The Healing Power of Physical Fitness in Addiction Recovery: An Interview With Deanna Brolly

When most people think of addiction treatment, they think of meetings and psychotherapy, medication and detox, group therapy and self-disclosure. But the mind is not the only valuable asset you have in your fight against addiction; engaging your body in the recovery process can be vital to achieving sobriety and providing a place of solace during a vulnerable time.

Deanna Brolly is a believer in the power of physical fitness. As a certified personal trainer and health coach at Alta Mira, she has seen the transformative role exercise can play in recovery. In this interview, she shares her insights into how and why physical fitness can strengthen the healing process and fortify your mind, body, and spirit as you begin your journey toward freedom from addiction.

The Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

Early recovery is not an easy place to be; often, you’re facing yourself and feeling your feelings without the influence of drugs for the first time in a very long time. Meanwhile, you must do the work of addressing the underlying issues driving your drug use, which can be an emotionally exhausting and painful process.  At such a stage, physical fitness can seem like the last thing you want to focus on. But in reality, it can be exactly what you need as you start your healing journey.

“I think more than anything, exercise is a way for people to not be in their heads and get out of the talk therapy and explore through movement and breathing. There’s no doubt that even just 10 minutes of gentle movement can help you clear your head,” Deanna tells me. “In my own life, if I didn’t have the ability to move as freely as I can, it would be devastating. Exercise is therapy; you don’t have to talk, you can feel and move and experience the process on your own.”

The healing potential of exercise is becoming more widely recognized all the time. Already it’s known for its ability to lift mood and alleviate symptoms of psychological distress; according to some research, exercise is just as effective as medication or talk therapy when it comes to cases of mild depression or anxiety, and it is considered to be a significant factor for many who struggle with more severe mental health disorders. The power of exercise to encourage emotional regulation, energize you, and lift your spirits makes it an ideal addition to an addiction treatment program by providing an easily accessible way of coping with psychological pain.

In fact, exercise may be uniquely suited to help those with addiction issues because it allows you to safely experience a form of neurochemical pleasure without the use of harmful substances. “Physical fitness can be a big factor in recovery because exercise can trigger the production of endorphins and dopamine that will help you feel better,” Deanna explains. “You get that feeling on a physiological level of, ‘Oh, I’m feeling really good.’” At a time when many are struggling with the reality of life without drugs, learning natural, healthy, nourishing ways of creating pleasurable experiences and remembering that you have the power to make yourself feel good can be critical to recovery.

Becoming a Catalyst for Change

Deanna holds physical fitness classes twice a week at Alta Mira, often outside to allow clients to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us. Everyone is welcome to join, and no one is required to come.  

We bring some weights and resistance bands outside and we do a lot of body weight and gravity exercises and calisthenics. We play music. I make sure I’m addressing any mechanical movement dysfunction so I’m correcting as we’re training and making sure they’re getting what they need out of it. Because the classes are small, I can give them a lot of one-on-one attention.

But mechanical movements and the details of training are just one part of the puzzle when it comes to Deanna’s work at Alta Mira. “You can access exercise and be outside all over the place, but I think it’s really the support that makes a difference,” she says. “I’m just here as a catalyst.”

To determine what kind of catalyst she needs to be, Deanna starts by performing a fitness assessment, speaking with each person about their own unique needs and circumstances.

I want to know about their exercise history and if they have any injuries and what their short- and long-term goals are, to determine how I can help them. I get to know them and their personalities and how we’re going to effectively make them happy. My role in the fitness world is that I adapt to each person and meet them where they are.

This high level of flexibility is made possible in part by the fact that the groups at Alta Mira are small and intimate, ensuring that Deanna is able to build a rapport with each client and create responsive exercise plans tailored to each moment. “They can have their goals set out, but each day may present something different,” she explains. “It’s really individual and personal. Depending on what’s going on that day or in that moment, we just go with what will help them feel better.”

The intimate environment also means that the clients themselves form a community in which to learn from and connect with each other, providing vital social support when it matters most. They cheer each other on, motivate each other, lend an ear, and provide a sense of belonging during a turbulent time; they become catalysts for each other. “I think the group is special and important,” Deanna says. “They’re with each other and moving together. To have them all join together and encourage each other is really helpful.”

“We’re All Going Through Something”

In many ways, Deanna finds that the clients at Alta Mira and her general population clients aren’t that different. “We’re all going through something. We all have differing abilities and challenges and I just try to see each person in front of me and hopefully create a shift during our time together.” However, the intensity of withdrawal, treatment, and the recovery process itself can create special challenges, and Deanna is always prepared to support her clients through them.

If I am encouraging and here to help and support them, it doesn’t matter if you can lift 500 lbs today or do 10 pushups. We can focus on being here together and stretching and breathing, and if that’s the goal for today, then that’s the goal for today.  I’m here to do whatever I can to help them through their recovery process.

Some days, that might mean not exercising at all. “I ask them how I can help them in their mind and body. If it’s not that day, maybe it’s next time,” she tells me. “It’s really just understanding what’s in front of you as best you can. Sometimes it’s just letting them be or letting them vent. Letting them take their own journey helps. ”

That isn’t to say that physical fitness during recovery can’t be a physically intense experience; Deanna has found that many clients become seriously engaged in exercise and committed to fitness goals that expand beyond their time in treatment. Ultimately, however, exercise is a stepping stone toward greater self-awareness, coping, catharsis, and camaraderie. It gives you a sense of control, autonomy, and self-determination. It allows you to reconnect with your physical self and honor your somatic needs at a time when your mind, body, and spirit are all in a process of healing. And it gives you an immediate, concrete way of fortifying your own health.

Exercise is so important for everybody, not just one particular population. It really is an aspect of human function. Exercise is amazing. You can change your health dramatically with exercise.

Alta Mira is a world-class treatment center that combines holistic and traditional therapeutic methods into personalized treatment programs that address the specific needs of each client. Please reach out to us today with any questions you may have on starting the journey toward recovery.

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