Ask the Expert: Jeff Willert of Vinland National Center

We’ll feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions

Q: How important is fitness/wellness in the recovery process?

It is very important! I always say, “If you feel better physically, you feel better mentally. And if you feel better physically and mentally, you are more likely to stay clean and sober.” The therapeutic exercise program here at Vinland National Center is a mandatory part of the client’s daily programming. In fact, we offer “bonus” exercise classes very early in the morning, and there is often a line out of the gym door with those who want to take advantage of it. These classes are very popular among the milieu. Some of the clients have a hard time sitting all day in groups and individual therapy sessions for a variety of reasons. ADHD, PTSD, chronic pain to name a few. Our specifically designed therapeutic exercise program provides them with an outlet or a release of tension from being sedentary for much of the day, as well as improving their health in a fun and lively environment!

Q: Where should someone start with fitness – what are the first steps?

The first steps are very important. We perform a pre-functional musculoskeletal evaluation before they start any physical programming at Vinland. In that evaluation we test parameters such as upper body strength, lower body strength, lumbar extension, balance, body fat percentage and brain speed. If they have pain, we discuss options for treating pain. We talk about how the therapeutic exercise intervention can help. Once the evaluation is completed, we discuss goals for the programming. We talk about frequency, duration and intensity, and we teach the use of proper techniques, which helps clients get on board with the concept of ‘safe, slow and gentle’ – helping clients to learn to listen to their bodily symptoms. We discuss the importance of not trying to make changes too fast and plan a thought-out and detailed aftercare program as part of their recovery. I always talk to the clients about how to think about fitness and exercise as a component of their new lifestyle and part of their recovery. We don’t view fitness as just another program here at Vinland National Center.

Q: What are some ways people can stay active and healthy during the winter months?

Join a gym or purchase equipment that they can use at home. It is important to “schedule” time to exercise at home and not let distractions keep you from meeting your fitness goals. You don’t have to spend money to have a physical exercise program, though! Some shopping malls are open early for “walkers” to get some exercise before the stores actually open, and there are free videos online that clients can tap into. I personally use a recumbent bike daily along with a few simple resistance exercises and a core routine. Just make it a part of every day!

Q: How can fitness support brain health?

Because our therapeutic exercise team’s background consists of double-digit years spent working at the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, we originally created this program for Vinland Through all of this, we know that cardiovascular fitness clearly improves the brain’s chemistry.National Center’s clients due to their specialty in working with those with TBIs (traumatic and acquired brain injuries). Through all of this, we know that cardiovascular fitness clearly improves the brain’s chemistry. Exercise increases oxygen to the brain. This aids in the release of hormones, which provide an environment for the growth of new brain cells. Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections among the cells in important areas of the brain. All of this makes one feel better. Exercise can also reduce anxiety and depression and improve self- esteem and cognitive function, including memory. We tell professionals out in the field when we conduct trainings that the top two things you can do to help someone with a TBI is to allow for 1) Rest and 2) Physical exercise.

Q: For people who are beginning recovery, do you recommend any diet changes to maintain or restore their health?

Nutrition is a huge issue! Most of our new clients have a poor diet. They come in here addicted to junk food and simple carb-based foods. Some have been using alcohol as their “nutrition.” This can cause muscle atrophy and muscle wasting. Most of our folks are unaware of good carbs vs. bad carbs or good fats vs. bad fats. Most have no idea about antioxidant rich foods that are not only super healthy for you but also improve cognitive function! Some have a hard time limiting added sugars due to the high sugar content in the alcohol they were using. All of our clients attend at least one nutrition class while they are here. Several have told me that they love this group and have never had any formal training on a proper nutrition plan. In our society today, it is so easy to eat cheap, fast, poor quality food. I talk with them about home cooked meals and doing as much natural cooking as possible. Most of our folks really want to change and improve in this area.

Q: What would you say to someone who is struggling with finding the motivation to get started with fitness / eating better?

Getting someone to start a fitness and wellness routine can be difficult. I present, in a gentle manner, some benefits they could see if they started. I talk to them about how just a little bit of time devoted to it can make big changes. We set goals where they can make the “Vinland Hall of Fame” if they achieve certain goals like 1000 minutes of cardio or perfect attendance. Once they start feeling better, they usually want to start doing more. Then they may even see it as fun!

As an additional bonus, we announce those milestones achieved over Vinland’s speaker system so everyone knows, and all the high-fives and pats on the back from the clinicians, staff and nursing department boosts that sense of accomplishment. We have had many non-exercisers leave Vinland Center wanting to join a health club or get home exercise equipment. We are always so thrilled to receive wonderful thank you letters when clients leave and find success in their recovery. Clients are just so amazed at their improved quality of life and the role that exercise plays in that.


Jeff Willert is the Fitness and Wellness Manager at Vinland National Center. Vinland National Center provides a variety of complementary care services to all of its clients who attend the residential treatment program for substance use disorder treatment. The therapeutic exercise program is the largest and provides each participant with a personalized fitness program designed under the supervision of Vinland’s exercise physiologist certified staff.

Last Updated on November 9, 2020

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