Is Living a Life Free of Addiction a Choice? Why the Answer Matters to the Fitness Community

Before we begin this report, it is important to understand that this survey was just that; a survey. This is by no means a scientific study, but rather a method to gain the opinions and views of the physical fitness community specifically; and to understand the percentage of those in that community who also agree with the foundations of the non-12 step/non-treatment programs offered at the St. Jude Retreats.

Over the last 27 years myself and several other researchers founded the St. Jude Program and the St. Jude Retreats on the basis of offering a program for substance users that was not 12 step or disease based. We were the first to coin the phrase non-12 step and provide that alternative to treatment. We did so for the simple reason that the success rate for the disease-based, 12 step program Alcoholics Anonymous, is 5% (Dodes & Dodes, 2014). If it were impossible to stop without this form of help, this 5% success rate would at least be something, but of course it’s not. In fact, 20-30% of people will stop with what’s called a brief intervention such as their doctor telling them to quit based on health issues, or a spouse asking them to stop based on the pattern of use hurting their relationship, etc. (Brown 1991). This means the 12-Step success rate is essentially 20 points lower than a simple 15 minute talk with a doctor about alcohol use.

The treatment and rehab industry as a whole fares a few points higher than 12 step support groups depending on the facility and the methods they employ. They succeed an average of 20-30% of the time as well (regardless of the erroneous made-up “success rate” analysis they portray in their websites and other promotional materials). (Brown 1991) Simply stated, both 12 step programs and treatment as a whole are ineffective, and often counter effective – reducing chances of success! Also, all of these methods ignore the fact that although 90% of heavy users don’t receive treatment – the silent majority we call them – 50% of them simply get over their alcohol or drug problem by age 30, and 75% of them get over their problems by age 37. (Heyman, 2013) (Heyman, 2009). These are simple facts that beg the question – if treatment has lower abstinence and moderation rates than doing virtually nothing, then why wouldn’t we look at those who were successful in quitting or moderating with no treatment influence at all?

Addiction and the Physical Fitness Community

Answering this question is exactly what we have been doing for nearly 3 decades at St. Jude’s, and is the reason we teamed up with Dai Manuel for this survey. In conducting our research, we found that there were certain populations of people who agree with the silent majority − who agree that personal choice and free will trump being “powerless” and a “victim of alcohol and drugs,” and furthermore that they reject the idea that individuals who use heavily are in perpetual need of treatment and rehabilitation.
Dai Manuel is one of these people. He rejected these counterproductive ideas and created his own independent route to success. You may have watched his personal video testimonial. (If you haven’t please click here) What an inspiration and testament to the power of the human to triumph over mental and emotional shackles! What Dai’s testimonial exposed is just the tip of the iceberg. There are millions more of you out there, many in the fitness world who also think in his empowering, self determined, way.
The physical fitness community is one of the demographics whose personal values at first glance seem to match the St. Jude Program in so many ways, and the survey that Dai posted simply corroborated this fact. In most respects, those who took the survey seem to understand that drug and alcohol consumption (no matter how grievous) are choices, but in a few areas we can see how even the fitness community with all its inherent drive and personal motivation is still at risk of being confused with some of the treatment industry’s addiction mythology that exists today in our culture. Let’s look at the results of the survey and analyze it to further understand how those who are both interested in addiction and the world of fitness can benefit from the survey results:

Question number 1 – Have you or someone you know struggled with addiction – either presently or in the past?


Question number 2 – If yes, who was it?

Being that 95% of the respondents are currently or were at one time a substance user, or knows/knew someone who has struggled with addiction, the survey definitely hit a group of you who are interested in this topic and took the survey seriously. We are also making a certain assumption that the you, the respondent, is or was as at some point, interested in the topic of fitness at some personal level, as that is Dai’s main audience.

Dai Manuel is someone who obviously understands the physical fitness community, and that is why we partnered with him to reach you; to get a better understanding of how to help those with addiction issues in this specific arena. And here is why: at the heart of everything St. Jude’s does and has done over the past 27 years, is a common thread of offering physical fitness activities as a voluntary aspect to our alcohol and drug programs. For many of our guests the complimentary gym memberships, the Adirondack mountain climbing expeditions, the freedom to bicycle and jog, etc., are the deciding factors when they choose us as a program to help them overcome their substance use issues. A large percentage of our guest population have active physical fitness goals and find this aspect of their life to be paramount to their happiness. In light of this, we partnered with Dai to delve deeper into understanding what the physical fitness community believes about addiction, and how we can help impart a greater understanding of the truth to the fitness community on this complex topic.

