and four time CrossFit Regionals Athlete.