Mishka Shubaly was bartending the night that his friend got beat so badly he ended up in the emergency room. The next morning, Shubaly — newly sober — went for his first run in fifteen years. Five miles. And with that five miles, he began his journey toward lifetime sobriety, a life free from addiction. His book The Long Run chronicles his journey from “irreverent young drunk” to sober ultra-runner.
Shubaly’s story is not only inspirational, but reenforces a relatively new idea that exercise can be used as a “cure” for addiction.
When the book was first released, it topped the bestseller list, knocking even Stephen King out of his number one spot. While the book’s reception surprised Shubaly, experts maintain that the former drunk is not alone is using exercise to overcome addiction. Since the book’s release, groups have allegedly been popping up around the country to help people stay sober by staying active.
Scott Strode, who heads the nonprofit organization Phoenix Multisport, says, “It’s a great way to introduce people into something that then later becomes … sort of their coping mechanism, as opposed to picking up a drink or a drug.” The nonprofit provides free athletic activities and a sober support community for thousands of people in Colorado.
In 2008, early clinical studies showed that exercise could potentially help treat — and possibly prevent — addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse then pledged $4 million to research the theory.
Human trials are now taking place.
The abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol contributes to the death of more than 100,000 Americans each year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Relapse rates range from 60 to 90 percent in the first year of sobriety, despite intervention and treatment programs.
“Habits play an important role in our health,” the institute’s director, Dr. Nora Volkow, wrote in a National Institute of Health newsletter. The goal is to replace bad habits with good ones. “Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors,” she added.
Some researchers have suggested that addicts who turn to exercise are simply replacing one addiction with another. Psychology professor Mark Smith thinks that’s fantastic. “One of those addictions leads to basically a devastation throughout all aspects of your life and probably premature death,” he said. “The other addiction leads to improved cardiovascular health, better self-esteem, better self-efficacy and maybe some joint problems when you get older. It’s an apples-and-chain saws comparison.”
Other theories include the idea that exercise may help addicts stay clean by helping regulate their sleep. Sleep problems are common for addicts early in recovery. These hypotheses still need to be tested.
Shubaly said that regardless of scientific answers, he is content knowing that running works for him. He is sober, and that is what matters to him.
“For me, exercise is the opposite of alcohol,” he said. “Alcohol is the easiest, fastest and most effective way of saying: ‘I don’t care. I don’t care about the good things in life or life at all.’
“Exercise, especially for someone who has been a sedentary alcoholic for a long time, is brutally difficult. And, as such, it’s a very meaningful way of saying: ‘OK, I actually do care now. I care a lot. I care enough about my life that I am willing to endure this torture to get better.’
“Doing the hard work of exercising totally reversed my worldview. I went from a life that was headed toward one thing to a life of nearly infinite potential.”