Question Number 3. – If treatment has failed you/loved one, would you be interested in learning about a different approach that is non-disease based?


The fact that 77% of the respondents are looking for an alternative to the false disease concept is a testament to this population’s drive to succeed! One of the keys to learning is the willingness to have an open mind to new and more effective strategies and ideas. To be successful in any endeavor requires learning and adapting. Being that nearly all people in America have been exposed to the disease concept, it is encouraging to hear so many of the survey respondents state they wanted to learn more about the non-disease model – 77% were open to a new concept that more closely matched their values. The fitness community has the same rates (if not higher) of substance use that occurs in the population at large. The disease concept is a belief that is quite prevalent in this population as well. The fact that such a high rate of response favored looking for an alternative to the disease concept of addiction shows the willingness to learn and adapt – earmarks of a fitness centered perspective on life’s challenges for sure!

Question Number 4. – If treatment has failed you/loved one, would you be interested in learning about a different approach that is not a 12-step based program?

Here too we see an almost identical number of respondents wanting an alternative to the cultural ideal as presented in the 12 steps. The 12 step program, while actually damaging in its effect on lives, is seen as a Western cultural sacred cow. We hear people say things like, “the 12 steps are the most successful program for the recovery of addiction.” The irony is that when researchers looked into this common claim, it was found that AA and its 12 step offshoots fared worse than almost any other method for overcoming an addiction! It ranked #38 out of 50 treatment methods analyzed for effectiveness, below such methods as Shock Aversion Therapy and Psychedelic Medication, and what’s worse it had a negative cumulative evidence score, which really means it didn’t even deserve to be on the list (Hester & Miller, 2002). This of course is not the point of the survey however. Here we just wanted to know if the fitness community has a willingness and desire to know of alternatives to the 12 steps. And with a confirmative rate of 71% of the respondents wanting to know more about an alternative, we once again see the drive for facts and an open mind are quite present in the fitness community. Obviously, as the only true non-12 step method in the nation (many claim to offer a non-12 step non-treatment option, but an exhaustive search determined we were the only ones to live up to this claim, see Dodes & Dodes, 2014), it was of real importance for us to know whether those who have a fitness centered lifestyle would also embrace a method that rejects the powerlessness narrative that is the basis of all recovery programs. You have spoken – the fitness community is ready for a change!

Question Number 5. – If you or a loved one struggle with addiction but haven’t sought help, why haven’t you sought help?

We were searching for the reasons why people did not seek help for an addiction, and how large that population was in the fitness community specifically. The reasons we listed in the survey did not come out of thin air. When we designed the survey, we listed the 6 most common reasons our guests avoided treatment and 12 step models and instead came to St. Jude’s. In light of this information, we listed those 6 reasons in the survey. And as you can see, the vast majority of you are ready to reject the powerlessness narrative and reclaim your power and drive to succeed past an addiction via the alternative model.  Look at the charts above. We see that 83% agreed on the following points (the respondent selected any that applied to their lives): treatment does not fit their values, treatment does not work, they don’t want powerlessness labels or implied weaknesses imposed upon them, they don’t want their past dictating their future, or to be coerced or forced by threat of fear to attend 12 step meetings for the rest of their lives. In other words they agreed with the non-12 step, non-disease based model and were (possibly without even realizing it) rejecting nearly all that the treatment and 12 step communities stand for. 47% of you said a number of these survey options did not apply to you while some of the other options did. So not everyone agreed on all 6 anti-treatment/anti 12 step options, yet 83% of you agreed on some or many of the options listed in the survey. The simple point is this, most of you don’t agree with the basic tenets of treatment or the 12 steps. Most of you are willing to learn and grow past addiction.

Question Number 6. – What set of attributes do you feel are most important in overcoming addiction?

This was another question in which the respondent was asked to select all that apply to their lives. This survey question highlights a very, very important crossroads for the fitness community. As you can see from the charts, the respondents felt that self-responsibility was the most important attribute, followed by the need for support meetings/groups. If 83% of you felt that self-responsibility was the most important attribute and 56% of you felt there is a need for support meetings/groups to overcome addiction, there is statistically a group of respondents that picked both of these options. And here is the rub: these two options are mutually exclusive factors in overcoming addiction. In short, you cannot believe people are fully responsible for their actions and then require them to attend support meetings because if they don’t “they will succumb to their addiction.” You see, support meetings imply weakness, dependence, and a need for power from outside yourself where self responsibility implies power, independence and accountability. There is no weakness when we are accountable – it is the embodiment of personal strength and is also ironically the foundation for a realistic fitness centered lifestyle. In fitness we look at the results of our plans, our choices, and our actions and then we determine to do better the next time. That is measuring ourselves and then being accountable and strong and forward facing.

