‘I didn’t feel hopeless:’ Exercise provides physical activity, community for those recovering from substance abuse disorders

Ian Frazier is one of a few trainers at Steamboat Strength & Conditioning who teach The Phoenix classes for people recovering from substance abuse disorder. (Ian Frazier/courtesy)

Nine pairs of sneakers stand on padded mats at Steamboat Strength and Conditioning. The people wearing those shoes appear to have little in common. A few are older, with graying hair. Others are young. Many are visibly toned. A couple limber up with stretches.

As different as they appear, each attendee put on a pair of sneakers for the exact same reason that morning: to attend a Phoenix class.

The Phoenix is a sober active community based in Denver that has helped more than 56,000 people since its inception in 2006. The program has expanded to 50 cities in 22 states, and there are classes every day that vary from intense group fitness classes to yoga and walking. There are also social events, book clubs and more.

Twice per week, Steamboat Strength and Conditioning hosts Phoenix classes for people who are looking to use exercise to help in their recovery from substance abuse.

On this particular Saturday, there were a few regulars in attendance. They said hello and caught up, asking about mutual friends. As everyone in the group introduced themselves, one person said they’d been sober only four days. The group applauded and offered words of encouragement.

Classes are free, for participants who have been sober for 48 hours. The group doesn’t require anything else, and it certainly doesn’t ask for perfection.

“Relapse is OK,” said trainer Ian Frazier. “It’s part of the process. The average person relapses seven times.”

Frazier, subbing for Tyson Waneka, led the group through a discussion before starting a warm-up. He said staying sober is a long process. After finally realizing a change needs to happen, there is preparing and planning for that change. Then there is a huge gap between planning and action. He asked the group to talk about what got them from planning into the action stage.

“I had to change everything,” one woman said. “From what I did for fun, what I considered fun, who I spent time with.”

Another person said the realization that it was a choice not to drink is what propelled them to action, and someone else said they finally decided to get sober for themselves, and no one else. No matter their struggle, how long it persisted or what it entailed, exercise has provided a way to get through it and a community to do so with.

The Phoenix community is a big one. Steamboat Strength and Conditioning is but one finger on the many arms of The Phoenix, which stretch across the country.

Steamboat Strength and Conditioning has been offering Phoenix classes since 2018. Owners Ronni Waneka and her husband, Tyson, who was inspired by his own sobriety, wanted to provide sober people a community as well as a means to manage their recovery.

When Mike Mielke first learned about The Phoenix, he knew his life was going to change. His years-long battle with addiction wasn’t solved in one instant of epiphany.

“I think it was a collection of moments,” Mielke said. “And this feeling of when I left a Phoenix class, I didn’t feel hopeless, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to drink or do a drug again. That’s a powerful feeling for someone like me when that’s all you thought about. That was big.”

Mielke started attending weightlifting classes and later, lifting competitions. He was challenging himself, pushing himself and focusing physical and mental energy on a task he enjoyed.

Eight years later, he’s still sober, something he knows is a bit of an anomaly.

“Recidivism is still really high with substance use disorders,” he said. “Maybe I’m one of the lucky few. I don’t know the rhyme or reason why in eight years I’ve been able to stay sober. That’s part of the journey sometimes. What I love about what we do at Phoenix is we understand everyone’s path isn’t linear, and we always keep that door open. There’s never going to be any stigma coming from us if people have a slip-up. They’re always welcome.”

The Phoenix has conducted some internal surveys, and Mielke said that of those who have been a part of The Phoenix for three months or more, eight of 10 report staying sober.

Mielke now serves as the senior program manager at The Phoenix, helping provide ways for others to find inspiration like he did years ago.

“One of the big things we try to do in Phoenix is demystifying recovery,” he said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be in recovery. Our goal is to change that conversation about what it means to be sober.”

Mike Mielke, a senior program manager at The Phoenix, discovered the the sober active community years ago. The program stretches across the country, offering free classes to those recovering from substance abuse disorder. (Mike Mielke/courtesy)

‘The opposite of addiction’

Exercise is not a cure or the solution to addiction, but it’s a highly recommended tool to battle it. Sarah Coleman, a trainer and wellness director at The Foundry treatment center in Steamboat Springs, said exercise classes and groups, such as The Phoenix, may not be a cure, but they are the opposite of addiction. The community and feeling of being a part of a group accomplishing something is the opposite of seclusion and depression.

Exercise gives people a similar feeling as drinking or taking opioids. Aerobic activity, or cardio exercises performed at a moderate level or a long period of time, releases endorphins and dopamine into the brain. Those chemicals improve mood and make one feel happier.

A 2014 study found that “moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercises, designed according to the Guidelines of American College of Sports Medicine, and mind-body exercises can be an effective and persistent treatment for those with substance abuse disorders.” The study found that exercise increased abstinence rates, eased withdrawal symptoms and improved anxiety and depression.

