How exercise transformed my life after living as an addict for 15 years

After struggling with addiction for 15 years, Gary Rutherford turned his life around, training as a mental health nurse, addiction counsellor and setting up ARC Fitness, to help people in Derry/Londonderry with their addiction struggles. Now nine years into his recovery, Gary shared his story during Mental Health Awareness Week to show how exercise proved crucial to his mental health journey and now, thanks to funding raised by National Lottery players, he can continue to help more people build resilience, thrive and succeed in life after addiction.

“The more we learn about mental health, the more we see how important it is and that we need to look after it. I learned a lot about mental health through my own addiction struggles. When you’re an addict you will always find some way to cope. For most people, like me, alcohol and drugs were an easy option.

“I’d used drugs and alcohol from my early teenage years. I always wanted to feel confident and accepted as a young person and wrongly thought the drugs would help with that.  I was a nervous kid, I was overweight and bullied in school. It affected my attitude as I grew up, and I carried all those insecurities into adulthood.

“For a long time, 15 years really, I’d wake up every Monday morning and promise myself that I would change. But I’d only manage to get to about 10:30am and I’d be drinking again. It wasn’t until my second stint in rehabilitation that my mindset switched, I had relapsed on and off for two years following it and I was mentally and physically exhausted. One day I decided that I was done with alcohol and drugs and the destruction that went along with it.

“When you’re in recovery everything changes, I literally had to start again and find structure in my life. My addiction cost me everything – my marriage had broken down, I had no job, no purpose, and I had to move back home to my parents’ house after being away for 10 years.

“This is when I first started running, there’s therapy in running, you can process feelings and emotions. It gave me focus and the exercise was really benefiting me physically and mentally. I was driven to change my ways and I ran five marathons in 18 months, joined a gym and I’ve now been drug and alcohol free for nine years.

“Because exercise was a massive part of my journey, I wanted to find a way to pull the love, passion and benefits of exercise together with addiction recovery. I’m not saying that exercise cures addiction, but it can build resilience. People with addictions really struggle with self-esteem, self-worth and insecurities, a lot of that can be rebuilt through sport and exercise. These are all the building blocks of recovery, stopping drinking and doing drugs is only the first point.

“It was about a year and a half ago that I set up ARC Fitness, to use my experience for the benefit of others. I really do feel like when you’ve been through something as dramatic and life-changing as the destruction of addiction and then recovery, it’s selfish not to share that with other people. I first set up ARC Fitness as an online signposting service, but it just expanded really quickly from there, to the point that within the first week people were looking to send referrals. Since then the research from our first intake has been validated by Queen’s University in Belfast and we’ve had 22 people complete the programme so far.

“At ARC Fitness we run small group training sessions coupled with experienced Addiction Recovery Coaching, to help people make positive and informed choices about their recovery. We empower people through physical activity then watch them thrive and succeed in life after addiction.

“I fear that during this period of isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, people will be managing their mental health, anxiety, lack of routine and structure with drugs and alcohol. Potentially finding themselves in a sticky situation when it’s over. It’s so important to give structure to your days, especially now that we’re spending a lot more time at home and indoors. I encourage everyone to get outside, eat good food and do some form of exercise every day, it will make you feel better.

“For anyone out there who is struggling with their mental health, I set up this group to show that hope is possible and there’s always support out there, you just have to find the right fit for you.  Look at me, I’m now a qualified mental health nurse, an addiction coach, a personal trainer, a father and a husband.

“The funding from The National Lottery Community Fund has made a massive difference to our group, it has enabled me to go from taking two classes a week to running six exercise classes a week, plus two online check-ins and reaching the wider community through our video and social media content.”

Here’s my tips for looking after your mental health during lockdown:

  1. Keep active – Do something once a day that is going to raise your heart rate, staying inactive has a big effect on our mood.
  2. Keep connected with people – We were created to be in communities, so we need people. Make sure you stay in touch with those who matter to you.
  3. Eat good food – Your diet has a big impact on how you feel about yourself, fuel your body with good food.
  4. Structure and routine – Days can be long when you don’t have a plan or a purpose. Make sure to have something planned for morning, afternoon and night time, no matter how small.

ARC Fitness was awarded a £7,460 grant from The National Lottery Community Fund to deliver a programme of physical activities for people in recovery from drug and alcohol dependence. These activities, coupled with experienced Addiction Recovery Coaching, help those participating make positive and informed choices about recovery.

For more information about ARC Fitness visit their website here.


  1. Inspiring story – just what we all need this week – building blocks of hope and encouragement.

  2. Very inspirational – well done Gary. I’d love to talk to you sometime about how you could help in our community.

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