Most people do not associate fitness with politics or activism. Most folks simply see fitness as a means to stay healthy, look good, or just as a form of recreation; however, exercise and fitness have implications far beyond the mundane. You may have heard the phrase “A fascist worked out today, did you?” It is with this perspective that many members of both the left and marginalized groups need to include with their approach to fitness. As someone who is both a leftist and a gym rat, I’ve observed that there is little overlap between the two groups; most leftists I’ve met are not involved with athletics or fitness, and the majority of fitness enthusiasts I’ve met are largely apolitical and the ones that are tend to be conservative or right-wing.
At first glance this seems to be a mere coincidence (to some extent maybe it is), however one would be surprised at how right-wing politics are connected to fitness culture. The first place where we might see this is with CrossFit. While CrossFit as a form of exercise or sport isn’t necessarily tied with right wing ideology, CrossFit as a company came under fire in early June of 2020, when the CEO and owner of the company, Greg Glassman, mocked the civil unrest in America as “FLOYD-19” via Twitter. He later expressed to affiliates that “he does not mourn the death of George Floyd.” Moreover, CrossFit has largely pandered to members of law enforcement, even so far as to train the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department, and in turn many conservatives are CrossFit enthusiasts. A 2008 article on CrossFit.com had to address the number of right-wing political comments that were made on their “rest day” online forum. Cross-fitter and former Ranger, Russel Berger, commented, “I started paying attention to the CrossFit website four years ago…Recently, I’ve noticed more and more complaints about the less-noticeable information posted alongside the Workout of the Day. Right-leaning political commentary, articles, and studies are occasionally popping up on rest-day postings. To some this is a perverse and offensive combination…”
A lesser known example (yet probably more relevant to members in the metal music scene) of right wing fitness culture is the Operation Werewolf movement and the Wolves of Vinland. According to Rose City Antifa, “Drawing upon a mix of motivational speaking, weightlifting, hand to hand and tactical arms training, hyper-masculinity and pre-Christian Germanic religion, the Wolves of Vinland (WoV) have situated themselves as the group du jour on the countercultural Right. The group expresses an elitist and patriarchal worldview, much of which is copied from the philosophy of Julius Evola. Evola considered himself to be to the Right even of fascism; however Evola was attracted to the Nazi SS as a model of the sort of “elite” he wished to cultivate, and moved to Nazi Germany after the fall of Fascism in Italy.”
While Wolves of Vinland may be considered just a bunch of scared reactionary white dudes who are few in number, the fact that the left has no answer to their organization is concerning, especially since they are actively trying to recruit new members through the feeder clubs of Operation Werewolf. Where are the leftist powerlifters, martial artists, and triathletes? How would we fair in a fight or standoff with adversaries like these?
This raises another point of concern: physical conflict at protests and demonstrations. From Charlottesville to Portland, we’ve seen leftist and antifascist protesters clash with armed right-wing counter-protesters (many of whom were members of the alt-right and white supremacist organizations). It would make sense that, in the event of a street fight, one would want to not only be well versed in combat skills (i.e. martial arts), but to also have the physical strength and endurance to defeat one’s enemies. To put in very simple terms: the more you lift, the better you are at punching Nazis! The more you do cardio, the better you are at running away from the police!
Another way to look at it is to imagine just how much more intimidating leftists and anti-fascists would be if they were built and conditioned like powerlifters, UFC fighters, and other athletes. Not only would the pejorative of ‘liberal cuck’ become laughably inapplicable, the right will have to think twice before physically attacking protesters at the next BLM rally.
This also goes beyond mere perception, in which physical fitness and athleticism improve self-confidence and mental health. Many people have used physical exercise – whether it’s weight lifting or long-distance running – as a means to cope with depression and improve mental health. I can affirm this from my own personal experience, in which I gained greater self-confidence, more energy, and felt comfortable in my own skin after taking up weight lifting and swimming.
Moreover, fitness and exercise can be very empowering, especially for women/femme folks and the LGBT+ community. For women/femme folks, athletic activities like martial arts and weightlifting are not only a source of personal empowerment, but also help defy patriarchal and rigid gender roles/sexist stereotypes of femininity, namely that women are soft, frail, petite, and weak, rather than agile, muscular and strong. Often these sexist beliefs are verbalized as “Don’t get too fit,” or “You’ll look like a man” as a means of reaffirming gender norms. One can look no further than to athletes such as Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes that have rebelled (whether overtly or by simply being whom they are) against these expectations of women. With regards to feminism, a body-positive fitness culture is extremely complementary, as women and feminine-identifying people are engaging in exercise and fitness for themselves and for practical purposes (being strong, fast, flexible, etc.) rather than for the appearances and expectations of patriarchy. A great example is the Solstar gym in London that’s based on feminist and antifascist principles.
For queer individuals, physical fitness and prowess also defy negative stereotypes of excessive effeminacy and weakness. Such a development would simultaneously destroy common perceptions of LGBT culture and intimidate homo/transphobes who have to accept the fact that being a queer doesn’t make you weak or gutless, and may actually make you the opposite. Put as a single phrase, “Yeah I’m queer, I squat 225, and I can kick your ass!”
Essentially, if the left is to be a force to be reckoned with, a culture of physical fitness is essential, not only in the event of a protest or physical confrontation, but also as a means of personal empowerment. If one is to combat oppression or wage revolution, one should be in the best fighting shape they can be. It must become part of the common sense of any serious leftist that health and fitness are important facets of activist or revolutionary praxis. That being said, I want to make it clear that such a fitness culture must be serious yet body-positive and self-affirming, and not based in vanity or toxic masculinity. While it is important, physical fitness isn’t the be-all-and-end-all either, and there are other ways to improve and empower oneself. It must be understood that we are all different and have our own limits and abilities, and we shouldn’t be hyper-critical of ourselves if we fall short of certain expectations, so long as we are putting in a sincere effort. This attitude is best embodied by the mantra “Do your best and forget the rest,” and is one that complements the spirit of a fitness oriented left.
McAleavy, Emma. “There’s a Schism Happening Inside CrossFit.” Outside Online, Outside Magazine, 26 June 2020, www.outsideonline.com/2414895/crossfit-greg-glassman-future-racism.
“The Politics of CrossFit by Russell Berger and Dan Freedman.” CrossFit Journal, journal.crossfit.com/2008/11/the-politics-of-crossfit.tpl.
“The Wolves of Vinland: a Fascist Countercultural ‘Tribe’ in the Pacific Northwest.” Rose City Antifa, rosecityantifa.org/articles/the-wolves-of-vinland-a-fascist-countercultural-tribe-in-the-pacific-northwest/.
Samantha Schmidt, Fenit Nirappil. “Right-Wing Protesters Gather Outside Portland, Adding to Tensions.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/09/07/rochester-protests-daniel-prude/.
How to Physically Prepare for a Protest, www.vice.com/en_us/article/akzezp/how-to-physically-prepare-for-a-protest.
“How Weight Lifting Helped Me Recover.” National Eating Disorders Association, 7 Mar. 2019, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/how-weight-lifting-helped-me-recover.
“Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 27 Sept. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495.
Fighting Fascism at the UK’s Feminist Antifa Martial Arts Gym, www.vice.com/en_us/article/8xb985/solstar-feminist-antifa-gym-interview.