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Nov. 26, 2020

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Mr. CrossFit vs. Big Soda

A fitness guru’s wonky war with the soft-drink industry

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Tyler Downing, who has been doing Crossfit for four years, works out at Crossfit DC, a fitness movement sweeping the nation.
Tyler Downing, who has been doing Crossfit for four years, works out at Crossfit DC, a fitness movement sweeping the nation. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Andre Chung Photo Gallery

On a bright November morning, Congressman Scott Taylor is meeting with a visitor at his Capitol Hill office. Even in his dark suit and striped tie, the steely eyed, fit Republican from eastern Virginia looks every bit the Navy SEAL he once was. His visitor — Greg Glassman, founder and sole owner of CrossFit, a fitness company famous for its brutal full-body workouts — is older and dressed informally. He wears a ball cap over unruly ginger and gray locks, plus a three-day stubble, a flannel shirt, faded jeans and sneakers.

Taylor tells Glassman that his first CrossFit workout, way back in the early days, was in the garage of a fellow SEAL who is now a top CrossFit staffer. Taylor wants to talk about other friends he has in common with Glassman, other SEALs who are CrossFitters.

Glassman, however, has a different conversation in mind. He wants to discuss Department of Defense money — specifically why a group called the National Strength and Conditioning Association should not receive Pentagon contracts. “We’ve watched these guys for years, knowing that their science was bulls—. We knew they fell asleep at the switch. While everyone was doing lateral raises and curls, and eating high-carb, the nation got profoundly ill,” Glassman tells Taylor. “CrossFit was born out of our realization of how f—ed up it was.”

For Glassman, his visit to Taylor and his denunciation of the National Strength and Conditioning Association are part of a very specific agenda: He is at war with America’s soda industry, which he accuses of corrupting the science around sugar while acting as an enemy to the general health of the country. The NSCA — which licenses physical trainers and is thus something of a competitor to CrossFit — was the starting point for his crusade, as well as its original target: The group publishes a journal that, several years ago, featured a study with a negative statistic about CrossFit injury rates; Glassman in turn discovered that the NSCA was partly funded by soda industry money. His indignation over this has now spiraled into a full-fledged war against Big Soda.

Glassman’s estimated net worth is $100 million, and he hired the Podesta Group (which would soon be defunct) to coordinate the lobbying on this trip to Washington. Yet in talking to Taylor, he presents himself as more of a citizen-advocate. “I’m not fat with lobbyists. I don’t have soda-pop support,” he tells Taylor. “We don’t know our way around town.”

Taylor listens attentively. “I’d need to know both sides, of course, but obviously I’m an ally,” he says. “I know what you do, I respect what you do, I understand it, and I’m very intimately familiar with it — I’ve gotten my a– kicked many times! So, if we can be helpful, we will, for sure.”

Three hours later, Glassman and his six-person posse — made up of some of his top staffers and a lobbyist — are a half-mile away, visiting Jim McCleskey, who represents the interests of Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper in Washington. Glassman is talking about legislation that has worked its way through the state’s assembly. It’s arcane and complicated, something about the licensing of dietitians and nutritionists. Again, Glassman — determined, dogged, methodical — follows the story back to the influence of his competitors and, looming behind it all, Big Soda.

“What they can’t win with their bad physiology and their soda sponsorship, they’re trying to do with legislation,” Glassman says.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” McCleskey replies. “We haven’t heard from the soda people.”

The feud with soda companies is of a piece with Glassman’s highly competitive streak. Accompanying him on his Washington visits are CrossFit employees Russ Greene and Russell Berger — blogging as “The Russells” — whose mission is “defending the brand against junk science.” They do so with the wonkiness of health-science experts and the ferocity of pit bulls. One of their posts from last year showed a mock-up of a hypodermic needle with a Coca-Cola logo, and the headline, “Why You Should Worry About Coca-Cola More Than Opioids.”

Glassman, too, is holding nothing back. And with 3 million followers on Facebook, 2.4 million on Instagram and nearly a million on Twitter, not to mention about 14,000 affiliated gyms around the world, CrossFit has given him a massive pre-existing soapbox — albeit a highly unconventional one for a policy crusade.

