Pandemic fitness trends have gone extreme – literally

It appears the far right has taken advantage of pandemic at-home fitness trends to expand its decade-plus radicalization of physical mixed martial arts (MMA) and combat sports spaces.

Initially lured with health tips and strategies for positive physical changes, new recruits are later invited to closed chat groups where far-right content is shared.

Earlier this month, researchers reported that a network of online “fascist fitness” chat groups on the encrypted platform Telegram are recruiting and radicalizing young men with neo-Nazi and white supremacist extremist ideologies. Initially lured with health tips and strategies for positive physical changes, new recruits are later invited to closed chat groups where far-right content is shared.

Physical fitness has always been central to the far right. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler fixated on boxing and jujitsu, believing they could help him create an army of millions whose aggressive spirit and impeccably trained bodies, combined with “fanatical love of the fatherland,” would do more for the German nation than any “Mediocre” tactical weapons training.

In more modern times, far-right groups have launched mixed martial arts and boxing gyms in Ukraine, Canada and France, among other places, focused on training far-right nationalists in violent hand-to-hand combat and street-fighting techniques. It’s caught the attention of intelligence authorities, especially in Europe, where various reports have noted the role of combat sports and MMA in radicalizing and promoting far-right violence. A series of collaborative efforts between governments, national sports associations, and local gyms in places such as Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom have introduced intervention and prevention programs.

The intersection of extremism and fitness leans into a shared obsession with the male body, training, masculinity, testosterone, strength and competition.

The US is comparatively far behind, which will only become more and more problematic, especially since the phenomenon is growing in the country, building on the established fight-club culture of MMA far-right extremists. The leader of a Maryland skinhead group, for example, once ran a gym to “recruit and train white supremacists in mixed martial arts.” Four members or associates of the racist, violent Rise Above Movement (RAM), the self-described “premier MMA club of the Alt-Right,” pled guilty to conspiracy to riot after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. An online propagandist for that now-defunct group was spotted among protesters on Jan. 6 last year. When members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front marched in Washington, DC, in December 2021, they were accompanied by a new media outlet created by RAM’s founder, Robert Rundo, who is working to create a network of far-right MMA “Active Clubs “In the US and abroad.

The intersection of extremism and fitness leans into a shared obsession with the male body, training, masculinity, testosterone, strength and competition. Physical fitness training, especially in combat sports, appeals to the far right for many reasons: fighters are trained to accept significant physical pain, to be “warriors,” and to embrace messaging around solidarity, heroism, and brotherhood. It’s championed as a tool to help fight the “coming race war” and the street battles that will precede it. Recruits are encouraged to link individual moral virtues such as willpower, decisiveness and courage, with desired collective traits such as virility and manliness. This also works in reverse, with white supremacists encouraging potential recruits or activists to stay in good physical shape as a way of managing self-presentation to the public. The neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin advised his followers that “fat people” should be required to commit to losing weight if they are to stay involved with groups or in-person gatherings, noting that “continued obesity should not be tolerated.”

We’re seeing extremist fighting culture being combined with an entertainment culture that already valorizes violence and hypermasculinity.

With recruitment now moving from physical gyms to chat rooms, livestreamed fights, tournaments, festivals, and even combat sports video games, we’re seeing extremist fighting culture being combined with an entertainment culture that already valorizes violence and hypermasculinity.

Fitness of course is a staple and a hobby for many people, for whom it is enjoyable and rewarding for brain health and overall well-being. Physical fitness channels dopamine, adrenalin and serotonin in ways that literally feel good. Intertwining those feelings with hateful and dehumanizing ideas, while promoting the concept that physical warriors are needed to create the strength and dominance to defend one’s people from a perceived enemy, makes for a dangerous and powerful cocktail of radicalization.

For those of us working to find better pathways to reach at-risk youth, understanding the ways that far-right groups recruit and socialize youth – in ways that go well beyond rhetoric and ideas – is crucial. It’s critical that leaders, including parents, physical trainers, gym owners, coaches and others in the fitness world understand how online grooming and recruitment can intersect with spaces that we generally think of as promoting health and well-being. The realm of online fitness now provides a new and ever-expanding market for reaching and radicalizing young men; and it requires our targeted focus and resources to try and stop the cycle.

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