“CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community,” - Ali Huberlie. Photo from New York Times

“CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community,” – Ali Huberlie. Photo from New York Times

Ali Huberlie, a 27-year-old education consultant in Boston, awakens at 4:45 every morning to go to her CrossFit “box,” or gym, where she spends two hours. When she and her boyfriend, whom she met through CrossFit, went apartment-hunting, they chose a neighborhood near their box.

This year, as a student at Harvard Business School, Huberlie wrote a case study about a founder of CrossFit that was incorporated into the school’s curriculum. And when Harvard Divinity School researchers were studying spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities, they interviewed Huberlie.

“CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community. I can’t imagine my life without the people I’ve met through it,” – Ali Huberlie.

Some members compare the community aspect of CrossFit to that of church. Photo from New York Times

Some members compare the community aspect of CrossFit to that of church. Photo from New York Times

A for-profit gym franchise founded in 2000 that now has 13,000 licensed operators serving at least two million exercisers, CrossFit — like television, sports fandom and health fads — has become the focus of study by researchers trying to pinpoint what constitutes religiosity in America.

After all, it’s surprisingly hard to say what makes a religion. Huberlie speaks about her box as others might speak about a church or synagogue community. The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans.

Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, the Harvard Divinity School students who wrote “How We Gather,” were hosts of a talk this month, “CrossFit as Church?!” with Greg Glassman, co-founder of CrossFit. About 100 people attended, far more of them local CrossFit enthusiasts than ministerial students.“We’re saving lives, and saving a lot of them,” Glassman said.

“Three hundred fifty thousand Americans are going to die next year from sitting on the couch. That’s dangerous. The TV is dangerous. Squatting isn’t.”

Alex Larcom, left, and Ali Huberlie stretching together at CrossFit Boston. Both women met their partners through the CrossFit community. Photo from New York Times

Alex Larcom, left, and Ali Huberlie stretching together at CrossFit Boston. Both women met their partners through the CrossFit community. Photo from New York Times

For Joseph L. Price, who teaches religion and popular culture at Whittier College in California, the key criterion is whether a given activity establishes a worldview.

“To what extent is the worldview of the CrossFitters determined by their practices, their aspirations for the perfect body, or for the most fit male or female in the world?” Professor Price said in a recent interview. “Does their aspiration for fitness shape their view of how their world is ordered and organized?”

Skeptics might scoff that CrossFit is just a gym. But in an interview this week, Glassman said that for many participants it is obviously much more.

“Down the road,” Glassman said, the core CrossFit values — which he defined as accountability, community and personal transformation — will “translate into, ‘I’m going to take my Camry into the Toyota dealer tomorrow, and will someone from the gym pick me up?’ And of course they will. ‘I’m going to move — will people from the gym help me?’ Of course they will.”

Huberlie described the CrossFit experience as an intimate, supportive one, in which cheering for one another to meet fitness goals was expected. It is a culture that can produce effects more often associated with church.

“There is something raw and vulnerable that happens to you when you go into the CrossFit gym. A workout can bring you to your knees, so to speak.” Ali Huberlie said.

Read more at NYTimes.com