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Getting Ripped (Muscles, That Is)

Turns out that walking to the barstool and reaching for the remote—our main forms of exercise when we’re using—aren’t all that effective. Ruth Fowler examines workout possibilities for the newly sober set.

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Shaping up in sobriety Thinkstock

By Ruth Fowler

06/07/11

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It’s December 2006 and I’m running in Central Park. I’ve been running for about five hours now, and my calves’ ache, my knees hurt, my arms burn, my feet are sore, my lungs sting. I can feel all this, but I just don’t listen to it. I listen to the beat of my heart in my ears: the regular, rhythmic tread as sneaker hits earth, my breath perfectly timed with the regular swing of my arms, the beautiful moment in running when you hit routine. Somewhere near the 72nd Transverse, a girl jogs past me. She’s brunette, pretty, clear-skinned, sunny, smiling. She looks like the kind of girl I want to be. She probably has a pretty one-bedroom with hardwood floors in the West Village, a good job at some hip magazine, a great wardrobe, and a kind, sexy boyfriend who went to Yale. Alternatively, she may be a part-time tweaker, but let’s persist in the belief she’s a beautiful person. She jogs right up close to me, looks at the New York Road Runners ticket pinned to my chest, and says in the sweetest voice: “82184! You’re my hero!” and runs on. Being a bit of a pussy, high on adrenalin and endorphins, tired and emotional, I weep for the next 20 minutes, but keep running. I finish the 60km Ultra-Marathon in six hours and 59 minutes.

Five months earlier, I was working four nights a week in a strip club called VIP, drinking a bottle of vodka a night, smoking 40 cigarettes, and snorting coke whenever it crossed my path. I wasn’t anyone’s hero—least of all my own.

“Sports helped me change my self image, and repair the shame, guilt and self loathing of being a former addict." 

The benefits of physical exercise in sobriety are pretty obvious: we need to get physically fit to counteract all the crazy shit we’ve poured into our bodies and prevent diabetes, heart disease, liver problems, and more. But as New York-based Fitness trainer and recovering addict Trevor Graves points out, “Exercise helps to get the mind trained and it builds self-esteem, so you can actually look in the mirror and feel proud of yourself. In that sense, it’s essential to long-term sobriety.”

Graves credits his exercise regime with helping him to maintain his sobriety. He admits he tried several times to get sober and says that it wasn’t until he incorporated an exercise regime alongside his 12-step program that he began to take his recovery seriously. “When you’re an addict, the receptors and endorphins in your brain have been compromised significantly,” he explains. “Years of natural endorphins have been used up by chemicals like heroin and cocaine, leaving you depressed and anxious. Cardio will raise your endorphin levels naturally, relieve stress, alleviate cravings—and most importantly, give you something to do with all the spare time you have in early sobriety.”

But where to start? As an addict or alcoholic, you’ve probably spent a good chunk of time in bars, crack dens, or on the couch. Embarking upon a fitness regime, whether you’re 18 or 50, alongside people who embody the opposite ideals of the life you’ve been living, is pretty terrifying. Also consider the fact that the addict brain is hardwired to demand results as quickly as that needle hits the vein and the additional fact that exercise demands commitment, routine, patience and time. Graves suggests first checking in with your doctor to see what you should or shouldn’t be doing, and then starting gently with three 20-minute cardio sessions a week. “Just hit the gym and mix it up with different forms of cardio: the bike, the treadmill, Elliptical, whatever,” he says. “You won’t see significant changes on day one, it may be uncomfortable the first few times. But you will feel great afterwards.”

I can’t afford a gym! I hear you cry. So leave the car in the driveway and walk to the store to get a coffee, walk to work, skip the subway, be conscientious about it. Maybe when you’ve spent a couple weeks doing this, attempt to jog places. A bunch of sober people in Venice Beach, where I live, hold a “swim club” on the beach twice a week, and commit to cycling down there before they swim. They also go hiking every Friday. Absorbing yourself in a community of people who’ll call you up and remind you of what you should be doing will make you more likely to get your ass of the sofa, quit feeling sorry for yourself, and do it.

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