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Empowering Individuals in Recovery through Exercise

Tread Mill
By Julie Wood

These days it seems nearly every conversation about health and wellness involves some component of exercise. From the already healthy person to those living with chronic conditions, modern sports science is playing a bigger role in wellness than ever before. Even beyond the more commonly known health benefits of exercise such as maintaining a healthy weight and staving off leading killers such as diabetes and heart diseases, more and more doctors are prescribing exercise for a host of conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and some forms of cancer. 

It seems almost obvious, then, that exercise may also play a role in the health and well-being of people struggling with addiction and other forms of mental illness, and could even serve as a bridge to recovery. Despite the prevalence of substance abuse in the United States (the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health suggests 1 in 7 will face substance abuse issues), the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery continues to be a barrier to those wanting to seek help. 

One organization is making it its mission to combat that stigma through the power of fitness, and aid in the development of more effective exercise programs for people struggling with mental health conditions. 

Founded by John Breen, the assistant coach for the University of Pennsylvania women’s rowing team, and Sidra Ghafoor, MD, a fellow in Addiction Psychiatry at Penn, Fitness in Recovery works to empower individuals recovering from addiction, eating disorders, and trauma through exercise in a lively and supportive environment. The community-based program originally started as a weekly workout in Narberth, Pa., but the interest in the community grew so quickly that the program soon doubled its frequency. Since its start in 2015, Fitness in Recovery has come a long way; instructors — several of whom are also in recovery and joined the program as participants — now host 40 workouts each month in several locations throughout the Philadelphia region, including on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. 

The program was launched at Penn in June 2018, and the weekly workout is open to all college students in Philadelphia. “It has been a very powerful and positive experience here at the University,” Breen says. 

Offered to people of all skills and ages, Fitness in Recovery provides several different types of workouts ranging from a high intensity exercise to a recovery yoga workout, each of which is designed to support individuals in recovery. 

Kelly Borges, a clinical research coordinator in Penn’s division of Gastroenterology who has helped develop and expand Fitness in Recovery, says “exercise is medicine, and can provide a healthy outlet for someone to overcome their struggles, regardless of their skill level.” During classes, Borges says participants can adapt the workouts to suit their own ability. “Exercise isn’t a one-size-fits-all venture — it can be contoured to the individual.” 

In the near future, Fitness in Recovery leaders are planning to launch a pilot program to delve into the research side of exercise as a form of therapy, using the workout groups as part of a study to better understand the connection between mental and physical health. 

“Different forms of exercise provoke different types of responses,” Breen explains, citing research that suggests strength training may be the best form of exercise in recovering from depression. Using those studies as a guide, the group hopes to eventually understand how other forms of exercise can affect certain mental health disorders. 

Besides helping participants get into shape, Fitness in Recovery also addresses the mental and spiritual transformation that occurs following the workouts, encouraging attendees to become healthy both in the mind and body. One of the goals of the program is to normalize the process of seeking help and eliminate the shame typically associated with seeking treatment for a mental illness. Ghafoor, says addiction and mental illness are universal diseases that don’t discriminate, and can affect anyone from any background. “It’s admirable and it’s okay to be involved in recovery,” Ghafoor says. 

Recovering from addiction can be a challenging task to conquer alone. It can be an isolating disease, Ghafoor explains, adding that she has yet to meet someone who didn’t admit to feeling alienated and alone. While working out is beneficial for the body, Fitness in Recovery emphasizes the importance of having a support system while on the path to recovery. “It’s the human connection,” Ghafoor says of the benefits of having group workouts. “I think the community aspect of our program is probably the most vital part.” Ghafoor adds that the workout groups have become like a family for each other, developing bonds through attending weekly sessions together. 

Because of the trainers’ efforts and commitment to service, the Fitness in Recovery program was selected as a Penn Medicine CAREs grant recipient to help the development of the campus initiative at Penn, allowing the program to continue its work in supporting both those in recovery as well as the sober community. 

“We have a lot of people who come because they have a family member who is in recovery and they want to support the cause,” Ghafoor says. 

Rather than focusing on the attendees’ past obstacles, Fitness in Recovery concentrates on the future goals of each attendee and getting them on track to a healthy lifestyle. “It’s not talking about the problem,” Ghafoor says. “It’s living in the solution.”

For more information on Fitness in Recovery, visit the group’s website at

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