Discovering Exercise and Fitness as a Way to Overcome Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
After completing my transition away from traditional recovery, I started to look around and see what kind of growth experiences people were having that pursued “alternative” forms of recovery.
For one thing, I found that a lot of people who I looked up to in recovery (those who seemed to be really successful in their program that I saw at 12 step meetings and such) were typically into some form of exercise. They were active people. They did not just sit around and allow their bodies to atrophy.
Second of all, I found some organizations such as “Racing for Recovery” that were based entirely on the idea that exercise could overcome drug or alcohol addiction. Here was a group of people who used the training for marathons and triathlons as their primary means of staying clean and sober. How were they doing this? So I did some reading about them and found out that many people did in fact work this sort of recovery program. They relied entirely on exercise as their means of staying clean and sober. Work out, feel good. Train for big races, achieve goals, feel good about yourself. This was their entire model for success in overcoming addiction. And while I am sure that it does not work for everyone, here was an entire organization with a real following and so it was plain to see that it was at least working for some people. Thus there had to be something to it. Exercise was important.
False starts and why the timing had to be just right
I had a few false starts in my own recovery journey when it came to exercise.
For example, one of my therapists in long term rehab decided that I should get into exercise and that it might help me quite a bit. So he encouraged me to start doing some form of exercise. I decided to try to jog because that was fairly simple. I wanted to have a way that I could exercise regardless of the weather, so I started jogging indoors at the gym every day.
For some reason this just never took off for me. I gave it an honest effort and I probably jogged almost every day for a few weeks or even over a month. But it never really took hold and it never really grabbed me. So I slowly drifted away from the idea of exercise and I never saw the benefit of it.
Looking back now I can see what the problem was with that specific effort. I never got past the initial “pain” of exercise and got to the point where it becomes easy.
Getting past the pain to where it becomes easy
What I found out later regarding exercise is that there is this adoption curve that everyone has to go through.
In the beginning, exercise is tough. It’s not much fun really because it is such hard work. You are not in great shape and your body is not used to doing whatever exercise it is that you have chosen to do. So it’s tough, it’s hard work, and it’s probably not much fun. You do the exercise over and over again, maybe every day, and for a long time it never really gets much easier.
This is what I experienced with running. I had decided to start running and so I was running every day or maybe every other day, trying to build up my mileage and get to the point where I was running 6 miles per day. This was my goal because that was what my dad ran all the time, so I wanted to match this in order to run with him.
But at first it was nearly impossible just to run two or three miles. In fact it was agonizing. And building up to four and five miles seemed really tough as well. It just never got much easier.
This is the first part of that adoption curve I am talking about. Everyone has to work through this difficult part, through this painful part, in order to get to the “easy part” that comes later.
I have no idea if it took weeks or months before I finally got to the top of this mountain and started heading down the easy path where exercise suddenly becomes light and easy and fun.
But it did happen.
At one point, exercise became easy. Running six miles was natural and fun and simple for me to do. It was no longer a struggle. It was no longer painful, no longer something to dread. I had conquered the distance of running six miles and now it was no big deal for me.
At that point, once you arrive to this “easy” point of exercise, the benefits of doing it become obvious. Now it is a habit, it is second nature to exercise, and you would not really want to go without it at this point. It has become a permanent part of your routine.
Lots of subtle changes happen when your body is active in this manner, and the benefits are numerous. Once you are in shape and exercising regularly, you will tend to:
* Sleep better at night due to regular exercise.
* Start eating better fuel for your body because you will notice that you cannot work out as easily when you eat junk.
* Feel better based on the chemical rush that your body gets from an intense workout.
* Have more confidence and self esteem based on the fact that you are in shape and know you can achieve a tough goal.
* Feel better based on regular activity and regular movement. Tendency not to isolate or lean toward depression based on regular exercise.
* Feel better because you will have more energy to participate in life, rather than being too tired to do much of anything all the time. Physical ability will empower you.
