Changing the World One Step At A Time: David Brand Fuses Fitness & Social Work

As someone who has close family members with mental illness, I have always been interested in the benefits of exercise for mental health. I've experienced firsthand the mental power of running in helping with my own anxiety and PTSD. So of course I was floored to find someone who is working hard to help others by connecting mental health and fitness. Meet David Brand, a runner, personal trainer and social worker who is helping people with mental illnesses get stronger, mentally and physically, by using the power of exercise. Here is my interview with David:

I am a social worker and certified personal trainer. I run fitness programs and collaborate closely with social service staff at supportive housing and affordable housing sites throughout New York City. I currently work with Lantern Community Services and CAMBA Inc.

What got you into fitness?

I always played sports growing up, especially soccer and track. I ran the 800m because no one else on the team seemed to want to run it so I knew I would have a better shot at placing in the top 3 at meets. I usually finished second or third and even won a few races. When I got to college, I started lifting weights, but I had no idea what I was doing and I pretty much only did exercises to build my chest, shoulders and abs. Meanwhile, I stopped running, drank protein powder, ate and drank poorly and got bloated and bulky. Finally, when I was 21, I realized that I didn't like how I felt or how I looked. My endurance had eroded and I was bored doing the same lifts inside the gym all the time. I changed my workout routine up by doing high-intensity training and going on long runs. For the first time, I started to monitor my nutrition. I really enjoyed the exercises, I felt I was challenging myself again and I regained my stamina and athleticism.

I have a Master of Social Work degree and I have worked in social service for about ten years. In 2013, I earned my personal trainer certification in order to better incorporate exercise and activity into my work with clients. I worked as a case manager at a supportive housing site for adults who  have experienced homelessness, many of whom also experienced mental illness. I quickly noticed that the majority of my clients experienced obesity and related chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. I later learned that people with severe mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than the general population, mostly due to preventable illnesses related to poverty and obesity. 

There are many obstacles that prevent poor people and people with mental illness from accessing exercise opportunities. For example, the cost of transportation, the cost of gyms, lack of exercise education and health information, hazardous environments all prevent people from exercising. In addition, the symptoms of mental illness and the medication to manage mental illness pose additional obstacles. Then there are the obstacles like uncertainty, intimidation, resistance to change, inconvenience, discomfort and low self-esteem that we all tend to face regardless of mental health or income.

I decided to focus on developing programs that enable access to exercise opportunities and information to people in supportive housing and affordable housing environments. I run programs for two organizations, Lantern Community Services and CAMBA, Inc. 

And how about running specifically? (did you get into it at the same time as fitness?)

I was always relatively fast but not really a speed burner. My main attribute was my endurance and capacity for pain/discomfort. When I joined the track team in high school, I decided to run the 800 meters because no one else on the team seemed to want to run it. I knew I would have a better shot at placing in the top 3 at meets. I usually finished second or third and even won a few races. 

I moved to Madrid, Spain in 2010 and started running long distances as a way to explore the city, clear my head and listen to new music. I really loved those long runs and I continued them when I moved to Brooklyn. In 2014, I ran the Boston Marathon with my friend Tim. He works for the Red Sox and invited me to run on behalf of the Red Sox Foundation charity. It was the year after the Boston Marathon bombing so there were even more spectators than usual. We went to Boston University and part of the route goes through the BU campus. so we used to watch the race every year during college. it was an awesome and really special experience to actually participate. 

Many runners realize that running puts them in a good mood, but the science behind it all is very interesting. What inspired you to study the connection between mental health and fitness?

I have a Master of Social Work degree and I have worked in social service for about ten years. In 2013, I earned my personal trainer certification in order to better incorporate exercise and activity into my work with clients. I worked as a case manager at a supportive housing site for adults who  have experienced homeless, many of whom also experienced mental illness. I quickly noticed that the majority of my clients experienced obesity and related chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. I later learned that people with severe mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than the general population, mostly due to preventable illnesses related to poverty and obesity. 

There are many obstacles that prevent poor people and people with mental illness from accessing exercise opportunities. For example, the cost of transportation, the cost of gyms, lack of exercise education and health information, hazardous environments all prevent people from exercising. In addition, the symptoms of mental illness and the medication to manage mental illness pose additional obstacles. Then there are the obstacles like uncertainty, intimidation, resistance to change, inconvenience, discomfort and low self esteem that we all tend to face regardless of mental health or income.

