The men at Otherworld Fitness in Frederick, Maryland, move quickly from bars to climbing walls and elliptical machines as shouts of “Let’s do it!” and “Teamwork guys!” echo through the gym.
Each team is determined to win the competition. Not only are these competitors eager to race and win against each other, but also, most importantly, many of them are hoping to win their battle against opioid addiction.
Timothy Guinan knows firsthand the problems of opioid addiction, which claims more than 130 lives across the country each day. After watching his son struggle to stay sober, he has opened his gym, Otherworld Fitness, to assist others dealing with addiction in hopes that exercise will help them with the healing process.
“The training is physical but there is a lot of belief, mental and spiritual. When they leave here they are so pumped up. They are proud, confident and they believe in themselves again. It’s amazing seeing them coming from ‘low and slow’ to probably the happiest moment in their life without drugs,” said Guinan.
Sume Hatami, 35, a bartender in Baltimore, suffered from addiction for years. He tried heroin and cocaine. As a consequence, Hatami lost his job and his apartment and hit “rock bottom.”
Now that he has been sober for the last 17 months, Hatami recalls the impact of exercise in his recovering path and how it helped decrease his dependency on drugs. Working out continues to benefit him physically, mentally and emotionally.
“When I started working out, everything I did during the day was centered around the gym. Working out gives me a structure and something like an itinerary of my day,” Hatami said.
Hatami says that if he didn’t have such a routine structure, he would probably fall back into drugs.
“Drugs consume your life; you spend almost every second of your day either trying to get drugs, using drugs or finding ways and money to buy more drugs. Basically, it consumes your life; it keeps you extremely busy,” said Hatami.
Opioid abuse is a serious national crisis that impacts public health as well as social and economic welfare. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 68 percent of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid. In 2017, there were 1,985 overdose deaths involving opioids in Maryland, which makes the state rank in the top five for opioid-related overdose deaths. Factors typically surrounding the deaths involve synthetic opioids with illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) that can be found in combination with heroin, counterfeit pills and cocaine.
Some medical studies indicate that exercise is one of the most powerful interventions in overcoming addiction. Research shows that individuals in rehab who engage in regular physical exercise can profit from a reduction in stress levels and drug cravings, as well as an increase in better sleep, higher energy levels, and an improved mood.
Guinan has partnered with a faith-based organization called Helping Up Mission that helps individuals struggling with addiction. He charges the Helping Up Mission participants $19, which is 30 percent of what he usually charges other clients. In the meantime, he says that Otherworld Fitness continues donating money to Helping Up Mission.
“We donate $5 per shirt or hoodie sale to Helping Up Mission. A guesstimate for this year’s donation would be several hundred dollars. I still struggle with paying the rent because everything has come out of my pocket and we are not turning profit just yet,” said Guinan.
Even though the business hasn’t broken even yet, there are a number of impactful stories from participants whose lives have drastically changed from being in the program.
Another participant at Otherworld Fitness, Guinan’s son, Tim Leif, 32, was granted an intern position at Helping Up Mission after being sober for almost two years. At the age of 21, Leif started using prescribed pain killer pills. A few years later, Leif turned to the streets in search of heroin when his doctor stopped the prescribed medicine.
“I can’t even give you a number of how many times I overdosed. My family was scared for my life. They have no idea how many times I ended up in the hospital,” said Leif.
Leif says that drugs took him away from his loved ones. He dismissed and isolated himself. Fortunately, he was able to regain his life back when he started exercising.
“Racing and working out help me escape and be more determined and competitive. Exercise helps me create my foundation physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Leif.
Participants at Otherworld Fitness receive a unique experience at this athletic club in Frederick, Md. The club offers a particular sport known as Obstacle Course Racing (OCR). This competitive sport is growing in popularity each year and requires a special level strength and determination.
In 2010, the Institute for Sport Science and Clinical Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark conducted research that indicated that physical exercise can provide important support in the treatment of drug abuse. Also, in 2018, studies the University at Buffalo Research Institute on addiction concluded that exercise can be beneficial as it may help the brain in ways that can support treatment as well as prevention strategies for addiction.
Dr. Anika Alvanzo, a medical director at the Substance Use Disorder Consultation Services at Johns Hopkins Hospital explains that the literature is mixed, concerning whether or not exercise is effective for individuals with addiction.
“I think it depends on the outcome you are looking at. It depends on the substance, the patients’ population, and also, it depends on numbers of variables, such as the type of exercise, the duration of the exercise, and so on,” said Dr. Alvanzo.
Dr. Barbara Mai, a psychiatrist at the Mai Center for Wellness and Energy Therapies in Gaithersburg, Md, says physical activity and workouts bring a healthy challenge into the recovery process.
“Clinically, I have routinely seen that patients who incorporate an exercise plan into their daily health promotion report feeling better mentally, emotionally, and physically. The descriptions may vary, however, the progress is measurable,” said Dr. Mai.
Dr. Mai emphasized the importance of team sports as an outlet for recovering addicts. She believes that team sports equip them with the tools to stay sober after treatment ends.
“Those tools might include writing exercises or self-help therapies. The group mindset regarding supportive community and the priority status to scheduled meeting assists with maintaining commitment not only to personal sobriety, but also to that of friends/group members. And numerous participants of group exercise activities have noted that their progress improves when they are also committed to the success of their group members,” said Dr. Mai.
Even though exercise has proven effective in helping with stress, better sleep, and suppressing drug craving, many medical professionals still think that exercise will have better outcomes on individuals suffering from addiction if it is added to a treatment plan.
“I think that exercise can only be beneficial when added to a treatment program. I will not say that exercise only, but exercise as an adjunct to other processes of the treatment program, such as pharmacotherapy, medications, and individual or group counseling,” said Dr. Alvanzo.
“There have been a number of studies that have shown positive benefits of exercise in respect to withdrawal symptoms and mood symptoms of depression and anxiety. Obviously, if a mood disorder is keen, untreated or asymptomatic, this can lead to substance use,” said Dr. Alvanzo.
Although the verdict is still out about how successful exercise is in treating drug abuse, Otherworld Fitness participant Sume Hatami credited his successful recovery to exercise. He believes that working out definitely helped him with avoiding addiction relapse.
“For me, I believe I would’ve gone back to using drugs if I didn’t start lifting, working out, and running. These things help really impact my life. Even now, I believe if I stop doing what I do every day, there will be a high possibility that I could go back to using drugs,” said Hatami.