From Excess to Exercise: Group Helps Men and Women Live Sober Through Sweat

More than 13 years ago, as Scott Strode was struggling to get his drinking and drug use under control, the gym in Boston where he boxed offered refuge. "All the guys in the gym were sober because they were training for fights," says Strode, 37. "It was a place I could go where I knew there wouldn't be any pressure to use or drink."

Now, a sober Strode is recreating the benefits of that safe space for others committed to living sober lives. He's the founder of Phoenix Multisport, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit that hosts more than 35 athletic activities a week, ranging from running to mountain climbing to biking to yoga, events free to anyone in the area who wants both a good workout and sober social network.

There are no prayer groups or serenity chants at Phoenix, no chain smoking and coffee drinking. And there's very little talk about the underlying cause that brings the group together. That's the point, says Strode. The men and women who show up for an early-morning run or compete together in a local 10K are not addicts—they're athletes, many of whom struggle with addiction.

"There are 12-step programs that do good work helping people find sobriety. Phoenix is about that next step—how do you go out and live as a sober person?" says Strode. "If you continue to define yourself as an addict for the rest of your life, and just look at things you did in your past, it's hard to move forward and engage life again." The idea of the Phoenix, the mythological bird that rises from the ashes of an all-consuming fire, has a special resonance in the sober community, he says.

Exercise has been shown to help protect the brain against addiction, says Mark A. Smith, a professor of neuroscience at Davidson University. His research on rats shows that access to exercise reduces the appeal of cocaine. "Vigorous exercise increases dopamine concentrations in the brain in the same sections that are affected by cocaine," he says. "Exercise mimics a lot of the effects of the drugs." Whether this mimicry alone is enough to help wean addicts off their addiction has yet to be established, but it's clear that there's far more to Phoenix's appeal than brain chemistry.

For one thing, heading out on the bike trail passes time previously spent at bars and parties. "Having something to do, something active to do, is huge for me," says Sean Cahill, 40, a member of Phoenix. One of the main threats to sobriety is not an unquenchable urge for a drink, but the crushing boredom that can come with not drinking. Aside from weekend activities, they offer evening and early-morning events, as well as sweat-free "happy hours" at local cafes.

"Boredom is a very powerful stressor," says Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and stress is what leads addicts to start using again. "It's a mechanism of the brain to motivate you to get out of your current state and do something engaging, and that can include taking drugs."

Social interaction is also crucial to recovering addicts, who must learn to build relationships without the help of drugs or alcohol. Most addicts need to separate from their previous friends, says Volkow. "You get conditioned to the people you've taken drugs with. When you see that person, the brain will release dopamine that will derive intense motivation to take drugs." However–especially when addicts began their drug or alcohol abuse early in life–they often don't have the requisite social skills to find a new crowd.

Those recovering addicts who do manage to overcome the urge to use often resign themselves to boredom, loneliness, and regret over their previous bad behavior. Strode says it needn't be this way. "I think it's great when a guy who is two weeks sober shows up and connects to Phoenix, but what I really love is when someone who's got 10, 15 years of sobriety shows up and the light bulb goes off," he says. "[They realize] this is what life is. Life isn't sitting at home, isolated, watching movies … It's supposed to be fun, and engaging. You can get out and be a better person now that you're sober."

By competing as a team in area races–complete with matching Phoenix jerseys–the group aims to take the stigma out of admitting addiction. To that end, they've sponsored about 10 athletes to compete in races and events, including one pro mountain biker, Griff Duncan, 36. "When I'm at the races, I'm like an ambassador," says Duncan. "There are a lot of guys out there racing who are battling with addictions and wondering, 'Can I get sober'?" he says. "Three years ago, I was addicted to crack and was an absolute mess. This year, I landed on the podium [as a top finisher] at the 24-hour race in Moab [Utah], something I never thought I would accomplish when using. I want to serve as an example for others in the community who are thinking about getting sober."

Still, Phoenix advertises itself as a group for those "committed to living a sober lifestyle"—a way to reach out to those who aren't quite ready to categorize themselves as alcoholics or drug addicts. In the past, new members have announced that they came to Phoenix because they like to bike and just don't drink that much—and later reveal that they cut back on drinking thanks to that third DUI. Why or how you came to a sober lifestyle—whether it was for health reasons, substance-abuse issues, or religious objections—as long as you have been clean for 48 hours prior to attending a Phoenix event.

Participants in Phoenix-sponsored events, which are financed by private donations and grants, number about 450 to 500 a month. Currently Strode and company are looking to expand to San Diego and Colorado Springs—where they can offer their programming to active members of the military and those transitioning out of the service—as well as Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco.

Groups like Phoenix are just what those committed to sober living need, says Kitty Harris, director of the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University. "When people are actively using drugs and alcohol, they don't care about taking care of their bodies, so getting into sports like this give them a motivation to become healthy," she says. Athletics also add a sense of accomplishment and help rebuild broken self-esteem. "Most people, by the time they decide to sober up, have been pretty beaten down. Picking up something they can achieve gives them a sense of, 'Oh my gosh, I can cross that finish line.' The healthiest people in recovery have some kind of activity passion," she says.

Of course, recovering addicts in Tulsa or Seattle or Pensacola needn't wait until Phoenix expands nationwide to start reaping some of the benefits of exercise. Todd Crandall, author of Racing for Recovery: From Addiction to Ironman, and founder of a group by the same name in Sylvania, Ohio, says that what's most important is that recovering addicts find something that engages them. While the social structure of groups like Phoenix and Racing for Recovery are a big part of their appeal, it's possible to reap some of themore basic rewards from just strapping on sneakers and hitting the asphalt. "People need to find their own ways—what fits for them, For me, and others, it's exercise," says Crandall. "It helps open your mind to the possibility that you are more than a drunk, more than an addict. And once you realize that, then the possibilities of who you can be are amazing."

--Additonal reporting by Joan Raymond