Pandemic Fitness Trends Have Reached New Heights

The far right appears to have taken advantage of widespread at-home exercise trends to further radicalize the physical mixed martial arts (MMA) and combat sports areas, which has been going on for more than a decade.

Researchers discovered earlier this month that a network of online “fascist fitness” chat groups on the encrypted Telegram platform are recruiting and radicalizing young men with neo-Nazi and white supremacist extreme ideas. New recruits are first enticed with health recommendations and methods for favorable physical changes, and then invited to closed chat groups where far-right propaganda is disseminated.

The far right has always placed a premium on physical health. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler was fascinated by boxing and jujitsu, believing that they could help him build a mass army whose combative spirit and superbly trained bodies, along with “fanatical love of the fatherland,” would do more for the German country than any “mediocre” technical weapons training.

Far-right organizations have opened mixed martial arts and boxing clubs in Ukraine, Canada, and France, among other locations, to teach far-right nationalists brutal hand-to-hand combat and street-fighting methods. It has piqued the interest of intelligence agencies around the world, particularly in Europe, where several investigations have pointed to the role of combat sports and mixed martial arts (MMA) in radicalising and supporting far-right violence. In places like Germany, Poland, and the United Kingdom, a succession of coordinated efforts between governments, national sports groups, and local gyms have established intervention and prevention programs.

white fight club

The United States is lagging behind, which will only worsen as the movement spreads across the country, drawing on the already-established fight-club culture of MMA far-right radicals. For example, the leader of a Maryland skinhead gang once managed a gym dedicated to “recruiting and training white supremacists in mixed martial arts.” After the 2017 Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, four members or associates of the racist, violent Rise Above Movement (RAM), the self-described “primary MMA club of the Alt-Right,” pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot. On Jan. 6, last year, an online propagandist for that now-defunct organization was spotted among demonstrators. When members of the white supremacist Patriot Front marched in Washington, D.C. in December 2021, they were joined by a new media outlet founded by RAM’s founder, Robert Rundo, who is seeking to establish a network of far-right MMA “Active Clubs” in the United States and internationally.

Extremism and fitness collide to form a common obsession with the masculine physique, training, masculinity, testosterone, strength, and competition. For a variety of reasons, physical fitness training, particularly in combat sports, appeals to the extreme right: combatants are taught to accept substantial physical suffering, to be “warriors,” and to embrace messages of solidarity, heroism, and brotherhood. It’s being promoted as a tool to aid in the fight against the “coming race war” and the street conflicts that will follow. Individual moral attributes such as willpower, decisiveness, and courage are urged to be linked to desired communal traits such as virility and manliness. This also operates in reverse, with white nationalists pushing potential recruits or activists to maintain good physical fitness as a means of controlling their public image. Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi writer, told his followers that “fat people” should be obliged to commit to losing weight in order to stay active with groups or in-person events, and that “continuing obesity should not be accepted.”

We’re seeing extremist fighting culture mixed with an entertainment culture that already valorizes violence and hypermasculinity, with recruitment going from physical gyms to chat rooms, livestreamed bouts, competitions, festivals, and even combat sports video games.

For many people, fitness is both a need and a pastime, and it is both fun and rewarding in terms of brain health and overall well-being. Dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin are all released in ways that make you feel good. Combining those feelings with cruel and demeaning ideologies, as well as propagating the idea that physical warriors are required to build the strength and domination necessary to defend one’s people against an imagined adversary, creates a dangerous and effective radicalization cocktail.

Understanding how far-right groups attract and socialise youth — in ways that go well beyond speech and beliefs — is critical for those of us seeking to create better ways to reach at-risk adolescents. It’s vital for leaders in the fitness industry, such as parents, physical trainers, gym owners, coaches, and others, to understand how online grooming and recruitment connect with areas that we typically think of as encouraging health and well-being. The world of online fitness has opened up a new and ever-expanding market for reaching and radicalising young men, and it takes our focused attention and resources to break the cycle.

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