Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, nestled in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, offers solace, healing, and compassion to those recovering from substance use disorder.
It also offers dumbbells.
In fact, as you may have noticed from the recent Facebook post, the most recent group of Mountain Laurel clientele, men and women alike, have formed a bodybuilding community, bonding over the bench press while building the healthy bodies and minds that will help sustain their long-term recovery.
Even though Mountain Laurel does not specialize in bodybuilding, it offers a fully-equipped gym and beautiful outdoor spaces for a variety of exercise activities and goals. The value MLRC places on fitness is embodied by the Executive Director himself, George Rutherford, who is a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor.
As one client said: “The gym helps keep me accountable for everything else. When I start skipping workouts, I know everything else will slip.” Another stated, “If I can push myself to work that hard, then nothing else in my day will be as tough as my workout…no craving can be as bad as what I willed myself to do.”
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week for all major muscle groups: legs, arms, back, shoulders, chest, abdomen, and hips. They define “muscle-strengthening activity” as any activity that makes muscles do more work than they are used to doing. This could include anything from heavy gardening to pushups to weight training.
For the current MLRC clients—and for many in recovery, as bodybuilding forums will attest—weight training is where it’s at. Hitting the gym and working toward personal goals keep people focused and motivated; it’s exciting to get the natural “high” from working out, to see your muscles gain definition, to feel more powerful, and to know you’re doing something good for your health.
For those new to weight training, let’s review some definitions:
Powerlifting is a sport in which athletes compete in three types of lifts: squat, bench press, and dead lift. If you use the correct technique to lift the most weight for your age, gender, and weight, you win. Olympic weightlifting consists of two types of lifts: clean-and-jerk and snatch. Medalists are those who lift the most weight (with the correct technique) for the two lifts combined.
Because powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting focus on building strength, competitive athletes often have higher body fat than bodybuilders. Bodybuilding, which can be done competitively or for recreation, focuses less on pure strength and more on shaping and defining the muscles. To that end, bodybuilders have much more variety in their training, using both free weights and machines to develop muscle tone.
Most people who include weight training in their fitness routine would fall into the general bodybuilding category. There are, of course, a plethora of hybrid workouts and strategies, as some people enjoy the competitive, I-can-lift-more-than-you-can approach while others feel more competitive about what they look like (the my-muscles-look-more-cut-than-yours approach). And then there are those who take a less competitive approach and enjoy lifting for lifting’s sake, competing only with themselves as they try to improve their health, strength, and physique.
Regardless of your motivation for lifting, you can recognize and enjoy its health benefits. According to a comprehensive review of medical research about the benefits of strength training, adults who commit to this form of exercise enjoy the following outcomes:
- Increased strength and bone density
- Improved balance
- Improved glycemic control and insulin resistance
- Lowered blood pressure
- Reduced pain in cases of low back pain, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia
- Reduced fatigue
Cognitive and Emotional benefits:
- Reduced anxiety, especially with moderate-intensity (as opposed to high-intensity) training
- Relief from depression symptoms, especially in those diagnosed with depression
- Improved self-esteem
- Improved sleep for older adults suffering from depression
- Improved memory
A Few Do’s and Don’ts About Weight Training
- Do listen to your body. As anyone in recovery knows, awareness of how you’re feeling allows you to respond with the appropriate self-care. It can be hard sometimes to distinguish between the body’s messages and the mind’s. When you’re feeling like skipping a workout, it might help to go ahead and start your routine. If you feel worse after a few minutes, you probably need to take the day off or switch to a lighter weight. If you start to feel better, you’ll know that it was your mind trying to stop you, not your body.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. This may sound easy, but if your workout pals are throwing on the weight or an attractive person is on the machine next to you, it’s easy to get caught up in wanting to impress.
- Do focus on form and breath—not on the amount of weight. This is why it’s best to work with a personal trainer or someone you know who has experience with weight training. While it’s easy to find instruction and sample workouts online, it’s hard to self-correct your form. Poor form can lead to injury and counteract the results you’re looking for.
- Don’t neglect other forms of exercise. Walking, running, hiking, aerobics, dance, yoga, pilates—all can help balance your fitness program and keep your heart and mind healthy.
A Couple of Caveats
Like any activity, weightlifting has the potential to become addictive. Steroids, testosterone boosters, fat burning supplements, and more can all be abused in the search for the heavier lift or more defined muscle shape. Even without supplements, bodybuilding can have harmful side effects if we connect the shape of our body to our self-worth. It’s easy to get caught up in appearance and in the pursuit of perfection.
Remind yourself, if you start to feel anxious or guilty about missing a workout, that weight training is just one of many tools you can use to stay grounded and to pursue well-being. Use it, but don’t let it use you.