Now this is where things get sticky sometimes. Some folks feel that when someone becomes responsible for their use and the harsh consequences of that use, and then they ask for support – that is taking responsibility for their situation. We understand that perspective, except one fact remains true; when we ask someone to support us, we are saying we cannot quit or moderate our use on our own.

Here’s why this is so confusing: when we talk about supporting each other at the gym, we are not saying that the one being supported is weak and incapable, or furthermore that they would simply give up going to the gym without us mentally supporting and emotionally propping them up. If we did behave in this condescending way, the one being supported would probably be offended, and rightfully so. In short, whether someone goes to the gym and continues toward their fitness goals is not dependent on a supportive group of others. Ultimately, every fitness buff knows that in the final analysis, whether they reach their fitness goals or not, is up to them.

That is not to say that support does not exist in the gym or that it doesn’t have some positive effect. It does. Let’s say someone is at the gym and is asking to be spotted as they bench press a heavy amount of weight. In this example they are asking for support, quite literally. And that makes eminent sense, as no one wants the bar and weight to crush them. And in the physical realm being supported by others makes sense, is smart and commonplace. It’s also common to watch people cheer each other on. But no one would jump to the conclusion that the support they received was the sole reason they succeeded or that without their cheer squad they would have quit trying. That’s because so much of the process involved in a fitness goal is internal to the individual and their personal reasons for wanting to be fit. It’s very personal. It is easy for those who have achieved their physical fitness goals to take pride in it, because in the end, their body is a record of all they themselves have accomplished, regardless of those supporting them along the way.

But the definition of being supported in the addiction arena is very, very different. First, the implication is that addicts and alcoholics NEED support. This not only implies weakness, it is a forceful agenda to make the individual beholden to the support networks themselves. This idea would never fly in a gym. Gym rats or anyone with a desire to hit a personal fitness goal, know that in the final analysis to achieve the goal it lies on them, not on those around them. However, the entire premise of modern day alcohol and drug treatment is that the individual is weak, diseased, broken and cannot under any circumstances make sound decisions without a committee of professionals or other “addicts and alcoholics” on which to use as a crutch. This is a long way from someone asking another to cheer them on at the gym or the sidelines of a marathon!

In the results we see the pursuit of happiness ranked high at 51%, self-responsibility ranked highest at 85%, and free will came in at 43%; all earmarks of strength and empowerment. Medications ranked low at only 13%, and rightfully it should. Providing medication to people who use substances heavily simply reinforces the need for another substance. We see the horrendous results of inappropriate pharmacology every day at methadone clinics and suboxone doctors’ offices and the like all across the country.

So what does this all mean? It means that once again the fitness community got it right on almost all accounts. And, when we spell out the differences between the way in which the treatment industry inappropriately defines support as compared to the reasonable manner in which most people see support defined in the gym, one can see that the version of “support” as promoted in the treatment field does nothing but keep those with substance use issues immersed in the problem longer than necessary. This is why St. Jude’s never advocates AA or NA meetings as a function of moving forward in life. And just like those with fitness goals, one need not believe they are always going to be weak and in need of mental support to reach their substance use goals. They either enjoy being sober enough to work at a new direction in life or they don’t, and for those who do not enjoy it enough, no amount of “support” will make them change. That’s certainly no different than those with fitness goals.

Question Number 7. – In your opinion, what do you feel classifies someone as an addict or alcoholic as opposed to someone who drinks reasonably?

This was an interesting one. And the wide variety of answers makes the following point; there is no single definition of an addict or alcoholic, because they are not diseases with pathology. In disease pathology there are defining markers for what constitutes the disease, its symptoms, etc. You can look at it under a microscope and see it.  And therefore you can easily define it. Drinking and drugging are choices, they are activities; so therefore each pattern is the individual’s personal autonomous pattern. And random patterns that are caused by people’s infinite reasons to use are simply not definable as a group.