These are just a sampling of the benefits that you might receive if you get into shape and work out on a regular basis. In all truth there are many more benefits than just these, but they are subtle and difficult to describe verbally. Suffice it to say that people who “get it” and are in the habit of working out would no sooner go without fitness than most people would go without air or breathing. It becomes vital and important because the benefits are so numerous.
A process that mirrors recovery
If you notice this idea of an “adoption curve” when it comes to getting into shape really sort of mirrors the process of getting clean and sober.
It is sort of the same idea. When you get clean and sober, it is probably not going to be much fun at first. You have to abstain from your drug of choice and all mood and mind altering substances. This is tough to do for any addict or alcoholic and most people would describe the detox process and very early recovery as “somewhat miserable.” Getting off drugs is no fun, for the most part.
Starting to get in shape and exercising every day is much the same battle. Of course it is different on the surface but you are still dealing with this idea of an adoption curve and “getting past the misery.”
I had to fight this battle when I got clean and sober and then I had to get past the misery again when I started running. In both cases I wanted to give up at times because it was not much fun and it was a tough struggle to stick with it and either stay sober in recovery or continue to exercise every day. In both cases, it was discouraging because it felt like it never was going to get any easier.
And of course, in both cases the solution is the same: put your nose to the grindstone and tough it out until you “arrive.”
I have to admit that there did actually come a day in my recovery when I had about six or eight months sober when I realized I had made it through the entire day without thinking about using drugs or alcohol. This was the miracle, in my opinion. I had said that this would never happen and I had declared that I would be miserable forever because of drug and alcohol cravings. Then at some point, after many months of struggle, I was finally able to look back on a day and realize that I was no longer obsessing over drugs and alcohol. I had “arrived.” I had achieved this miracle that I thought was impossible. Recovery had suddenly become “easy.” It was no longer a struggle. And I almost did not even notice it, because it happened so slowly.
The same thing happened with running. It happened so slowly that I almost did not even notice it. But when I started out with exercise and with running, it was not much fun and it was always a struggle. Building up to six miles every time was a struggle and a challenge. I kept doing it and it never seemed to get any easier. But I kept doing it because I wanted the benefits.
At some point I looked back at my running and realized that it had, in fact, become easier. Suddenly I was no longer afraid of the misery I might endure when I went out to run. I do not know when it happened or how many months of running it took in order to get to this point. But at some point it became easy, and I could not imagine NOT running on a regular basis.
So the adoption curve for exercise seems very similar to recovery. Both are a major lifestyle change that require quite a sustained effort in order to finally make it through and start getting the really good benefits from them. Neither one becomes “easy” for a long time. But with a sustained effort you will eventually “make it” with both recovery and with exercise. It is simple a matter of putting in the sustained effort for long enough, until it becomes a habit, until it becomes easy, until it becomes natural for you. This is how to conquer the adoption curve–with sustained effort. It’s tough, and it’s worth it.
Exercise benefits that actually taught me something
As I said earlier, there were physical benefits to regular exercise that also affected my self esteem. I am not sure exactly how or why this works but it is definitely there.
When you work out on a regular basis it gives you a bit of a confidence boost. I believe this is because you are accomplishing something physical and strenuous and so you know that you can translate this energy into other things.
It has to do with what you can handle in life. If you can easily run ten miles or make it through an intense workout every day, then you will have more confidence that you can handle other challenges that life may throw at you.
Now normally the life challenges that you encounter are probably not going to be physical. But it does not matter, because when you get into shape through intense and regular exercise you are building up something more than just physical fitness. You are also building up discipline.
This was the huge “hidden” benefit that exercise taught me in my recovery: it taught me discipline. Remember when I talked about the adoption curve, and how it is really hard to run six miles every day for a long time, until some day it suddenly becomes easy and fun? Getting through the hard part is what teaches you the discipline. Because the bottom line is that you will never get to where it becomes fun and easy unless you are willing to “put your nose to the grindstone” as I say and actually build this discipline for yourself. If you achieve this goal and get into great shape and get to the point where exercise is fun and easy, then you will have achieved a great amount of discipline. You cannot help but avoid this. Training your body to that level of fitness demands that you achieve this discipline.