Glassman, now 61, started with far more modest goals when he developed the rudiments of CrossFit as a high school gymnast in California in his parents’ garage. He was trying to simulate a ring routine that required strength and composure during two minutes of maximum effort. “So I just brought the bar to my chest and went down deep into a squat, then shot back up and pushed the weights overhead. I did three or four of those, and I go, ‘That’s the feeling,’ ” he recalls. “And then I mixed that with pull-ups. I did 21 of each, 15 of each, nine of each, and it made me sick. So I went and told the gymnast across the street — he was a pommel horse guy — and he did it, and he got sick. And we knew we had it.”

Glassman later competed as a gymnast at Pasadena City College, one of several colleges and junior colleges he attended. (He never completed his bachelor’s degree.) He was hampered somewhat by leg injuries from an early bout with polio, and by broken bones from hard dismounts that today have left him with a limp. He then became a physical trainer, and by 1998, he was teaching classes at Spa Fitness Center in Santa Cruz. One of the members, Eva Twardokens, a former Olympic Alpine skier, says she became “hooked” on his CrossFit-style workouts — which were more akin to throwing hay bales and jumping over fences than they were to leg extensions or curls in exercise machines. After leaving Spa, he rented a spartan space in a jujitsu studio. A small cadre of athletes, including Twardokens, followed him.

He launched CrossFit as a business in 2000, with his then-wife, Lauren Jenai. (The couple have four children. Glassman bought her out of the business after she filed for divorce in 2009.) The company really took off, he says, when they started posting “The Workout of the Day” online. “I had 30 clients, and I was busy full time,” Glassman says. “You aren’t going to start a revolution with 30 people, you really won’t. But we gave these workouts to the net, and they came around.” In 2007, CrossFit held its first CrossFit Games, where men and women compete for the titles of fittest man and woman on earth. By early 2008, the Globe and Mail reported, there were 350 affiliated gyms — or “boxes” — worldwide.

Today, Forbes estimates that CrossFit Inc. generates annual revenue of some $100 million. The company makes money by licensing its name to gyms for an annual fee and charging trainers for certification. “I grew a business accidentally,” Glassman explains. “What I did was I provided a remarkable opportunity, and I stayed the hell out of the way of my affiliates. And they’ve grown like kudzu around the world.”

One of the most attractive elements of CrossFit is the communities it builds, which Glassman had not anticipated. “You take the headphones out, and you actually care about the person on, say, the bike or the treadmill next to you, and it’s better for everyone,” he says. “The hard thing would have been thinking how to effect that. It was not engineered; it was not.”

For all the camaraderie inside CrossFit boxes, though, the business itself has seen its share of conflict. There was the Glassmans’ acrimonious divorce and a bitter multiyear feud with Jeff and Mikki Martin, godparents of Glassman and Jenai’s children, over a CrossFit Kids brand the couple developed. (Jeff Martin declined to comment.) CrossFit affiliates have also been hit with a few personal injury lawsuits. (So far, only one has been found partially liable, the company says.) And through it all, Glassman has spoken out forcefully against any critics. “He’s able to call people out in a pretty blunt way that gets their attention,” Twardokens says. “And that’s what he’s doing with Coca-Cola.”

The study that set Glassman off on his quixotic campaign was published in 2013 in the National Strength and Conditioning Association-owned Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Although the study found aerobic and body composition improvements among CrossFitters, it also suggested there was a high rate of injury. CrossFit filed a federal lawsuit against the NSCA over the paper, claiming the group intentionally published false information about CrossFit to protect its training-certification business. The NSCA then filed a state lawsuit against CrossFit, Glassman, Greene and Berger in California, alleging “false and disparaging statements.” Both cases are making their way through the courts.

Some thought Glassman was overreacting — the nut of the study had actually been that CrossFit improves fitness — but the injury data was indeed flawed. The journal retracted the paper in 2017, and the next day, the lead researcher resigned from his position at Ohio State University. (The NSCA did not respond to requests for comment.)

