How One Gym Uses Exercise to Fight Addiction
Nonprofit the Phoenix has a radical idea for those recovering from drug and alcohol addictions—get moving
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It was late 2016, and Whitney Mielke was nearly two years sober. Despite this accomplishment, she still couldn’t dispel the internal voice that told her she wasn’t good enough. Being uncomfortable in her own skin was a familiar sensation. It’s part of what led her to develop an eating disorder and start regularly getting black-out drunk as a teenager. And it’s not like she felt she could share these problems with others. “It was always a big secret,” says Mielke, now 33.
Through her addiction and years of recovery, Mielke had lost the strength, discipline, and love of physical activity she once had as a high school athlete on the soccer, volleyball, and track teams. Even after reaching sobriety, she was intimidated by gyms, too scared to even walk in the front door. But her then boyfriend, Mike, wouldn’t stop talking about the Phoenix, a downtown Denver workout space for people recovering from various addictions, where he was taking CrossFit classes. The nonprofit was founded in 2006 by 33-year-old triathlete and climber Scott Strode after experiencing firsthand how sports and adventure outings assisted in his own recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. The Phoenix offers a variety of workout classes and hosts outdoor group activities like bike rides and hikes. It’s all free—the only requirement is that participants have been sober for at least 48 hours.
Soon Mielke gave in to Mike’s pestering and tagged along with him to her first CrossFit session. “I wanted to have the courage to try things,” she says. Like every class at the gym, hers began with an icebreaker, where people said their names and shared a fact about themselves with the group. The exercise signaled to Mielke that this wasn’t a typical workout class. “I immediately felt like the judgment of what I could do was dropped. Me being there was enough,” she says. She looked around and saw that people were joking and laughing—even the large tattooed men that towered over her. They all seemed genuinely interested in who she was. Knowing that everyone was sober also made Mielke more comfortable; she already had something in common with the group. “I’ve always set these really unreasonable expectations for myself and then beat myself up when I don’t achieve them. To have somebody really proud of me for showing up and trying, that was a big deal for me,” she says. “That gave me the motivation to keep trying.”
It wasn’t long before she was attending classes three times a week, arriving early and staying late to chat with others. “It was like we were talking about the past but doing something in the present, and there’s something about it that shook me. I was able to separate who I am from who I’d always thought I was,” says Mielke. Now she’s helping others. Four months ago, she joined the Phoenix staff full-time as a manager, using her skills as a licensed clinical social worker. “One of the things I was looking for in my life were ways to find more joy,” she says. “This became a really big source of joy.”
The benefits of exercise on physical and mental health have been well chronicled. But recently, researchers have begun exploring the idea that exercise could be a boon for individuals struggling with and recovering from substance-use disorders (SUDs). According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 20 million Americans ages 12 or older are dealing with SUDs, and close to four million received substance-use treatment that year. Solving this public-health issue is not just about helping people get clean, though; it’s also about finding effective ways of convincing them to stay clean—40 to 60 percent of those in drug-addiction treatment relapse. “[Some] of the things that influence relapse rates in individuals who undergo addiction treatment is depression and mood and lack of coping strategies,” says Ana Abrantes, associate director of behavioral medicine and addictions research at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island. Exercise, in conjunction with SUD treatment, could help counteract those issues.
This field of study is still fairly new. The earliest research on exercise and addiction dates back to the 1970s, but the first National Institute on Drug Abuse–funded studies looking at the relationship between the two didn’t launch until the early 2000s. And most of the studies that have been conducted are too small to make wide-ranging conclusions. But there is early evidence that exercise could be an effective, adjunct addiction intervention. It’s been shown to reduce cravings for alcohol and cigarettes, lower stress levels, and assuage anxiety, which is common among those experiencing withdrawal. “When people start moving, they start to feel more confident. They feel a sense of mastery,” says Doug Jowdy, a Denver-based counseling and sports psychologist who has been sober and in recovery for more than 20 years. He says that so long as it’s done properly and people don’t push themselves too hard too quickly, “exercise is one of the most powerful interventions.”
Part of that power comes from exercise’s neurological influence, restoring connections thrown off by substance use. Drugs and alcohol flood the reward pathway of the brain with dopamine; over time the brain remembers the good feeling and craves it. Conversely, heavy drinking can lead to significant drops in dopamine levels, causing people to drink more to boost their moods. But two recent rat-based studies out of the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions showed that animals tasked with running on a treadmill five days a week restored their dopamine levels, and aerobic exercise prevented stress-induced cocaine relapses. “[Through exercise] the brain’s neurochemistry is impacted in a way that’s consistent with how you would go about trying to treat addiction,” says Panayotis Thanos, the senior research scientist who led the studies.
While findings on animals don’t always translate to humans, according to researchers, the results are promising enough to encourage further study. There are still plenty of unanswered questions, including how much and which type of exercise is best. “There’s a long way to go when it comes to using movement in a therapeutic way,” Jowdy says. Abrantes, who’s been studying the connection between exercise and addiction for 16 years, agrees. “I really do think it’s a valuable part of recovery. I just don’t know if we’ve figured out exactly how to do it,” she says. “I feel confident saying that acute bouts of physical activity improve your mood and decrease your cravings. Whether that leads to long-term sustained abstinence, I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, the Phoenix is growing. Since its founding in Colorado, its programs have expanded to 20 communities in 13 states, reaching more than 26,000 people. Other recovery-and-exercise-focused organizations have popped up as well, such as Salt Lake City’s Fit To Recover, Nevada’s Black Iron Gym, and the Boston-based NamaStay Sober.
At one of the Phoenix’s kettlebell training classes in downtown Denver in September, 12 people warmed up on exercise bikes and rowers in a large brick-walled room. There to teach was Mike, who is now married to Whitney and a graduate of the workforce development program that helps clients pursue personal-training or CrossFit-teaching certifications. He gathered the group together and started walking them through kettlebell basics. A wall behind him highlighted the month’s sobriety anniversaries, which ranged from a couple of months to a few years.
In talking with members, the nonprofit’s staff and trainers have found that the workouts and outdoor excursions offer a safe social outlet, boost self-confidence, hold people accountable, and reduce feelings of isolation and hopelessness that often accompany the recovery process. “People aren’t here for fitness goals. They’re here for recovery support,” says Dana Smith, the Phoenix’s director of programs and partnerships in Colorado. She’s been sober for more than nine years.
That support system is key. According to the Phoenix’s member surveys, 86 percent of its active members are still sober after six months of participation, and two-thirds of those who have relapsed pointed to the Phoenix as helping them return to sobriety. The peer-to-peer program—almost all of the gym’s coaches and staffers are in long-term recovery themselves—isn’t meant to be a replacement for drug-treatment programs, but the nonprofit does serve as an outlet for individuals trying to maintain a sober lifestyle. Beyond the classes and adventure activities, the organization also hosts sober holiday parties and barbecues.
As Smith observed the class, she rattled off some of the misconceptions that follow and hinder drug and alcohol users as they attempt to start a new life: Sobriety sucks. Recovery is isolating. People who are overdosing can’t be helped. “None of those things are true,” she says. “Recovery is this fun and rewarding and fulfilling and hopeful place to be.” The Phoenix, she believes, is proof. “The stigma is those images we see on the news of despair and overdosing and the opioid crisis. Some of those things are happening and are real, but this is happening, too,” she says, as the participants transitioned into a set of kettlebell swings. “This is what recovery looks like.”