On June 30, 2000, I was 29 years old and found myself mentally, physically, and spiritually bankrupt; devoid of all emotion, lost, and terrified of myself.
I had stuffed every feeling I had down into the depths of my core while trying to look like I had it all together. Those around me knew that I didn’t, but I was in a state of denial until one day I hit my ultimate rock bottom.
That was almost 18 years ago and the last day I drank alcohol.
When I made the decision to get sober, I sought the help of a recovery program. It helped me to find a sober community of people who were living the life I wanted. The program was a springboard that helped me launch a new life, but when I really think about the success of my long-term sobriety, I credit it to fitness.
A year into my sobriety, I started running. I found a positive, healthy community where I began to feel accepted and confident. With every run, I left behind pieces of shame and believed in myself just a little bit more. I had found my new high.
It started with 5K races, then 10K, then half-marathons, and then I eventually left my full-time career to become a personal trainer because I had become so captivated by this new way of living. After being lost for so many years, I felt like I had finally found myself.
Fitness became my life, and it helped me bridge the gap from early recovery to long-term sobriety. Here’s how.
1. Fitness gave me a much-needed community of health-oriented people.
When I got sober, I didn’t have any friends who were healthy. Most of my friends were in the place I just left, and it was dangerous for me to be around them. Other than the new relationships I was building in recovery, I had no healthy friendships, and that was a really lonely and difficult place.
When I started running, I discovered a whole new community of people who were health-orientated. Finding this community solidified the types of friendships I wanted in my life, which left little room for turning back to old behaviors.
2. It helped me feel accomplished and begin to rebuild my self-esteem.
My rock bottom included rock bottom self-esteem. I had none. Zero. Zilch. I had to rebuild everything. Running really fast-tracked that process because with every run I was able to accomplish something challenging, and realizing what I could do made me feel better and better about myself. I started to build a new identity, no longer someone who was at rock bottom but someone who was rising up. Running allowed me to climb my way out of unsound, early recovery and onto more stable ground, with confidence.
3. Fitness also let me form a new identity and discover a sense of purpose.
As I floundered through early sobriety, I also struggled to find a new identity and purpose. Being a part of a running community allowed me to fill that gap by identifying myself as a runner with goals and purpose. Before, in my drinking days, I really didn’t have any direction—so this was new and exciting. I started to take on an identity of someone who had ambition, which was all new to me. Running gave me something constructive to focus on.
4. It gave me a healthy outlet to cope with new challenges and difficult emotions.
For a very long time, I had been coping with the challenges of life in a very unhealthy way. Running and going to the gym gave me a tool that would help me cope with hardships. In exercise, I found a new strategy for dealing with stress, anxiety, and anger—and for once it was productive and satisfying on many levels.
5. And it taught me how to be accountable for my actions.
Through my drinking, I had become quite unreliable. I basically lived life on my terms and when I was hungover or “not into it” I would cancel on friends or appointments.
As part of a community of runners (and especially when I started leading others in that community), I needed to be accountable and do what I said I would do. This new way of living required me to not only show up for others but to learn why I needed to also show up for myself. Bailing on myself all the time weakened my confidence and trust in myself, but my new community encouraged me to show up and rise to each occasion. And my new responsibilities showed me exactly why and how to strive for accountability.
My experience was not unique—there’s a growing movement that champions the power of exercise for long-term recovery.
Eighteen years ago, I hadn’t heard of fitness being a tool to complement recovery, but today I am seeing it pop up on websites, in gyms, and at recovery centers. When people start the process of recovery, they’re often left dealing with the wreckage of their past, loss of friends and family, and the shame and societal stigma surrounding addiction. Fitness communities can be the places where people finally feel accepted, build confidence, and find hope.
One great example is the nonprofit organization The Phoenix, a sober active community that helps individuals recover and take back their lives through fitness. Scott Strode founded The Phoenix after experiencing firsthand the positive impact physical activity can have on recovery. While recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, Strode found self-confidence and a new identity in sports. “Every time I stood on top of a mountain or crossed a finish line, I was a little more a climber, and a little less an addict,” he says. Since 2006, The Phoenix has served over 24,000 individuals. The program, open to anyone with at least 48 hours of sobriety, offers activities that include CrossFit, yoga, boxing, rock climbing, cycling, hiking, and more—at no cost.
Kimberly Ready is the administrative director at Oaks Recovery Center in Greenwood, South Carolina, where in conjunction with their recovery program they offer a “Recover Strong” initiative in partnership with CrossFit Greenwood. Three times a week, residents have the option to attend the local CrossFit gym for a workout. Ready has observed that the residents who participate in the “Recover Strong” program often show increased confidence, a sense of community, and many demonstrate long-term recovery while continuing with their athletic pursuits post-treatment. One former resident at Oaks Recovery Center and a participant of the CrossFit program tells me that it made a big impact on her recovery. “I was looking for something and I couldn’t quite figure it out, so I started the CrossFit program. It was very hard at first, but the more I continued doing it, the better I started to feel both physically and mentally. On March 2, I celebrated two years clean and sober,” she says.
While endorphins alone are hardly enough to keep someone clean and sober for the long-term, fitness, and the community it provides, are proving to change the lives of many people struggling with addiction. It changed mine. Just know that you don’t have to go at this alone—there are people waiting to extend a hand at a meeting or in a gym where you can sweat, and thrive, together.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to learn how to find help. If you are looking for an active recovery community, visit The Phoenix to see if there’s a facility in your city. To donate to The Phoenix’s program, now in nine states and growing, click here.
Louise Green is a plus-size trainer, founder of the fitness program Body Exchange, and author of Big Fit Girl: Embrace the Body You Have. Follow: Instagram @LouiseGreen_BigFitGirl, Twitter @Bigfitgirl, Facebook @louisegreen.bigfitgirl