Serving Those in Recovery

Nicole Golden, owner of FWF Wellness, gives us insight into how fitness can help the millions suffering from substance use disorder.

Q: I would like our fitness business to be better at serving special populations, such as people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. How can we get started?

A: Substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) affect more than 20 million Americans. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a dramatic increase in alcohol and drug use, and depression. The right education and empathy can help these individuals post-pandemic, but often overlooked is the positive effect regular physical activity can have on this special population.

Research has demonstrated that exercise therapy can help these patients a great deal, from improving long-term neurological outcomes to relapse prevention. In 2014, a meta-analysis study was conducted (by Wang et al.) to determine if and what types of exercise can be used as a treatment for SUD and AUD.

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Key findings included:

  • Moderate-to-high-intensity aerobic exercise and mind-body exercises such as yoga and meditation were found to be an effective treatment for SUD.

  • Exercise may be more effective in relapse prevention in patients with a history of illicit drug use (as opposed to alcohol).

  • A 12-month exercise program promotes the repair of drug-induced neurological damage.

  • Exercise eases anxiety and depression for patients in recovery from SUD and AUD.

  • Perhaps most importantly, exercise can provide a replacement behavior or coping method to replace substance abuse. Addiction is a negative habit. Exercise is a positive habit. While a person is trying to break the bad habits and recover from addiction, it is important for them to seek out positive behaviors and habits.

Creating a Structured Program for SUD and AUD

There are physiological and psychological considerations you must understand in order to design and implement successful exercise programs for this population.

Focus on these things:

  • Build rapport. Keep the class environment relaxed and fun. Create a judgement-free space that will build a solid connection and ensure that participants return. Learn their names, interests, and where they’re from. Take an interest in who they are individually.

  • Set goals. Goal-setting is important. Small, attainable goals for those in recovery work best. It is common among this population to have a hard time staying motivated for an entire class, so these goals can help maintain their interest. For instance, have them do a warm-up and five minutes of the workout that day, then add another five-minute session the next class. These mini-goals can help them focus, give them an end plan, and keep them engaged.

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It’s crucial to understand how to choose appropriate assessments and create safe and effective programming to meet the unique needs of this population. It’s important to understand how to support these clients through the immediate recovery (post-detox) phase and in the months or years to follow as a relapse-prevention strategy.

Once you develop the skills to serve these individuals, you’ll more easily grow your training business in all settings, including in-patient, outpatient/halfway house, community, and, of course, traditional health clubs.

This Q&A was excerpted from the 12-hour Drug & Alcohol Recovery Fitness Specialist course with Nicole Golden, MS, CES, CSCS, CISSN, that is offered by MedFit Classroom. Visit to learn more and to enroll.

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This article was a team effort by several IHRSA experts.