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Walk into Core City Fitness on a Thursday night and you’ll find a group of people lounging on gym mats and chatting. The gym on the corner of 15th and Warren Avenue isn’t too big, with exposed brick walls and sunlight streaming in through tall windows. Three-foot-tall fans are positioned around the gym to beat the summer heat, and a breeze blows through the garage door.

At 7:30 p.m. sharp, the music starts and everyone gets into position. They know the drill.

So begins a one-hour Cross Fit class called SoberWOD, which stands for Sober Workout Of the Day. The free community training program for people in rehab has only one requirement: 48 hours of sobriety.

The class is held at Core City Fitness in affiliation with the Phoenix, a national non-profit organization for a “Sober and Active Community”. The Phoenix also organizes other activities in Detroit, from rock climbing to kayaking on the Detroit River.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses claimed the lives of more than 2,759 Michigan residents in 2020.

The gym’s strong community is evident the moment you walk in, from the whiteboard highlighting birthdays and accomplishments to everyone’s familiarity with the running dog.

SoberWOD was brought to Core City Fitness in 2018 by Susannah Wingfield, who works with the Phoenix and is the session instructor. The class sees a mix of participants from those in recovery at all ages as well as friends and family who come for support.

She started offering free classes because the gym was one of the main things that helped her when she got sober six years ago.

“When I first got sober, we talked about finding ways to squeeze out your free time,” she said. “If you’re just sitting around and having a lot of free time, it’s very easy to go back to those patterns.”

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Exercise has become a way for her to fill her free time with something productive. But it also became a way to find community, which is crucial during the recovery process.

“A lot of times when people get sober, they end up leaving a very important part of their community behind,” she said.

SoberWOD was a way for her to create a community and bring together people who all have the same mindset about exercise, but are also recovering. And to make the class accessible, Wingfield has kept it free so it poses no financial barriers to anyone wishing to enroll.

For Wingfield, the most memorable experiences are seeing people break a new personal best, like performing their first pull-up.

But what strikes her most is the non-judgmental atmosphere they hope to create at SoberWOD.

“We’ve had people who relapse and keep coming back,” she said. “If they feel like they’ve fallen and they want to come back, they know no one here will think less of them.”

During the summer of 2020, the gym closed for a few weeks due to coronavirus – but then started offering classes again, either on Zoom or outside. Those workouts were a silver lining for Patterson and an important part of recovery for others during the pandemic.

One of the reasons exercise works is the social support aspect, which is “the most evidence-based practice in recovery,” said Meg Patterson, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

“Exercise gives you some control over something, and physiologically it helps reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms,” Patterson said.

Although research has been conducted on the benefits of exercise for recovery, most research has focused on independent exercise rather than that performed in a group. The results of these studies did not last long.

“A Cross Fit-style gym, where you connect with other people,” Patterson said. “Something like this is a really promising approach to helping someone in their recovery.”

What makes group exercise so different from independent exercise is that it helps people in their personal, social, and community recovery. Their physical health will improve, they will connect with people who support them in their recovery, and they will have a community to watch over them and hold them accountable.

Shakina Russell and Brandon Stuart are two gym members who have been frequenting the club since last summer when they heard about the Phoenix at a mental health event.

When asked why they stayed at SoberWOD for so long, they both had one answer: the community.

“I want to be around people who want to give it their all on a Thursday night after work,” Stuart said.

Russell said she thinks SoberWOD works because “it’s really important for people to have a space that they don’t commonly associate with sobriety.” She added that everything for her comes down to behavior change – what positive choice can she make right now?

Both Russell and Stuart are allies for sobriety. For Russell, “it’s something I’ve obviously seen people struggle with.”

Stuart echoed that sentiment, saying he was supportive of anyone trying to heal and recover. Since last summer, he has become a yoga teacher with the gym.

“I’m glad there’s a gym like this in the city,” he said. “It’s really good to create a community in Detroit and bring people together in the name of something good.”