Keep-fit instructors are helping drug users kick the habit with a dose of military discipline in London’s Hyde Park, writes Daniel Lombard
How do you help former rough sleepers get their lives back on track and lower their use of illegal drugs? By getting them hooked on a drug of a different kind – the legal high of endorphins, using a combination of fresh air, exercise and a bracing dose of military discipline.
Residents of King George’s Hostel, in Westminster, London, began their unlikely partnership with instructors from British Military Fitness in April. Twice a week, the keep-fitters are put through their paces in Hyde Park by the uncompromising trainers, who are all serving or former members of the Army or Royal Marines.
Substance misuse worker Nosheen Raja says several hostel residents initially responded poorly to being pushed to the limit, because of their chaotic lifestyles. Some were so out of shape they couldn’t run 50 metres without vomiting, according to BMF instructor Ian McClelland.
But, with Raja’s encouragement, a group of five male residents sweated it out and turned up weekly. To the delight of Westminster Council’s drug and alcohol action team, which funds the scheme, and the BMF team, the residents’ hard work has been rewarded with improvements to their health and self-confidence.
Raja, an external worker at King George’s employed by the charity Turning Point, noticed a “massive reduction” in the use of drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine since classes started in April. Three residents have become completely clean.
The project suited their physiological needs, she explains. “The natural high of endorphins through exercise takes away the need to use stimulants like crack cocaine.
“There were people using drugs every day: going out, begging, committing crime, getting arrested. It was a vicious circle. Now they’ve cut their drug use and are not getting into trouble. It’s given them a routine, and changed their mindset.”
The setting of one of London’s best-known parks is a key factor in the service users’ re-integration into the community. And they are not alone in enjoying the experience: BMF is a private company that employs 400 instructors to run public classes in 60 parks in the UK and South Africa.
“For two hours the residents are not drug addicts, they’re not homeless they’re just ordinary people keeping fit,” says Raja. “The residents see themselves as living on the margins of society. That’s something I’ve always wanted to change.”
McClelland says the experience “changes their whole lives piece by piece”.
“They’re watching what they eat and taking in water before they go to bed,” he says.
“Some of them are reducing their methadone by request. It all stems from a feeling of physical self-worth.”
The classes themselves are not, pardon the expression, a walk in the park. It is exhausting just watching the participants push themselves through the punishing sprints, press-ups and other exercises, controlled by the no-nonsense orders of McClelland.
A serving member of the Territorial Army, his booming, drill-sergeant voice was enough to make passing bull terriers and their owners stand to attention as he controlled the work-out.
However, he was keen to point out that BMF is not a boot camp (and, to be fair, I never once heard anyone bark “you ‘orrible lot!”). Rather, it is built on the military principles of discipline, team-building, camaraderie and hard work.
“There’s no faffing around,” he says. “But we don’t humiliate anyone, we don’t bully them. It is more carrot than stick. I will give them a pat on the back when I can see they’ve put the effort in, even if they’re not as fit as some of the others.”
One of the most committed participants is Dave Barton, who has used his new-found fitness to put 20 years of drug addiction behind him. The Liverpudlian used to feel sick every morning, suffered from depression and began stealing to fund his heroin habit. Last year, after moving to King George’s, he cut down on drugs and the BMF training was “the final nail in the coffin”.
“I’m completely clean now,” he says. “It’s got back to what I was like when I was a kid. I feel normal and I look forward to every day.”
In July, he completed his first fun-run. As he recalls the experience of pounding the streets of London in the British 10k Run, a grin spreads across his face. “It felt great,” he says.
Janet Haddington, manager of Westminster Council’s rough sleeping team, explains the psychological progress he has made: “I suspect Dave felt he was failing for a long time, and lo and behold he’s doing well at something and he’s beginning to feel physically and emotionally better. It’s raised his self-esteem and he’s got to the stage where he doesn’t want to poison his body anymore.”
After celebrating his 50th birthday in August, Barton has high hopes for the future. He plans to find a flat of his own, and is looking for a job in healthcare – his first in 20 years.
Meanwhile, BMF is in talks with other local authorities about expanding the service user classes. With the personal triumphs scored after just four months’ sweat and toil in Hyde Park, the model is likely to catch on.
More informationThis article is published in the 25 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The anti-drug runners