I decided to focus on developing programs that enable access to exercise opportunities and information for people in supportive housing and affordable housing environments. I run programs for two organizations, Lantern Community Services and CAMBA, Inc. 

What are some of the obstacles that individuals with mental health problems experience when it comes to fitness?

Unfortunately, mental illness and poverty are often connected. There are many obstacles that prevent low-income individuals and people with mental illness from accessing exercise opportunities and practicing healthier behaviors. For example, the cost of transportation, the cost of gyms, the cost of food, lack of exercise/nutrition education and health information, community influence, family behaviors and hazardous environments all prevent people from exercising and/or eating healthier. In addition, the symptoms of mental illness and the side effects of medication used to manage mental illness can pose additional obstacles. Then there are the obstacles like uncertainty, intimidation, resistance to change, inconvenience, discomfort and low self esteem that we all tend to face regardless of our mental health or our income.

How can these issues be addressed?

Poverty generates obesity and poor health. Poverty also exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness. These are systemic problems. So to improve mental and physical health, we need to alleviate and end poverty and homelessness. That sounds idealistic, but dismissing a concept as too idealistic gives us a convenient excuse for not working toward that concept. 

Governments and businesses need to partner with community members to empower these individuals in the shaping of their own communities rather than just imposing top-down, tone-deaf supposed solutions that result in poor practical applications, lack of investment and lack of community buy-in.   

Our city, state and federal governments need to invest more money in low-income communities in order to build better infrastructure that encourages activity, provide access to healthy food, remove hazardous materials (like chemicals and emissions) to foster a healthier environment, punish businesses that pollute the community, develop community health facilities, provide access to exercise opportunities through gyms, parks and community health programs. The healthcare savings would surpass the initial investment. 

We need to provide practical, comprehensive health education in school, increase access to healthy food and provide opportunities for people to more easily experience new behaviors, foods and activities. We need to give people, families and communities the tools to make changes. 

We need more jobs, higher wages, better schools and better healthcare opportunities in underserved communities. 

What is a typical day for you like at work?

I collaborate closely with social service staff at each site, which is one of the key features of my programs. When I arrive at each site, I talk to the case managers and social workers in order to learn what has been going on at the sites and for information about some of my clients (the people who live in the supportive housing sites) as well as any potential new clients. I do outreach in the community spaces and make phone calls to my clients. I then work with clients by doing a mixture of personal training, health information sessions and counseling. Some people want to walk on the treadmill quietly. Others want intense personal training. Others want to pedal a stationary bike next to me and talk about some of the issues and goals in their life. 

I also do classes for clients and staff. Those classes are wonderful community-building experiences that help to erode the walls between people, especially between workers and clients. 

How can runners who want to help get involved?

As individuals, we need to understand poverty and poor health as systemic issues and consider how our personal choices and the systems we participate in can exacerbate poverty. We need to elect people who will work with communities to overcome health inequities. We can patronize local businesses that serve the underserved. 

We can also consider donating money to organizations committed to addressing mental and physical health through comprehensive, practical programs. 

Finally, we can participate with, fund and assist existing programs that currently serve underserved communities. Reach out to these organizations, see what they need and see if/how you can share your skills. Take a backseat to the community leaders without thinking you are going to run the show. 

How do you balance work and your personal fitness routine?

Sometimes balancing work with my own fitness routine is challenging, especially on days where I travel from Brooklyn to Queens to the Bronx for work. I definitely structure time for me to complete my own workouts, especially when I begin feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.

Do you have any current running goals?

I am getting married soon so my schedule has been more hectic than usual, but I would like to run a half marathon later this year or early next year. Then I will consider continuing my training to complete another marathon. 

What keeps you inspired to run?

I love exploring my community and learning the ins and outs of New York City through running. I also run to challenge myself, stay fit and spend time thinking.

Where can we cheer you on? (IG, Twitter, etc?)

You can check out my website DavidFBrand.com, follow me on Twitter @D4vidBr4nd and check out the hashtag #FitnessXSocialWork