Along the way, Glassman noticed that the NSCA was partly funded by PepsiCo. And the closer he looked, the more soda money he found — supporting not just training organizations, but also health nonprofits, medical organizations, diabetes foundations, even the foundations supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. (A 2016 study by Boston University researchers found nearly 100 national health and medical groups were sponsored by Coca-Cola Co. or PepsiCo. The American Beverage Association, which speaks for the industry, said in response that it was “proud to support” organizations focused on “strengthening public health.”)

Some research suggests such funding taints soda science. A 2013 analysis by a team of European researchers found that literature reviews sponsored by the food and beverage industry were “five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association between SSB [sugar-sweetened beverage] consumption and obesity than those without them.” A 2016 study by American researchers that was funded by NIH found similar results. (In response to such findings, ABA spokesman William Dermody says the industry’s “support for scientific research is strictly to inform and clarify discussions through scientific inquiry, and it is held to the highest standard of integrity.” He also argues that if there is a correlation between soda consumption and obesity, then obesity rates should have dropped along with recent declines in soda consumption, but they have not.)

Although the soda companies were not going after CrossFit directly, their role in funding scientific research seemed wrong to Glassman. In early 2014, he posted on a CrossFit message board, “It’s time to drive Big Soda out of fitness and by extension, the health sciences.” As a long-term advocate of low-carb diets, Glassman was no fan of sodas, and he was outraged on principle.

Glassman also started venting on Twitter. In 2015, he tweeted an image of a Coke bottle next to the phrase “open diabetes,” a riff on the ad slogan “open happiness.” The rest of his tweet read, “Make sure you pour some out for your dead homies.”

Pop superstar Nick Jonas, who has Type 1 diabetes, criticized Glassman, because his tweet did not specify Type 2 diabetes, the kind associated with soda drinking. When a reporter for “Good Morning America” asked Glassman to respond, he wrote back, “F— Nick Jonas.”

That year, he also dropped in on a conference of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego, near one of his homes. The ACSM is another of the mainstream exercise science groups that certifies physical trainers, and it, too, is viewed by CrossFit as a competitor. Coca-Cola was a founding partner of its signature program, Exercise Is Medicine, which emphasizes activity over diet.

At the 2015 conference, James Hill, an obesity expert at the University of Colorado, delivered the keynote speech on a new nonprofit initiative: the Global Energy Balance Network. The network was pitching the message that consumers need not worry so much about what they are eating and instead should focus on staying active enough to burn those calories. Don’t look at the soda in your hand, the campaign suggested; look at your own sluggish lifestyle.

The corollary to this is that a calorie is a calorie, whether it comes from cashews, kale or Coke. It’s an idea that is antiquated, and a growing body of research suggests it’s false. Frank Hu, of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says all calories are not equal, and there’s also a “continuum of carbohydrate quality.” On the healthful end are minimally refined grains and legumes; soft drinks are at the opposite end. “One can of soda a day is associated with about a 25 percent increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes,” says Hu. “It’s significantly associated with increased risk of weight gain and obesity in both children and adults, and associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and also increased risk of fatty liver disease, gout and some other conditions.”

Sitting at the ACSM conference in May 2015, Glassman says, it was clear to him that the Global Energy Balance Network was partly funded by Coke. “What I saw was that Coca-Cola was holding forth on chronic disease in my backyard,” Glassman told me. “The a–holes had the nerve to have the event in my backyard.” In July, he sounded off with a typically profane tweet: “@CocaCola’s @gebnetwk trolls for ‘scientists’ to make a case for hiding metabolic syndrome w/ exercise.”

Glassman’s was the first public criticism of the network, but it’s hard to say what effect it had. His missive was only retweeted 14 times, and others in the nutrition community were making the same point. Either way, though, his hunch was correct: In a front-page scoop that appeared a few weeks after his tweet, The New York Times reported that the Global Energy Balance Network was, in fact, rooted in $1.5 million of undisclosed funding from Coca-Cola.

Following the expos?, Coke disbanded the Global Energy Balance Network, the University of Colorado returned $1 million to Coke in research funds, and Hill left his post as executive director of the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.

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