Years ago I learned a valuable lesson. A man, I’ll call him Tom, said to me, “I drink about 10 to 12 beers a day.” I asked him, “Do you think you’re an alcoholic?” He looked at me, offended, and said, “No! Of course not. Alkies can’t handle that much booze!” And he meant it. The thing is, he was right, and he was wrong. If I said he was an alcoholic, I too would have been right, and I too would have been wrong. The point is, the definition of an alcoholic or an addict is a completely subjective, moving target. To me at the time (with my limited understanding) I felt he was kidding himself and that he was an “alcoholic.” But because it is not a disease, it is like trying to pigeonhole someone’s likes and dislikes into a definition we all can approve of. People use drugs and drink in ways that are personal to their desires, wants and values. Tom certainly did, and he had the right to define his habit in any way he wanted. His view is the most accurate view. And therefore there will never be a definition that can include everyone’s personal reasons for substance use. It’s a topic too infinite in the amount of personal variables to accurately define. So, to a certain degree, this was a trick question because there is no such thing as an alcoholic or an addict; there are just people who use substances or who use alcohol based on their free will, their desire to do so for infinite different personal autonomous reasons.

There was nothing special that stood out in the respondents’ answers to the questions. Most wrote things like when “defining” what an “addict” or “alcoholic” is: “There is a loss of control,” “They can’t wake up without a drink,” etc. These are the more common perceptions of what constitutes an “addicts” or “alcoholics” typical image. While the loss of control idea is a myth, it has become so common in our culture that even as researchers we expected the fitness community to repeat them. However, all people use substances to the exact amount they desire, at that moment. But that fact is missed by most people in Western culture who have been steeped in the loss of control theories. At St. Jude’s we spend a tremendous amount of time and resources bringing the facts about what addiction is, and more importantly, what it is not, out into the open for our guests and their families. This question simply reinforced the need for more factual research to be distributed to those in the fitness arena as well.

Question Number 8. – In your opinion, what do you think is the motivating factor as to why someone drinks or uses drugs?

We picked the language used in this question very carefully. The “motivating factor” for all our choices is the Positive Drive Principle (pursuit of happiness), and we wanted to see how your responses fit into that reality.

For one survey respondent, they described ridding “themselves of anxiety” as a motivating factor for drinking or drugging. This fits into the PDP perfectly – the individual would be happier without anxiety than with it. (This choice does not however necessarily take anxiety away, but at the time the person decides to drink to alleviate their anxiety, they certainly thought it would, or they would not have chosen that path.) Some of the other responses were: “To escape pain,” “bring up their low self esteem,” “cope with big life problems,” etc. So while drugs and alcohol in reality have no inherent power to provide solutions to these life challenges, that does not change the motive behind choosing substances to fix them. And in many cases fixing problems is a relative form of happiness when compared to not fixing them. So we see the motive for happiness, albeit relative happiness, is present in all your survey responses. With all that said, alcohol and drugs are poor conduits in which to solve problems. So while the individual may be seeking a relatively happier position by choosing to use substances, the outcome may be anything but that.

Question Number 9. – Are you familiar with the Positive Drive Principle (PDP)? This principle is the basis for all internal human motivation (including yours). It states: “All people always move in the direction of what they believe will make them happy at any given moment in time.”

58% of the respondents stated they were not familiar with the PDP. That makes sense, in that, though we have not published the Freedom Model book yet (it will be published later this year – 2016) that contains a thorough treatise on the principle, the pursuit of happiness is nothing new, and most people in the fitness community are driven by their desire to feel good and improve their health. So it makes sense that 17% felt they were familiar with the principle. The comments from the respondents were enlightening as well. One person wrote that they wanted to learn more. Another stated how this is “the basic principle of markets.” Being that the PDP is what drives all motivation, it has relevance in everything we as humans do, even the markets.

The Freedom Model will explain the PDP in detail, along with free will and autonomy – the three Freedom Model attributes. With a thorough knowledge of these attributes, addictions melt away, as do any behaviors or choices that repeatedly bring us misery.


This survey gave us a clear picture of how the fitness community sees addiction and the possible solutions for it. It also made it clear that the fitness community does indeed have similar values as the St. Jude Program offered at the St. Jude Retreats. We want to thank Dai Manuel for reaching out to his audience and introducing our model with his world. I also want to thank everyone who took the time to fill out the survey. We hope to hear from anyone who wants to know more about how to leave addiction behind and move forward in their lives.


Hester, R. K., & Miller, W. R. (2002). Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches: Effective Alternatives, 3rd Edition (3rd edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Link to that chart:


The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry: Lance Dodes, Zachary Dodes: 9780807035870: Books. (n.d.). Dodes, L., & Dodes, Z. (2014). The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry (1st Edition, 1st Printing edition). Boston: Beacon Press.

Brown, G. (1991). The Baldwin Research Project of 1991. Retrieved June 29, 2016, from

Heyman, G. M. (2009). Addiction: A Disorder of Choice (1st ed.). Harvard University Press.

Heyman, G. M. (2013). Addiction and Choice: Theory and New Data. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4.