What Proper Nutrition, Mobilizing, and Cheering on Athletes Doing the CrossFit Open Have in Common

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By Dr. Allison Belger

We are now in the second week of the CrossFit Open 2014.  In addition to being the first step in the qualification process for the international CrossFit Games, this is a huge community event, connecting athletes within and among gyms around the globe via fitness efforts, cheering, and a little shared suffering to boot.

In 2012, I wrote a book called The Power of Community, which documents, among other things, the importance of meaningful social connections for our psychological and physical health.  The topic of community and the benefits of social interaction on our overall wellbeing have been widely discussed in both scientific literature and popular culture. Recently, Oprah started a campaign called “Just Say Hello,” which is meant to encourage people to connect with others, with as easy and simple an act as making eye contact and saying hello.

Oprah’s website provides some interesting information about both the importance of human connection in the prevention of loneliness, and the harmful effects of social isolation and lack of friendships.  While we often associate sadness and other emotional melancholy with being lonely, what we may not realize is that loneliness also has a powerful and direct negative impact on our physical health.  If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, my book discusses it in detail, and there’s also an easily digestible article on Oprah’s site By Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

One of the more fascinating findings Dr. Gupta highlights is that social isolation and loneliness actually register in our brains in the same way as physical pain.  With a historical overview, Dr. Gupta explains, From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense; our prehistoric ancestors relied on social groups not just for companionship, but for survival. Staying close to the tribe brought access to shelter, food, and protection. Separation from the group, on the other hand, meant danger. Today when we feel left out, our bodies may sense a threat to survival, and some of the same pain signals that would engage if we were in real physical danger are flipped on.

Along these lines, last year I had posted a link to a psychology journal article, which documented the perception of social isolation as physical pain. It’s fascinating stuff about how an emotional experience can register in our brains as something physical.

For those of us who are concerned about our health and wellness and are doing what we can to keep our physical selves healthy, Oprah’s campaign is a good reminder that we must also attend to our social lives and emotional wellbeing. In our efforts to keep our bodies strong and fit, we of course need to focus on our training, our nutrition, our lifestyle choices, our efforts at mobility–all of it.  But we need to pay as much attention to ourselves as social beings, and in particular how we are connected to others.  As Dr. Kelly Starrett said when reviewing my book, we need to “create opportunities for people to matter to each other.”  The incentive is twofold: we will be emotionally more content and happy, and our physical health will be better, as well.

One of my favorite quotations comes from political scientist, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone.  After reviewing the vast landscape of literature on the topic, Putnam writes:

The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half (emphasis in original). If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

This week’s message, then, is to take advantage of opportunities to connect with others.  Following Oprah’s initiative, smile at a stranger — you just might make someone’s day and improve someone’s health.  Call old friends, make plans with people you enjoy, join a book club, volunteer for a local cause, find your own path for sharing experiences.  And remember, the CrossFit Open is a great way to bring people together. If you’re not competing, you can still show up, cheer, and make connections.  It just might be as good for your physical health as doing the workouts you’re watching!

Reflections on 9/11 and Connection

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By Dr. Allison Belger

This has been one of those weeks for me: an unexpected and negative life intrusion for a close friend, the first week of school for my kids, a new gym in the final phases of construction, and my younger daughter’s birthday.  It’s been exhausting, stressful, and busy–new beginnings and excitement tempered by concern.

This has also been a week of reflection—not just for me, but for all of us.  Wednesday was September 11th, a day that for many will never come around without conjuring darkness and doubt—much like December 7, 1941, for past generations–a day that will live in infamy.  As I read posts on Facebook from people inviting us to remember and reaching out to those who lost loved ones, I got to thinking about how this kind of tragedy, with its shared suffering and loss, brings people together from all backgrounds and walks of life.  9/11 moved us in ways that cross divides—racial and ethnic, educational, economic and social.

As we are touched in our hearts and souls, we do not differentiate between victims who are black or white, rich or poor, bankers or janitors. True, the first responders hold a special place in our hearts with the magnitude of their sacrifice and loss of life trying to save others.  What we share as a nation is the collective experience of horror, sadness, shock, and mourning.  In the aftermath, we also share the simple desire to live in peace, with the conviction and psychological containment that we and our loved ones are safe and out of harm’s way.

There is nothing I can say about September 11th that hasn’t already been said.  My focus for today is about capturing something from that powerful, shared experience to connect us across the divides described above.  One of the most liberating aspects of growing up, in my mind, is the ability to understand those who are different from us, with increasing freedom from judgment and fear. Despite some great progress in our education system, which now attempts to enlighten our young people and teach them to embrace diversity, the bottom line is that we are a species prone to categorization, trying to define and fit into our own tribes.  Perhaps adolescence is the peak period for such “us” and “them” struggles.  The tumultuous years of adolescent emotional insecurity are marked by a need to identify and bond with a group as an insider, which is often accompanied by an aversion to those who are designated as outsiders.

Life after college seems to offer the space for a more open-minded existence.  With maturity and a more relaxed internal state, we are usually better able to accept and welcome differences; we may be less fearful of being judged and less likely to judge others.  Increasingly, there are powerful moments and experiences in our lives that drive us toward connections crossing categories of difference.  Connecting in these ways without the catalyst of a universal tragedy is the ideal.

Here’s where the sport and life part comes in:  As I sit waiting for my daughter’s soccer game to begin, I think about the psychological function of being part of a team and playing other teams, and how that interaction can bring together kids of diverse backgrounds—both as teammates and competitors.  As adults, we have fewer opportunities to participate in team sport, but there are possibilities.  The CrossFit movement is known for bringing people together from vastly different backgrounds. In my recent book, you can find an exploration of this and other forums of connection through group effort, exercise, movement, and sport.   There is a huge variety of affinity groups out there—including bikers and hikers, running communities, backpacking clubs and more—and each can offer connection and shared experiences that feed our souls along with our bodies.

Other opportunities abound, if we are open to them.  The goal is to find ways of tapping into our souls via sustained effort with others, harnessing a drive or desire that moves us on some meaningful level and allows us to experience a common ground we might not otherwise share.  We will be better people, a better species, if we can connect in the present–beyond 9/11 and other shared losses–and allow for the possibility of letting others, no matter our differences, enter our lives.  Is this all too contrived, sentimental or trite?  Could be.  But maybe not.   It’s a risk I’m willing to take this week.