Are You a Cultish Devotee to Your Exercise Regimen?

New research shows that when people feel out of control, they look for security in hardcore, gut-busting exercise. Are you drinking the fitness fad kool-aid?

Time magazine, drawing on a study from the Journal of Consumer Research called “Doing It the Hard Way: How Low Control Drives Preferences for High-Effort Products and Services,” notes that exercise groups these days kinda look like Cobra Kai from The Karate Kid — culty and intense, in so many words.

In the research, Keisha M. Cutright and Adriana Samper found that people sometimes use exercise to exorcise (had to, sorry) demons from other parts of their life. For example, pushing your body to lift more weights can be painful, but the victory of mind over matter is also empowering. It can also be a pleasant contrast to other life experiences where a person might feel like a pawn.

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Dr. Brock Bastian, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, has conducted dozens of experiments examining the psychological interconnectedness of pain and pleasure. ... One of his experiments asked people to recall a time when they’d acted immorally. Following those thoughts, these study participants held their hands in icy water longer than did people who had not been primed to recall a moral transgression. Similarly, “Going on a hard run is perhaps a convenient way to make ourselves feel better after we’ve behaved badly,” Bastian explains. “It makes us feel like the scales of justice have been rebalanced.”

Cutright points out that within an exercise regiment like CrossFit, people can thrive on the structure and competition while working out their issues. Bastian adds that enduring pain in front of a crowd can make you seem “tolerant, persistent and strong” to others, which is another form of control and superiority.

On the flip side, all of this control can be bad for people who can’t handle all of that power. Those with lower self-esteem can be more willing to suffer because they feel they deserve it and will exercise despite injuries or physical complications that would put most on the sidelines.

Sure, if you're exercising, you're doing it for the sake of your health (broadly speaking). But it can't hurt to be in tune to some underlying psychological motivations, if you have them.

Image via Karate Kid.