Amy Goodwin, a licensed professional counselor and behavioral health counselor at UCHealth Behavioral Health Clinic in Steamboat Springs, also works at the UCHealth Pain Management Clinic. She recommends exercise in just about every situation in which people are dealing with or recovering from substance abuse disorders.

“I try to communicate to them the concept behind taking your MEDS, and it’s an acronym,” Goodwin said. “The full and complete treatment for any disorder includes these four parameters. M is taking medications only as prescribed, or staying away from other psychoactive drugs. E is exercise a minimum of 20 minutes of sustained cardio activity every day. D is diet and staying away from simple sugars, food coloring, food dyes and processed food. S is social commitments and connections and spirituality. These are the four legs of sustaining or maintaining a mental health disorder,” Goodwin said. “If one of those components is ignored, it’s going to be hard to get momentum on recovery.”

The Phoenix or other exercise classes offer not only the physical exercise component but the social commitments and connection aspect as well.

“We all know the benefits of exercise are lovely,” Coleman said. “I also think it helps to replace the habitual part. If you can get into a routine of going to the gym every day at 7 a.m., it starts to replace where you had a bad habit, and it starts filling that void. And, when you’re doing burpees, for example, you really can’t think of anything else.”

For years, Coleman taught Phoenix classes in Steamboat. Now, she holds pop-up classes at Steamboat Fit that benefit Clean and Sober Steamboat, a group she helped create with The Health Partnership.

Coleman is not in recovery but was thrust into the sober community a few years ago when she was asked to design the gym and exercise program for The Foundry in Steamboat Springs.

While she doesn’t have first-hand recovery experience, she’s been inspired by the sober community and has dedicated a lot of her work to help.

“I built an entire wellness curriculum for The Foundry having really no experience with recovery myself,” she said. “I just dove right in. I learned more in those first six months than I have in my whole life about recovery. I fell in love with that population of people. Now, I’m working towards my recovery coaching certification.”

With that certification, she’ll be a trainer and essentially a life coach for those in recovery.

“It’s such meaningful work,” she said.

Coleman met Chris Ray through The Foundry wellness classes. Ray gained more than muscle as Coleman guided him through interval workouts and yoga. He connected a lot with yoga, which not only altered him physically and mentally but, through joining Out Here Yoga, also introduced him to a whole new circle of people.

“It physically gave me the confidence to get better, and to see something progressively get better was really nice,” he said. “A lot of addiction is instant gratification, so to see the results of hard work and watching what you put into your body and it coming to fruition has been really good. Not only does that help physically, but I look at it in other aspects of my life.”

Sarah Coleman (Photo by John F. Russell)

Getting sober in Steamboat is more challenging

There’s a running joke that Steamboat is a drinking town with a skiing problem, but it’s no laughing matter. Alcohol is part of the culture in ski towns, not just Steamboat.

“I think it’s pretty ski town specific, not just Steamboat,” Coleman said. “So many things revolve around drinks. Go on a bike ride, have a beer. Go skiing, have a beer. I think if we can change that culture a little bit, we can change a little bit of the problem. … Ski towns also have higher depression rates, suicide rates. There’s seasonal changes, housing, employment. It’s not a super stable environment with the weather and climate and job market. Housing right now is crazy. It’s hard to make it here.”

Those in recovery need a stable environment to stay sober. A chaotic and ever changing place like Steamboat, paired with pressures to drink at every event, or mountaintop, make for a difficult place for those recovering from addiction.

Just a couple of years after immersing himself in the sober community at The Foundry, Ray is now a peer recovery specialist at The Health Partnership and the man behind Clean and Sober Steamboat.

Ray took over the group from Coleman in August. Clean and Sober Steamboat offers an outside-the-gym community for those looking to stay active alongside other sober people. Clean and Sober Steamboat is offering a community of people who will reach a summit and offer high fives instead of a round of beers.

“We’re doing it, and I don’t think we want to take that away from people that can enjoy it,” Ray said. “But when you’re someone like myself who has an addiction, you just can’t do it. A lot of it is just accepting that it’s not a necessity and to not question why someone’s not having a beer.”

The ability to make change in the Yampa Valley just got easier for Clean and Sober, too. The Health Partnership and Clean and Sober Steamboat were just awarded a major opportunity to grow after receiving a $167,000 Colorado Health Foundation’s Northwest Colorado Peer Recovery Supports Grant. The grant will allow the partnership to expand services to more people struggling with substance use disorder, including an expansion of the program into Rio Blanco County and hiring two new peer recovery specialists, including a bilingual Spanish speaker.

The more people who join or even learn about people’s journey to become sober, the more the stigma surrounding addiction and sober living will crumble.

“I think it’s going to be cool to be sober soon,” Coleman said.

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