Swapping a Six-Pack for Six-Pack Abs

PowerCLEAN is sponsored by the Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization. It’s a CrossFit program that offers free, group exercise to low-income recovering people.

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Similar programs are supported by recovery advocacy groups and treatment centers nationwide.

Strength. Endurance. Resilience. Recovery has a lot in common with the intense workouts that made CrossFit famous. A new pilot program in Oregon shows that participating in exercise of this type can sustain and nurture recovery, and help people succeed at maintaining their long-term health.

PowerCLEAN is sponsored by the Columbia Pacific Coordinated Care Organization. It’s a CrossFit program that offers free, group exercise to low-income recovering people. PowerCLEAN is run by a CrossFit gym in Astoria, Oregon and is geared toward people on the Oregon Health Plan, though anyone who is at least 48 hours sober is welcome. Similar programs are supported by recovery advocacy groups and treatment centers nationwide.

Anecdotal and scientific evidence show that exercise can be a vital part of someone’s recovery. A Danish study, which said that people with substance use disorder were characterized by “a low compliance and commitment” were eager to participate in a special exercise program. For 38 participants, there was a 52 percent completion rate, and the results during participation were positive. Participants showed an increased oxygen uptake of an average of 10%, improved self-reported quality of life and a higher energy level, as well as a better body image, increased sensitivity to physical pain and disorders, and reduced their substance use during the training period.

In non-human studies, regular swimming reduced voluntary morphine consumption in opioid-dependent rats, and access to an exercise wheel reduced self-administration of cocaine in rats dependent on the substance.

Dr. Claire Twark is a psychiatrist and athlete, as well as an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a board member of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, and a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She wrote, “In my experience, many patients with various substance use disorders have found that exercise helps to distract them from cravings. Workouts add structure to the day. They help with forming positive social connections, and help treat depression and anxiety in combination with other therapies.”

CrossFit is recommended because of its emphasis on “clean living,” community, and adaptation. Mental strength is just as important as physical strength in CrossFit, where participants mix high-intensity cardio exercise with powerlifting. Age, fitness, and ability are less important than passion, which makes CrossFit comparatively inclusive and accessible, especially for people who are new to exercise or returning after a long period. Each exercise is done as a group endeavor. Any of the exercises can be modified, everyone starts together, and everyone finishes together.

One of CrossFit’s mantras is, “It doesn’t get easier, you get stronger.” Continuing to show up and grow through challenges can become a new addiction for people in recovery. Two of the most important elements in sustaining long term recovery are changes in behavior and peer group influence.

Toni Ramvick, one of the PowerCLEAN athletes, is in recovery from substance use disorder. She says the program has been beneficial. “You feel like it’s a new addiction. “But a positive addiction.”

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