New Brunswick

'It's a lifesaver': Veteran runs workout class to help others heal

Veteran Michael Cotts says the gym saved his life. Now, he helps other vets and first responders heal from the trauma they've experienced through a special class just for them.

Gym program creates safe space for veterans, first responders to work through their trauma

Michael Cotts and Amy Palmer run the Vincovis program at a Fredericton gym. The program is run like any other workout class but is exclusively for veterans and first responders dealing with operational stress injuries. (Sarah Petz/CBC )

Michael Cotts doesn't mince words when explaining what the gym means to him.

"It saved my life," says the military veteran, who served 25 years in the military before receiving a medical discharge in 2012 for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, Cotts is running a program specifically for veterans and emergency service providers, so that they, too, can use the gym to heal from the trauma they experienced on the job.

Called Vincovis, the Fredericton program is run by Cotts and Amy Palmer at the Biometrics gym, a strength and conditioning gym in the city.

The classes combine weightlifting moves with short, intense circuit training, similar to a CrossFit program.

Except, the Vincovis classes provide veterans with a safe space where they can train and talk with like-minded people who know what they're going through, Cotts explained.

"Everybody gets them," he said. "I can relate to them, and they can relate to me."

'You're focused on yourself for that hour'

Michael Cotts, who coaches a special class for veterans and first responders, does a pull-up at the Biometrics gym in Fredericton. (Sarah Petz/CBC )

Cotts was a master warrant officer and combat engineer with the Canadian Forces before he retired. He served overseas six times, in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.

After being discharged, Cotts said he mostly kept to himself, sitting in his basement with the curtains drawn.

He started going to CrossFit classes in Fredericton with his girlfriend and fell in love with it, he said.

"It's an hour of pain and suffering, and you don't think of anything else," he said.

"You're not worried about what people are thinking of you or whether you're good enough. You're focused on yourself for that hour. You're not thinking of anything outside.

"There's no exterior pressure."

Eventually, he decided to become a coach and helped start the Vincovis program with Palmer last summer.

Support system

Palmer herself has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, and works with veterans at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Fredericton. The clinic provides treatment to those suffering from work-related psychological stress and trauma.

Amy Palmer does a back squat while Cotts spots her. (Sarah Petz/CBC )

"I just wanted to do something for veterans, and this seemed like an obvious fit," she said.

In addition to giving participants a good workout, the program is meant to give them a support network, she explained.

"It's really this implicit social support," Palmer said. "You don't have to go and talk about your feelings. It happens, but that's not the point of it.

"It's just going and understanding, implicitly, that you're understood when you're in this space, I think, is really beneficial."

'It's a safe place'

The number of people in each class can vary, and some days, participants won't even train, Cotts said.

"Some days they'll show up and say, 'Let's just go for coffee." So we'll just go for coffee," he said.

"Somedays they'll show up and we'll just talk for an hour and a half, two hours. They don't have to train or anything. It's a safe place."

Cotts said he truly believes the program can be a lifesaver for the people he coaches.

Grateful students

"I see it every day with some individuals who come to the group class with me," he said. "They right out tell me, 'Mike, without you, I wouldn't be on the earth anymore.'

"That sounds really dramatic, but it's a fact. It's actual truth, that's what they say, and it works. 

"That's what keeps me coming back."

The pair raise money so the cost of the participants' fundamentals course, which teaches the basics of the workout, can be covered. After that, participants have to buy a regular monthly membership to Biometrics. 

But they're hoping to eventually raise enough money to cover six months worth of membership fees for participants in the program, Cotts said. 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article referred to the Vincovis program as a Crossfit class. Biometrics staff later clarified that the gym is no longer affiliated with the Crossfit brand.
    Nov 14, 2017 2:57 PM AT

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