Opinion | The Church of Group Fitness

This is a follow-up to my series on Americans moving away from organized religion. Read part one, part two, part three, part four and part five.

When Sydney Schnurr’s husband was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, right in the middle of Covid, her local hiking group in Colorado showed up for her right away. Just a few days after word of his illness got out, someone in the group set up a meal train for the days her husband was in treatment and fellow hikers offered to drive them on their long trips to the hospital.

Schnurr, who is 70 and describes herself as a “recovering P.K.” — preacher’s kid — was raised Episcopalian and said that she’ll never go back to the institutional church. But her hiking group, which is locally run, “feels like a church,” she said, because the people in it “take care of each other.” Though everyone doesn’t go on every hike, the group has around 100 people, and smaller groups will get together for other activities like book clubs, skiing or even traveling.

The last installment of my series on Americans moving away from organized religion was about the sense of community as the one inarguably positive attribute of mainstream houses of worship that can be tough to replicate in the secular world. After that story ran, I heard from readers about ways they’ve been able to form close bonds after they’d stopped attending services, and group athletics came up over and over as a way that people are creating community in the 21st century.

Some readers mentioned fandom as a bonding mechanism — World Cup enthusiasts and participants in fantasy football leagues, for instance, are creating ongoing relationships. But mostly I heard from people who bonded through athletic activities. Some talked about clubs that formed organically in their neighborhoods or towns, like that Colorado hiking group. But many who answered the questionnaire I launched in April about moving away from organized religion talked about replacing their weekend worship with SoulCycle, CrossFit or Orangetheory, and finding friends and even some spiritual solace in those activities. (In case you’re wondering, I’m an Orangetheorist and a SoulCycle dropout, though I can’t say I’ve ever felt a metaphysical connection to either one.)

Jeffrey Johnson, 62, who lives in Illinois just north of St. Louis, first heard about CrossFit from someone he met on a church mission trip to Haiti. He and his wife tried a few different churches, but stopped attending services because the ones they had joined felt too cliquish. But they found community — and more — in CrossFit, a group class that involves a variety of high-intensity exercises and weight lifting. “The one thing I feel out of CrossFit is, it’s kind of goofy, but it’s unconditional love,” Johnson told me. “Like, my coaches, even if I don’t hit the mark, whatever that mark is, they still care for me.”

Casper ter Kuile, the author of “The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices,” studied CrossFit and SoulCycle when he was a student at Harvard Divinity School, and told me that he observed some of the “mutuality” that Johnson experienced when he talked to CrossFit devotees. CrossFitters write down their fitness goals on a whiteboard and, whether a goal is comparatively big or small, “goals are honored with the same amount of dignity and celebration.” There’s a feeling that you have the agency to meet your goals and that the community is also involved in your success. There’s also a lot of evangelizing for CrossFit that can parallel the outreach or recruitment aspect of religious worship.

CrossFit also has parallels with some religious organizations in terms of the potential to alienate people who disagree with conservative-aligned beliefs. In 2020, the CrossFit founder Greg Glassman stepped down from his role as chief executive of the company after he made inflammatory statements about George Floyd and Covid. In 2021, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela wrote a guest essay for Times Opinion about breaking up with the “cult” of SoulCycle. Petrzela described an unsavory side of group fitness involving entitled star instructors and the businesses that profit from them.

Still, there are many positives to glean from group fitness. Ter Kuile and his co-author Angie Thurston published some of those encouraging findings in a paper called “How We Gather.” In it, they note the general move away from organized religion in American culture and highlight secular organizations that are creating deep bonds in ways they describe as “powerful, surprising and perhaps even religious.” These organizations, they explain, “epitomize” a combination six qualities: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity and accountability.

SoulCycle even mimics some of the emotional beats and physical qualities of a church service. Ter Kuile and Thurston have described the “soul sanctuary,” where classes are held, and the way “Every SoulCycle ‘journey’ has a similar arc, which peaks during a hill ballad when riders turn up the resistance dial on their stationary bike and climb uphill in the dark.” The reader Susana Odriozola, 40, who lives in California and was raised Catholic, though she no longer goes to church, said that parts of the SoulCycle experience reminded her of going to Mass: They throw water out to you and you turn to your neighbors and greet them.

(Two of SoulCycle’s founders have made the “Soul” part more explicit with a new company called Peoplehood, which is working to create group connections.)

For those who might dismiss all this out of hand — I can hear some of you scoffing at the idea that riding a stationary bike can push the same emotional buttons as traditional worship — there’s evidence that doing the same movements in a group can open you up to prosocial behavior.

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the host of the “How God Works” podcast, told me that when people are engaged in synchronous activity, “think of pedaling bikes together, think of lifting weights together, dancing together, whatever it might be, that is a marker to the mind that these individuals are part of a larger whole.” DeSteno’s research has found that when people do a synchronous activity together, they’ll be more sensitive to the plight of other people in the room, and more likely to help them if they ask for help. Other research on group dancing has shown that moving together increases feelings of group bonding and can even raise one’s pain threshold.

One part of churchgoing that's tougher to satisfy with group fitness is the multigenerational inclusiveness of those spaces. You’re not going to bring a little kid to a CrossFit box. And though Schnurr told me that people bring their families hiking, her own experience is that some of her grandkids love it, but others, not so much. I’ve tried to drag my kids along on various hikes and climbs and, similarly, it’s not always a hit. Like me, Odriozola said she’s still trying to figure out how to give her children “spiritual strength without religion,” and that is an ongoing journey. And there are fitness spaces that are difficult to access or inaccessible for those who have mobility and health challenges.

As I said at the outset of my series, I have no dog in the fight of whether people are religious, or how they incorporate spirituality in their lives. I do think it’s important for people to feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and the people I spoke to were getting that out of their group classes. Johnson described it as “getting fed.” The megachurch he last attended wasn’t feeding him the way CrossFit does. “I always felt like going to the service was like going to a performance,” he said, and that just didn’t hold meaning for him anymore.

I want to hear from you about ways you’re deriving meaning or creating community if you’ve moved away from organized religion or haven’t had it in your life previously. Drop me a line here if you want to share your story, and I may contact you for a future newsletter.

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