An Addicts-Only Gym

It’s not news that exercise and peer support programs help legions of recovering addicts. But now a former college soccer player and recovering alcoholic has paired the two in a gym specifically built to foster sobriety. Salt Lake City-based Fit to Recover (FTR) was launched in 2012 as an outdoor boot camp for anyone in recovery; in January 2015 training moved indoors, to a two-story, 5,500-square-foot facility that’s expected to accommodate 35 fitness classes a week, with space for 12 step meetings, creativity classes and child care, along with a music room and wellness services such as nutrition counseling. FTR founder Ian C. Acker believes there’s no other gym in the U.S. structured quite the same way in serving the needs of those in recovery. Acker interned for three months at Phoenix Multisport, a Denver gym that also serves addicts and fosters community for those in recovery by working with local drug courts, among other services.

Fresh out of treatment two-and-a-half years ago, Acker, now 29, was casting about for a way to help himself and others seeking a supportive community in which to exercise. Running and 12 step support groups are what kept him from relapsing into boozing, snorting cocaine and getting high on his speed-based ADHD meds, he says. Acker had lost years to multiple brushes with the law and to denial, eventually pleading with his parents to help him; they found him a residential rehab program in Salt Lake City and he got sober in 2012.

It was an impulsive Facebook post on March 3, 2012 that gave birth to Fit to Recover. Acker simply wrote that he’d lead a vigorous workout the next morning at a park in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City; any of his friends in recovery were welcome to attend. Three showed up that first day. “It all started at a park with a boot camp and a boom box,” recalls Acker. Today, membership for the outdoor training program has grown to 150, and FTR gained legal nonprofit status on June 3, 2014.

Acker and FTR managers knew they could draw even more people in recovery if they offered year-round shelter from the rain and cold during workouts. So in August 2014 the team launched an campaign to raise money for a gym; in two months it had drawn nearly $26,000 in funding, about half the sum they expect to need to fulfill their business plan for the gym. Their campaign pitch for “Salt Lake City’s only sober gym for people in drug and alcohol addiction recovery” stressed that 23 million Americans maintain their recovery. Acker hopes FTR will continue to gain enough grant money and donors to become a model of both fitness and community involvement. “It’s a different business model than people are used to seeing,” he says. “We’re still charging for memberships to keep the lights on, but we’re keeping [rates] as low as we can.” A monthly $50 membership buys three classes a week; and $75 a month gives access to unlimited classes. Offerings range from yoga to boot-camp workouts. AA meetings are, of course, free. “The gym itself is kind of our home base and we just hang out before a meeting or after a meeting,” says Liz Grambau, 30, a recovering drug and alcohol addict and an FTR member. “And I think the sense of community is different. It’s not just a workout place, it’s our clubhouse.”

For those in recovery, exercise seems to have particular benefits: It improves sleep, reduces stress, elevates mood with endorphins and simply gives people something to do. Several hours a week spent on the treadmill, after all, may prevent a former addict from having more idle time in which they might use. Fit to Recover is not rehab, though; Acker says it’s simply another form of support in staying sober, a way to lighten the load. Relapse is so common in recovery that it’s expected – it takes an average of six or seven tries to stay clean – so anything that helps improve the odds is a plus.

The Monday night running class that Acker teaches might focus on fear, relationships in recovery, surrender, shame or guilt – any topic that might help a runner in both his training and his recovery. The runner can then follow up Acker’s class with an on-site 8 p.m. AA meeting if they choose. “We’re all recovering from something,” says Acker, whose girlfriend, Lacey Garcia, is a recovering heroin addict and leads FTR’s women’s programs. “We’re not scared to talk about stuff: ADHD, depression, anxiety, overeating, the many things we do to cope with everyday struggles. So this is a place where the person to your right opens up and shares something. It can really change your dynamic and the outcome of your day.”

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