Barry Jay is the creative force behind Barry’s Bootcamp, the HIIT-heavy group workout regimen that helped launch the boutique fitness movement. Created in 1998, Barry’s has grown from one studio in West Hollywood, California, to more than 20 studios worldwide, all cranking out hardcore, hour-long workouts packed with interval treadmill running, floor work, free weights, medicine balls, and more. But while the brand’s rise has been meteoric, its origins are humble: While struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, Jay found his escape—and eventually, his sobriety—in fitness. This is his incredible story, as told to Well+Good’s Katie Maguire.
Growing up, there was alcoholism in my family, but I was always a goody two-shoes. I was very skinny and small. I’m gay, but I didn’t really know how to express that as a kid, so I was always seen as a little “different.” I definitely felt like a walking target to many kids in my neighborhood, and I suffered from verbal abuse and bullying. But that didn’t drive me to drinking and drugs. Instead, I threw myself into musical theater all throughout high school. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s to become a songwriter.
Almost instantly, my addictive behavior began. My roommate smoked cigarettes, so I tried one and suddenly I was smoking three packs a day. Another roommate drank, so I tried a drink, and suddenly I was drunk all the time. It wasn’t a gradual change; it wasn’t like I started by having a drink with dinner. I never had a drink with dinner—I drank to get drunk. Then I moved to marijuana. In the ’80s in LA, there were drugs all around me—coke, crack, quaaludes—it was what everyone did. I was numbing and covering up any pain from the past, but really, the damage was done.
Before I knew it, I was smoking on the way to work, and before the gym…and then it was 24/7
I realized I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, so over the next few years I tried to focus on changing my life. I wasn’t in a program for recovery, but I tried to get better—and for two years I was pretty much sober. I still sometimes wanted pot after a long day, though, and I convinced myself that weed was my equivalent of having a glass of wine. Before I knew it, I was smoking on the way to work, and before the gym…and then it was 24/7. I would go on long runs and get in great workouts—I was a high-functioning pot smoker.
My turning point didn’t come until August 4, 1988. I came home after a night out and I could not remember how I got there. At all. I remember waking up in confusion, looking at myself in the mirror, and I just felt so awful—physically, spiritually, mentally. I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I woke up that day, and was honestly surprised that I even woke up at all. That’s when it kind of hit me that I had to get it together.
In 1989, I met a guy—Doug Blasdell—who was a trainer at a gym I’d joined, and he really changed my life. Until then, I’d been pretty much figuring things out from fitness magazines, but the first time I saw him I was blown away by what he could do physically. I wanted to learn from him, so my friend and I chipped in and split hour-long personal training sessions. We were seriously broke, but it was worth it. He was so kind and encouraging. I also went to addiction recovery meetings for the first time. I got my first sponsor and was cheered on so much. It was the first time I looked at my problems with a true method of recovery.
When you become sober after such destructive behavior, you get this incredible sense of clarity—and sweating can become your new natural high
I started working at a gym behind the front desk, and I would fill in for teachers if they couldn’t make their classes. People started to request me as a trainer, so I could tell I had a knack for it. During cardio classes, I’d have people use weights—I figured it would be much more efficient. John and Rachel Mumford, Barry’s co-founders, started taking my classes in the late ’90s, and they loved my style so much they thought we should open a studio focused on both cardio and strength training in one group workout. In the fall of 1998, we opened our first Barry’s Bootcamp.
I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve been sober since 2004 and every day has been incredible. I’ve made a new friend every single day for the past 11 years. The main lesson I’ve learned is that for addicts, the best road to recovery includes traditional rehab, sponsors, and therapy…with fitness. A ton of our instructors have been in recovery for years, and we have so many clients who are former addicts. When you become sober after such destructive behavior, you get this incredible sense of clarity—how you’re destroying your brain, body, and art—and sweating can become your new natural high.
Fitness—and the community we’ve built—have given me a second life
That’s the thing with addicts: You don’t lose that addictive personality; you just need to transfer it. Fitness is the perfect transfer. It gets out all of your pent-up energy and emotion, and just clears out all of those thoughts for the good ones. Fitness has completely saved my life. It’s made me a new person—a better son, friend, brother, dog owner.
The community we’ve built through Barry’s Bootcamp has been a godsend. I wouldn’t want to be sober and be lonely and miserable. It would just be too hard. Fitness—and the community we’ve built—have given me a second life. I have this feeling of WOO-HOO! I made it! It’s an enormous, amazing, generous family, and I’m just lucky to be a part of it.
This account has been edited and condensed.
Inspired by Barry’s journey? Try out this Barry’s Bootcamp-inspired at-home workout. Or soak in this fitness instructor’s life-changing happiness insights from an epic trip to South America.