For many, a necessary part of addiction recovery is staying active. Experts agree.
Exercise can be a crucial tool in a person’s recovery toolbox
Alyson Kirk summiting a peak in Lone Pine, California. (Courtesy of Alyson Kirk)
When Alyson Kirk started to forget the night before and risked her life behind the wheel, she knew something had to be done. The person she saw in the mirror wasn’t someone she recognized anymore.
“Until you’re ready to change, nothing is going to stick,” said 38-year-old Kirk, who started her journey to sobriety in 2007. “You have to be at a point in your life where you want to be a different person.”
Kirk grew up in a household that set poor examples of how to handle the pressures of life. As an adult, she emulated those behaviors and later became addicted to cigarettes, weed, acid, cocaine and alcohol. For years, her relationships and personal life suffered. She didn’t see a path forward.
Then, after hitting rock bottom, she discovered a new activity that helped channel her energy in a more productive way: mountain climbing.
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Like Kirk, many people struggling with addiction have turned to exercise — in combination with formal counseling — to help them stay on track and focus their mind elsewhere. Therapists, addiction counselors and personal trainers are on board, too. Especially given the sharp rise in addiction and overdose death spurred by the pandemic.
“You cannot find a therapist right now. I turn down five people a day because I’m booked,” said Sarah Levin, a 42 year-old Boulder and Thornton-based therapist who specializes in trauma, addiction and eating disorders.
Currently, 165 million people — or more than 60% of people 12 years or older in the U.S. — have some form of substance abuse disorder, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, overdose deaths have skyrocketed by 18% nationwide, according to ODMAP, a national drug overdose mapping program.
Levin said that although exercise shouldn’t take the place of more formal addiction counseling, it can be another useful tool in a person’s recovery toolbox.
“Exercise produces neurotransmitters that make us feel good,” Levin said. “Drugs cause a massive surge in neurotransmitters that make us feel amazing.”
“If they start exercising consistently, they’re going to slowly start to feel better,” she added. “When you start feeling OK after a year of feeling like s—, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh my god, I want to do whatever I can to keep this feeling.'”
The Turning Point
It was at his little brother’s funeral in Georgia that 39 year-old Tripp Freeman had a sobering realization. If he were to die that day, the only constant in his life would have been drugs. He wanted that to change.
“I saw the way my brother was talked about at his funeral and it made me change my whole thinking,” said Freeman, who had spent 12 years in prison before becoming a personal trainer. “That’s how I want to be remembered and have a positive legacy.”
Exercise produces neurotransmitters that make us feel good.
– Sarah Levin, therapist
Freeman became addicted to cocaine and meth while living on the streets of Atlanta and Denver in his early 20s. He found validations and a sense of community among his fellow drug-users. But his addiction ultimately led to a 12-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, he rediscovered his love for exercise.
“It saved my life and helped me keep a daily regimen with structure,” Freeman said. “The joy that I get from exercise balances the sadness from facing my demons.”
He now helps others do the same as a personal trainer at ParadigmONE, a nonprofit organization in Aurora, which provides recovery coaching, sober gatherings, and boxing and exercise classes.
As a coach, he’s careful not to push his clients too hard at the beginning.
“Our natural instinct is to drive people, but we have to be really careful making sure not to do that with our recovery patients, because we have to give them that opportunity to grow,” Freeman said. “Meet them where they are.”
He stressed the fact that exercise is important but not the only tool to a full recovery.
“Balance and having a quality recovery program is key, because fitness alone will not keep you sober. It can replace it temporarily, but if you don’t address the addiction itself the behaviors will return,” Freeman said. “Ultimately, if you don’t love yourself, you’re going to fall back into the demons that had you in the first place.”
“Addiction usually results from complex dynamics from childhood or trauma,” Levin said. “The reason people get addicted in the first place is because there’s a need that’s not being met. They’re drinking or doing drugs for a reason.”
“People are just trying not to suffer. They’re not trying to be an a**hole or hurt their families,” she added. “They are doing the best they can with what they have.”
For Dora Bannert-Bich, a 60 year-old hairdresser in Boulder, alcohol gave her a sense of confidence she hadn’t found in other parts of her life. When she moved from Minnesota to Colorado in the mid-1980s, alcohol was how she made friends. But she soon found herself drinking at home by herself.
“It was a coping mechanism,” Bannert-Bich said. “It was how I was able to feel encouraged and was, in a sense, a game changer for me.”
But the newfound confidence had side effects.
“I felt myself becoming more and more depressed and anxious. My body just started breaking down,” Bannert-Bich said. “Even my mother asked me if I was pregnant, which is something only mothers can ask, but I knew that was part of the reason my body was shutting down and couldn’t function.”
In order to become sober, she decided to start her journey through exercise and go on a steep incline hike. It wasn’t an easy transition.
