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How Exercise Keeps You Sober


Exercise in Addiction: Too Much of A Good Thing?

By Jennifer Matesa


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Crandell knows about addicts and suicide: his mother and his uncle, both addicts, killed themselves. Crandell began drinking and using drugs early in his teens; a few years later, his addiction ended his potential pro hockey career. He knows obsessiveness is part of his nature, yet he is sincere in his assertion that he doesn’t give a shit whether he wins or loses.

“I remember a guy came up to me in Mexico and said, ‘I beat you in such-and-such a race.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, don’t put that on a resume—everybody beats me,’” he says. “I could care less about my times. I’m not one of these guys that’s like, I gotta beat my transition time by 30 seconds or my race is a failure. There’s nothing wrong with having goals and working your ass off to achieve those goals. But you have to enjoy the ride, and enjoy the accomplishment while you’re setting the next goal.”

One addiction counselor conducts interventions for private, well-heeled clients who just want to stop drinking and using and who ignore the fact that their lives and bodies are falling apart. He uses exercise as a way into “the profound psychic change that recovery is supposed to be.”

“The old thing with people going to AA meetings and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes—to me it’s not real recovery,” says Dan Cronin, 60, an addictions interventionist based in Pasadena who has 21 years sober from, as he says, “all of the above.” Cronin races Ironman triathlons to raise money for the Veterans Health Initiative, which provides treatment for addicted veterans. He has worked in substance abuse counseling for national-league hockey and major-league soccer for more than a decade.

And he conducts interventions for private, well-heeled clients who just want to stop drinking and using and who ignore the fact that their lives and bodies are falling apart. He uses exercise as a way into “the profound psychic change that recovery is supposed to be.”

“I tell them, ‘You’re sober, and now what?’” he says. “Most of these people haven't lost all their money, their wives, their families. What can you talk to them about? I ask them, ‘Is this what you worked your whole life for?—Your wife can’t stand you, neither can your kids. You’re 100 lbs. overweight, you look like crap, you’ve got a bad attitude, and you think you’re doing good because you’ve got money in the bank?’”

Cronin—a lifelong athlete who maintained his fitness, he said, even during the years he was getting loaded—works to help clients counter their unrealistic expectations: “We’re talking about people with obsessive qualities—they haven’t run in 10 years and they’re gonna go out and run a marathon.” He uses exercise to teach them how to gauge their own limitations and abilities. As they make progress, their blood-pressure, cholesterol, and stress levels decrease and their accountability and “manageability levels” rise. “I see people who not only feel better about themselves, but they feel better about everything.”

I asked him about the limits of trying, of recovery—physical, mental, spiritual, whatever—of working, as they say, “if you work it.” Is constant pressure to achieve better outcomes won at the expense of self-acceptance? At 60, is he bugged by the knowledge of all the limits on his abilities? To answer, Cronin talks about that mysterious thing that Trivedi calls “neuroplasticity,” and that people in recovery call “surrender.”

“I know I couldn’t run a three-hour marathon on a bet or with somebody chasing me. I know that,” he says. “I must play a million mind-games out there. There’s always one point during the [Ironman] run where I know that if I walked the rest of the course I’d finish in less than 17 hours—I tell myself, Somebody’s already gotten the $15K, I’m sure there’s still a T-shirt out there.

“There’s nothing like that feeling of just letting it go. Go for an easy run. It’s not always about having to train hard or train long. It’s more about just getting out there and doing it."

Jennifer Matesa writes about addiction and recovery on her blog, Guinevere Gets Sober. She writes features and blog posts for The Fix. She is the author of two books of nonfiction about women and health.

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