Recovery Through Running: Organizations Help Fight Addiction and Homelessness

A few of the Boston Bulldogs pose together following a run at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Brookline on Feb. 17. The Boston Bulldogs Running Club is a nonprofit group that strives to help members recover from addiction and achieve wellness through exercise. Photo by Sarah Rappaport / BU News Service.

By Sarah Rappaport
BU News Service

The term ‘runner’s high’ has been used to describe the euphoria and the rush of endorphins that an athlete feels after completing a challenging sprint or race. In Boston, Back On My Feet and The Boston Bulldogs are offering hope and change to those struggling with addiction and homelessness by using running to improve the lives of their members.

The Boston Bulldogs are a nonprofit club founded by Clinical Social Worker and Addiction Specialist Mike Ferullo in 2008. Ferullo, who has been sober for about forty years, started the club hoping to help users recover by providing them with a supportive community and wellness plans.

“We’re trying to heal from the trauma of the addiction,” Ferullo said. “These guys hang out, they have fun, and they talk throughout the week.”

Similarly, Back on My Feet Boston, one of twelve chapters nationwide, utilizes the community aspects of running to assist Bostonians in combatting homelessness and other associated issues. Members are encouraged to come out with one of several running groups in the city three days a week for 30 days. Afterwards, they are able to participate in the Next Steps program, which offers educational resources, housing support and job training. Currently, 80 percent of members proceed to Next Steps.

Boston Chapter Director Elizabeth Carr believes that the support of the team is one of the reasons that members continue the program. “When they are surrounded by people who are in circumstances like they are, they’re overcoming and they are all gaining strength from each other,” Carr said.

Both programs use short and long-term goals to give their members something to strive for. For the Bulldogs, the Full Circle program offers a supportive and structured atmosphere that encourages members to run longer distances and eventually enter race events. Upon completion, they are encouraged to continue with the club and become wellness sponsors for new members in recovery. This year, the Bulldogs have four runners participating in the Boston Marathon.

Sean Staunton, a recovered member, is one of those runners. He is also a wellness sponsor for other club participants.

“I never had a network with sober people before this,” Staunton said. “I never thought I’d say I would be running the Boston Marathon.”

While running may seem like a offbeat alternative to recovery, exercise has been increasingly linked to success in combating addiction and other health-related issues.

According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, exercise is beneficial as a preventative treatment and as a way to intervene and assist in healing addiction.

For Arthur Agostino, who has been a member of the Bulldogs for a few months, other methods of treatment just didn’t work.

“In the past I’ve tried so many ways to get sober. I’ve been in a bunch of programs, and I’d complete them just to complete them, then I’d be right back out there,” Agostino said. “But this time, with running, it actually fills your endorphins, just like the drugs did.”

Still, even with groups like these, it can be difficult for users to actually get the help they need.

Residential programs can be expensive, especially if medical insurance companies cannot accommodate patients. Therapy retreats have been linked to larger monetary scams, potentially increasing stigma behind these types of treatment options.

But just as wilderness therapy has become popular as a remedy for mental health issues, running recovery programs  utilize exercise, group activity, and the outside environment.

Unlike many residential treatment programs, where users are in closed-door treatment and separated from the outside world, both organizations allow community members who are not fighting addiction or other afflictions to join. Carr suggests that having these mixed groups encourages solidarity.

“Our members are actually just like everyone else, [they are] regular people,” Carr said. “But maybe there was one circumstance that changed that had them experience homelessness.”

Regardless of affliction, it seems that being part of a team is what members of both groups enjoy the most. Will Diamond, a Bulldog in recovery who is prepping for this year’s Boston Marathon, said that running with the team is what keeps him going.

“I’ve had little stretches of time where I haven’t been with the Bulldogs, and those have been bad months,” Diamond said. “So I think it’s therapeutic. It’s beyond running and getting in shape. It’s getting help from others.”

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