“I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe, it was awful,” Bannert-Bich said. “I didn’t ever want to feel like that again. I knew it would only get better from there on up, which is really odd because I still ran races and did spinning but still smoked and drank, it was as though my body said. ‘That’s it, no more!'”
Now she continues to hike, run, lift heavy weights, yoga, meditate, and attend spin classes to stay healthy and sober.
“My favorite thing about exercise is the way you feel after you’re done,” Bannert-Bich said. “I feel stronger and can eat a lot. I love to eat.”
Building the habits and finding community
Jessica Kidd, chairman of the board at ParadigmONE as well as a personal trainer and life coach, continues to preach the importance of exercise to her patients. ParadigmONE produces gateway activities like hiking and walks to get patients moving as much as possible during their recovery process.
She said that exercise programs tailored for people in recovery are helping to diversify a person’s treatment plan. Though Kidd has never experienced addiction first-hand, she witnessed her father’s struggles as an alcoholic and drug addict throughout her childhood.
“Growing up in that kind of environment, I used fitness on the other side,” Kidd said. “So rather than to stay sober it was just to keep my head on straight with my life.”
ParadigmONE focuses on providing what it calls a fitness therapy for people in recovery no matter what type of personal struggles they are experiencing, according to Kidd.
Every tool that is necessary to be in fitness, like dedication, commitment, hard work, and persevering through obstacles, are all the same tools necessary to be successful in recovery.
– Tripp Freeman, personal trainer
“It used to just be going to your meetings with a step by step recovery, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said Kidd, who competed in a Spartan World Championship race in Abu Dhabi in early December. “As a trainer seeing people with addiction, exercising is like therapy for them. It gives them another source of dopamine, a sense of accomplishment, and building their confidence.”
Freeman added that the steps a person goes through to become physically fit complement the recovery process.
“Every tool that is necessary to be in fitness, like dedication, commitment, hard work, and persevering through obstacles, are all the same tools necessary to be successful in recovery,” Freeman said. “If you’re able to do it in one area, it’s just as easy to do it in another area. I haven’t had a client that said fitness made them worse.”
The first year of recovery is typically the hardest to navigate, according to Levin. Exercise gives them an outlet.
“People are looking for anything to make them feel good again,” Levin said. “If you look at a brain scan of a drug user when they stop using drugs, there is nothing happening. They just feel like s—.”
While exercise is extremely important in the recovery process, she said it is important to take it slow.
“In the beginning, people recovering from addiction need to cut themselves a little bit of a break. If they’re detoxing, rest, rest, rest,” Levin said.
Finding balance is key
Sometimes, a person’s exercise routine can go too far and can become its own form of addiction — which is exactly what happened to Kirk. Her extreme fixation on exercise led her to develop anorexia and bulimia.
“Being a 28-year-old, the doctors told me that I had the bones of a 70-year-old due to osteopenia from my eating disorder,” Kirk said.
She got a wake up call in February 2011 after climbing to the top of Rosalie Peak. It was her second time summiting the mountain, but her first time doing so with frail bones.
While at 12,000 feet, she slipped on the snow and fell off a short ledge and broke her femur. For hours, she waited for a rescue helicopter that never came, as she started to bleed to death and experienced frostbite and hypothermia. After being on the mountain for about 11 to 13 hours, her now ex-husband and his dog, J.B, as well as a ground crew of 30 search and rescue people pulled her down the mountain in a blizzard where she made it to safety.
From then on, she knew she had developed another addiction and needed to find a way to balance her lifestyle.
Due to her past traumas, she still battles with her eating disorder today to serve as a coping mechanism in replace of drugs and alcohol.
“I’m currently getting professional therapy and seeing a nutritionist to battle this demon,” Kirk said. “It’s working wonderfully.”
After recovering for three to four months, she started to work her way back to exercising by starting small until she had the strength. She can now say that she ran 20 100-mile races and has climbed to the top of almost every Colorado peak. Her newfound love also led her to her husband. In 2011, on a hike with mutual friends, Kirk met her now-husband, John. They bonded over their recovery stories and married on a 13,000 foot peak in the San Juan Mountains.
“My favorite thing about Alyson is that she will go after her goals with a vengeance,” John Kirk said. “It’s just incredible to watch.”
The journey to recovery has been long for Alyson Kirk, but she doesn’t regret it. She finally feels comfortable in her own skin and recognizes the person she sees in the mirror.
“Until you’re ready to change, nothing is going to stick,” Kirk said. “You have to be at a point in your life where you want to be a different person.”
She’s proud that she was able to tackle her recovery in her own way, and not be weighed down by others’ opinions.
“We get one shot at this rodeo, why live for other people?” she added. “Fuck that.”
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