The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people across the country to isolate themselves, avoid large indoor gatherings, and adapt to a new world where in-person contact could endanger one’s health and safety.
Confronted by this new reality, people battling anxiety, depression, substance abuse and behavioral addictions are encountering increased mental health and substance use challenges. Studies note that fatal drug overdoses are rising, suicide rates are increasing, and that Americans are drinking more. In New York, liquor stores and bars have reopened, but healthy coping mechanisms like gyms and 12-step meetings are often not accessible.
Amid these disturbing setbacks, a new program is bringing people facing various addictions together in a safe – and socially distant – place to avoid a relapse while connecting with a welcoming community and working out their bodies, minds, and spirit.
Since July, Sober Active NYC has held free weekly workout sessions in Central Park followed by 12-step meetings and is preparing this September – National Recovery Month – to launch daily virtual gatherings and a broader range of activities to connect with more people each week.
“At the heart of Sober Active NYC is a community of support,” said Tom Shanahan, co-founder and president of Sober Active NYC. “People are facing seemingly insurmountable pressure and stress during the pandemic, when they feel alone, and are struggling with their addictions. Trauma is an underlying and common factor for most people in recovery, so we want to give them a place to transform any negative, harmful thoughts into positive growth and help them to live mentally – and physically – healthier lives. By combining fun beginner workouts with a 12-step meeting, we are providing non-addictive, healthy coping tools and sustainable fellowship to those New Yorkers in need.”
David Barton, New Yorker, fitness icon, and advisor to Sober Active NYC, added, “Fitness was my ticket out of addiction. Every rep in the gym takes me further away from the old days of substance abuse. Fitness has played a major role in my sobriety and for so many others. I am thrilled to support Sober Active NYC and help it expand to as many New Yorkers as possible.”
Since its inception, Sober Active NYC has held a dozen nightly outdoor workout sessions in Central Park, attracting about a dozen to 20 participants each time (20 is the maximum allowed due to social distancing safety protocols and city parks regulations). Most instructors, who are all professional trainers, have faced addiction issues themselves. Each session – in which participants remain more than six feet apart – begins with a workout session, whether yoga, boxing, karate, Pilates, meditations, CrossFit, Body Pump, or another form of exercise. Afterwards, the instructor or another participant will share their personal stories of growth and resilience, and then lead participants through a 12-step meeting which only ends after everyone has a chance to share!
Through transformative activities and peer support, Sober Active NYC enhances participants’ outlook, coping skills, and self-esteem with the goal that they will continue on their path to recovery. All classes are free but require signups (to limit the number of attendees to comply with social distancing). All workouts are posted on Sober Active NYC social media sites after they take place. The only requirement to participate is that a person must be 48 hours clean from any substance or compulsive or abusive behavior.
This fall, Sober Active NYC plans to expand its footprint with additional sporting activities, including boxing, paddle boarding in New York Harbor, meditation walks around the city, and ongoing virtual programming – accessible through digital platforms to those who RSVP, as well. In the months to come, Sober Active NYC will:
- Expand workouts to all five boroughs.
- Provide workouts in English, Spanish and Mandarin.
- Offer workouts in collaboration with local not-for-profit organizations in more than a half dozen of New York’s low-income neighborhoods.
“Sober Active NYC provides a safe space for people interested in integrating self-care into their recovery. Everyone needs non-addictive, healthy coping mechanisms right now. By getting people out of their apartments to workout with us in parks, isolation is reduced and interaction and fellowship with other healthy-minded people is increased. This dramatically reduces rates of anxiety, depression, relapse and even suicide,” Shanahan said. “It’s about developing healthy habits and coping mechanisms to get through the pandemic sober and healthy.”
A lawyer who grew up in New York City, Shanahan confronted his addiction issues a decade ago, and has been sober since 2011. He worked a 12-step program but was not able to get and stay sober until he integrated exercise and nutrition into his overall program. He became certified as a personal trainer and in sports nutrition, and began to understand how caffeine, sugar and an unhealthy lifestyle negatively impacted his ability to avoid relapse and find happiness in sobriety.
Shanahan published “Spiritual Adrenaline: A Lifestyle Plan to Strengthen & Nourish Your Recovery” in January 2019 by Central Recovery Press. “Spiritual Adrenaline “is an evidence-based book that explains the benefits of exercise and nutrition for people in recovery. In early 2020, he launched Sober Active NYC and recently helped to launch Sober Active Canada. Shanahan has accelerated his efforts for expansion of Spiritual Adrenaline and the sober active movement given COVID-19. Given almost all of the coping mechanisms available to the public involve addiction behaviors, he believes it is critical to help spread the sober active movement all over the world as soon as possible.