I actually had an “aha!” moment when I looked back and realized that I had finally conquered this mountain and was able to build up this discipline. At the time I had also overcome a nicotine addiction and conquered cigarettes. And so I had this moment where I realized “Hey….I have built the discipline necessary to accomplish some intense stuff here. I can use this discipline to accomplish whatever I really want!”
And so at the time I was working at a day job in order to make my living, and I decided that I wanted to build a business and create more freedom for myself. In the past I would have thought that this was just sort of “fantasy thinking,” but now I realized that I could definitely create this business and make it a success if I really wanted to do so. And because I knew the “price” of discipline I fully understood how much sustained effort it would probably take in order to build a successful business.
So in getting clean and sober I learned something about discipline and about sustained effort. Then when I went through the long struggle to get into shape I learned this lesson of discipline and sustained effort at a deeper level. And when I quit smoking cigarettes I got to practice the discipline thing again.
So I realized at that point that I had a certain amount of power available to me, I had control and discipline in my life, and if I wanted to accomplish a certain goal then I probably had the means with which to do so. I simply had to commit to the goal fully and then make a sustained effort by using the discipline that I had learned from these other experiences.
Exercise taught me how to get through the adoption curve. It was one more challenge that I had to conquer so that I could learn how to conquer things.
Learning how to exercise was part of learning how to learn. It taught me how to apply discipline to other areas of my life.
Exercise as meditation
One of the big long term benefits of exercise is that it eventually becomes meditative.
This is not obvious at the beginning, when exercise is a struggle because you are not yet in good shape. It is only later on, after it has become a regular habit, that you can look back and realize that your exercise sessions give you great mental benefit as well.
If you have a lot of thinking or mental processing to do, then your regular exercise session becomes a natural way for this to happen.
If you do NOT have a lot of mental processing to do, then your regular exercise session becomes a natural way to meditate, without even trying. You do not have to make any sort of special effort in order to get this “meditative benefit” from your exercise. Simple get into shape, work out regularly, and your mind will start to benefit from being in “the zone” on a regular basis.
This is not something that is easy to measure or even to necessarily notice. But if regular exercise becomes a habit for you then one day you will realize that you do get this benefit from your exercise sessions that is very similar to meditation. You are giving your mind a break because you are engaged in a regular, rhythmic activity.
People who have done both (meditation and exercise) realize that exercise gives you the best of both worlds. It contains meditation.
What is the point of dying anyway?
Your journey into addiction recovery is a journey towards greater health.
Your decision to be clean and sober is done for health reasons. You want to live a better life, you want to be a better person, you want to be healthier. Overcoming addiction or alcoholism is a step towards better health.
Exercise is a natural extension of this decision. Better health in recovery should include regular activity and getting into better shape.
I have had friends in recovery who have died because of poor health conditions that were largely preventable. Really, what is the point of dying sober? The goal is to LIVE sober, not to just sober up and die because you are unhealthy, because you have poor eating habits, because you smoke cigarettes, because you refuse to embrace activity or exercise.
Recovery is about making positive changes. The main positive change is abstinence from drugs and alcohol. But there is no point in these positive changes if you are just going to fall victim to an early death by other means. This is why the holistic approach to recovery makes so much sense. Anyone who ignores the holistic approach runs the risk of cutting their life short in recovery. The goal is to improve your overall health in recovery, not just to maintain abstinence.
There is no point in being sober and dead. So why would you ignore your health in recovery? It makes no sense to do so. The positive changes in recovery should naturally lead you to engage in activity and exercise as part of your push for better overall health.
You either get it or you don’t
Exercise can be a pretty touchy subject because we all know that we should do it, yet we have “busy lives” and so we have a million and one excuses as to why it never happens.
Looking back, I can see now what the solution to this is: make it your first priority, then build your life around that. It only takes about five hours per week or so to get into great shape. The sustained effort is what is really important and therefore what you need is a commitment to making that sustained effort.
I made a commitment and it changed my life. You might consider doing the same if you want to be healthier in recovery.