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DREAMER Project Provides Strong Evidence for Fitness as a Sobriety Tool

April 13, 2021 by
Courtesy of Hayley Avino
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We first met Hayley Avino last July 2020, when she was completing her Doctoral Degree in Nursing at Arizona State University. She was about to launch a trial fitness and wellness program at Hope House, a residential treatment centre in Scottsdale, AZ, to test her hypothesis that group fitness has a positive impact on those recovering from substance abuse. 

  • Eight months later, Avino’s research is complete and her statistically significant findings showed that incorporating functional fitness, “CrossFit-style group workouts” and wellness sessions into rehabilitation programs positively impacts perceived quality of life, social support, health and confidence in achieving long-term sobriety for those in recovery. In fact, Avino’s project — the DREAMER project — was so successful that ASU and Hope House now have a five-year contract to continue to build her program.

The details: Avino’s original plan was to administer fitness and wellness sessions three days a week for 12 weeks in-person, but COVID-19 caused her to pivot to a Zoom platform. Admittedly not her first choice, but as a silver lining, this allowed her to deliver her program to a second Hope House facility, as well. 

  • Prior to beginning, participants filled out two questionnaires — the World Health Organization’s Quality of Life (WHOQOL) assessment tool, and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), two tools commonly accepted as being “highly reliable,” Avino explained, as both tools consider various facets of life, including physical, social, mental, behavioral and environmental considerations.
  • Then, three days a week for 11 weeks — on Wellness Wednesdays, Serenity Saturdays, and Sober Sundays, as Avino called them — she hosted functional fitness workouts and lectures via Zoom about topics ranging from wellness, to nutrition to sleep.
  • At the end of the project, participants reassessed themselves via the WHOQOL and the FFMQ tools, and their scores improved dramatically. The mean score of the WHOQOL jumped from 87 to 105, while the FFMQ scores increased from a mean of 119 to 124, Avino explained. According to the biostatistical database that analyzed the data, these numbers are considered “very statistically significant,” said Avino, a CrossFit veteran of six years. 
  • Further, 80 percent of participants reported feeling “more prepared to achieve long-term sobriety” after completing the DREAMER project.  

One big thing: More powerful than numbers, however, was what Avino witnessed with her own eyes, even in an online setting.

  • “I cannot explain to you…witnessing those transformations was, just, amazing. There was a person in session one who had to stop every 30 seconds (doing single unders on Annie). And there he was 28 days later, he repeated Annie and did double-unders and finished the session in eight minutes. People were taking their shirts off and high fiving each other. It was just like at a CrossFit gym,” Avino said. 
  • She added: “I did this virtually. Imagine the impact in-person could have. I think this is only the beginning.”
Courtesy of Hayley Avino

The next steps: Because ASU has deemed the DREAMER project “a legacy project,” Avino has been able to hand it down to a second-year nurse practitioner student, Ali Chrapczynski to continue to build.

  • “Ali was the easy and obvious choice. She knows first hand the impact of addiction is far-reaching, as she lost her mother in her second semester of the program due to (complications from) chronic methamphetamine use,” Avino said, adding that Chrapczynski is set to resume the program in-person at Hope House next month. 
  • Further, Avino and her growing DREAMER project team are hosting their first community outreach event on May 1 at HubFitness in Phoenix, AZ. “The purpose of this event is to destigmatize addiction,” Avinoa said, and to educate people about “the need for recovery-based exercise communities” for those in recovery to improve quality of life and reduce the chance of relapse. 
  • Finally, Avino has been designing and selling t-shirts to raise money for the DREAMER project. So far she has sold 400 and is in the process of launching a new design. “I think they’re a good conversation starter. We have started having more open conversations about race and gender identity, but we’re still sweeping addiction under the rug…it’s still stigmatized…so the idea is to wear it with a purpose that will start a conversation,” she said. 

The big picture: Avino is hopeful that research like hers will create a movement that leads all treatment centers to include structured fitness and wellness programs for those recovering from substance abuse. However, there’s still a long way to go.

  • “The reality is most residential rehab facilities still don’t include exercise at all. The majority don’t even provide access to a gym, and even if they do, people in recovery usually don’t know what to do in the gym. They feel terrible. They’re experiencing terrible withdrawal symptoms. They don’t have access to social media or phones or structured fitness programs,” Avino said, who first saw how fitness could help those in recovery though her brother, Jeremy Plummer, who leans on CrossFit to stay sober. 
  • “But the healthcare community seems to overlook this when it comes to addiction and won’t bat an eye unless it’s evidence-based practice and proven through ground breaking science,” she said. 
  • Now, though Avinoa has some real, scientific evidence, beyond just her brother’s powerful anecdotal story. And she couldn’t be happier about it. 
  • “Fitness can truly give every individual the opportunity to live a longer, healthier, happier life….Group experience and CrossFit will connect (those in recovery) back to somewhere they feel they belong, are supported and their self-esteem and confidence will improve…I know we had a really positive impact on the people’s lives at (Hope House). I witnessed that. And it was amazing,” she said. 

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