Magazine

Health & Wellness | Magazine

Working out with a buddy, also in recovery, helped me stay sober and get fit

Exercise filled the time I used to spend at bars, and having a friend to work out with helped me keep at it.

jeffrey decoster for the boston globe

I used to drink too much.

I also had an insatiable desire to use illicit substances that stimulated my brain, causing me to stay up chain-smoking until the birds started to chirp the next morning. My diet? A raccoon sifting through the trash ate more healthily than I did. Taking care of my body didn’t exactly top my list of day-to-day priorities.

That changed a decade ago when I finally got sober. A key component of my recovery was regular exercise. And what got me to the gym, especially at the start, was a reliable and encouraging workout buddy, who bolstered my fitness ambitions. I had dabbled in weight lifting before I got clean, but having someone to share the gym experience with was hugely beneficial to my drive to get in shape. That’s true for most people: Recent research has shown that people at almost all levels of fitness will exercise more often when there’s someone sharing their routines. We’re even more likely to work out if our fitness companion provides emotional support. Regular exercise itself has been shown to boost self-image, reduce depression and anxiety, and for those battling addiction it lowers the risk of using certain mind-altering substances, including alcohol.

Advertisement

I met my first workout partner — we’ll call him Jim, since he’s also in recovery from substance abuse — back in 2008, through a mutual friend. I had recently been discharged from a rehabilitation center on Cape Cod, and was blindly navigating my way through fitness centers to backfill the time I was no longer spending at bars.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Jim and I were an unlikely pair. He was almost 20 years older than me, and a police officer. His body type closely resembled a pit bull’s, with biceps that looked like they might be bigger around than my waist. I was scrawny and wore skinny jeans (spoiler alert: I still do) and was teetering at about 145 pounds (double spoiler alert: that hasn’t changed by much).

But we were soon hitting the weight room together nearly every day. Obviously, workout partners don’t have to be at the same level to make a match — Jim and I certainly weren’t. Each person can bring qualities that support the other and provide balance. A good workout buddy encourages you to do more than you think you can. Jim was sympathetic, and I was able to draw on his experience. When I asked him recently what I gave him, he said he got a boost from my energy and resilience. “We worked well together,” he says.

We’d chat between sets, and he expanded my fitness comprehension with tips about which muscle groups to work on, and which days to focus on them. What he taught me about taking care of myself extended beyond the gym’s confines, too. Through Jim, and my own research, I learned the benefits of eating meals like grilled chicken, sweet potatoes, and brown rice, a combination I cook to this day, to the chagrin of my guests.

At night, we would attend recovery-focused meetings together, where I’d flex my mental and spiritual muscles. Eventually, the years of sobriety stacked up like weight plates.

Advertisement

When lifting got monotonous, I started mixing in boxing — because the conditioning gets you super-ripped (ha!), and because I got invited to fight in a charity event. Training turned into an exercise in getting my face pummelled repeatedly, so after the bout, I hung up my gloves. Later, in the aftermath of covering the Boston Marathon bombings, I decided to step up to its 26.2-mile challenge. A seasoned runner I’d become friends with through my recovery program helped prime me for the race. His assistance and encouragement kept me going, especially during those February long runs that seemed like they’d never end. When I staggered across the finish line, it was an incredible experience, and I wouldn’t have finished without his help.

My partnership with Jim and with other friends was often vital in keeping workouts from being a chore. Lately, though, I mostly work out alone. It’s time by myself that I’ve come to appreciate.

But just before Thanksgiving, a friend from college visited. We spent our first day on a whirlwind tour of the city that included platefuls of pasta, and sweets from Mike’s Pastry in the North End. The next morning, we were hankering for a workout. At the gym, my friend decided we should kick things off with a jog on the treadmill — something I’ve come to loathe. But as we trudged along on the artificial pavement, we chatted, a reprieve from stuffing headphones into my ears to stay focused. I glanced over at him, then playfully pressed the button to accelerate my pace, and challenged him to keep up.

Steve Annear is Boston Globe staff writer. He can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.