It is sort of a tough sell to convince people to embrace exercise as part of their new life in addiction recovery.
It does not really seem like it is relevant, I have to admit.
When I first got clean and sober, the idea of recovery had nothing to do with exercise. The two concepts just had nothing to do with each other, from what I could tell.
But I learned something over the first few years of my recovery journey, and that was this:
Exercise can, and should be a HUGE part of a strong recovery program. (Check with your doctor first, of course!)
Here’s why it can help so much more than most people think.
Producing and replacing those feel good chemicals
Perhaps the biggest reason that you should exercise in early recovery is because your brain will benefit physically from it.
Regardless of what your drug of choice was–alcohol, opiates, cocaine, marijuana, etc.–your body and your brain are going to be feeling a bit out of whack when you get into recovery. Acute detox can be over within mere days, but the experts tell us that the long term physical withdrawal for some people can drag on for up to 5 years! And some long term opiate addicts who have abused their drug of choice for longer periods of time have actually changed their body chemistry on a permanent basis, and their long term withdrawal symptoms become essentially permanent in a way.
So even though acute detox is a relatively quick process, the more subtle and lasting effects of shifting over to a clean and sober life can play havoc on your body and your brain for years to come. Just ask any smoker of cigarettes if they still have cravings after quitting 30 days ago. The nicotine was fully gone within 72 hours, but their body, their mind, their behaviors will stay screwed up and continue to mess with them for several weeks or even months. Full healing takes time.
So this is the main reason that you should consider exercising as part of your recovery plan. When you engage in vigorous exercise, your body starts naturally pumping those “feel good chemicals” to your brain. This endorphin rush is natural and is part of your bodies response system. Therefore it is easily gamed and you can take advantage of these “feel good chemicals” while also getting into better shape and enjoying greater health benefits.
There was a study done once with smokers in which there were 3 groups of quitters:
One group just tried to quit with no help. One group exercised vigorously every day to help them quit. And one group exercised AND took medication that was supposed to help them to quit smoking.
You would think that the third group did the best. Surprisingly, it was the group that ONLY engaged in exercise that fared the best in this study. Health professionals were amazed at the strong link between exercise and overcoming an addiction.
When you engage in vigorous exercise, your body goes into a different mode. You are no longer thinking about your drug of choice, any sort of cravings or thoughts of using pretty much evaporate. Notice too that when you finish exercising, and you are breathing hard from your effort, you are not thinking about using your drug of choice then, either. Your body has already “medicated” itself thoroughly by releasing those “feel good chemicals” in response to the exercise. If you are a smoker this is easy to test quickly enough: take a vigorous and brisk walk, so that you are breathing hard when you get done. Notice that you have no urge to smoke when you finish your walk. Your body will have produced plenty of dopamine already, and so you will not be craving a smoke.
Now here is the key: that feeling when you get done exercising does wear off, but it extends much longer than you think, and it is also quite cumulative. Therefore, exercising every single day is highly recommended, so that you stay somewhat “self medicated” on this little exercise high.
The way in which exercise can prevent drug or alcohol cravings is not always apparent like it is with cigarettes. It is a long term process, it is cumulative, and therefore you may have to give it some time to work. In addition, if you are out of shape in early recovery, you may have to give it plenty of time before you really get to the point where you can get in a good enough workout to receive this benefit.
My belief is that it took a few months before all of the benefits of exercise were really available to me. This is because I had to get into shape and become a bit more fit before I could really get a vigorous enough workout that lasted long enough to really give me a good endorphin rush. When you first start out, maybe the most you can do is a casual walk for ten minutes. If so, that is fine, but you will want to build from there. Why?
Because you don’t really get all of the benefits by doing a casual walk for ten minutes. Now, say that you keep walking, and eventually you are walking for 45 minutes a day, and when you do it, you are walking very quickly at a brisk pace, such that you are breathing pretty hard when you are halfway through. At this point, you probably ARE getting all of the benefits of exercise, and so this is much more beneficial to you than doing ten minutes at a casual pace.
The idea is to get your heart rate up a little, get your blood pumping, and get those endorphins flowing. It has to be vigorous exercise in order to get the real benefit.
So when I first started walking/jogging, I was not in good enough shape yet to really achieve these benefits. It took a few weeks or months in order to build up some endurance and strength to be able to achieve 45 minutes of continuous, vigorous exercise.
Once you get to this point, however, then the full benefits of regular exercise is readily available to you, provided you get into the habit and just keep doing it. Over the long run, if you regularly engage in vigorous exercise throughout your recovery, it is going to make relapse prevention a whole lot easier for you, because you will have this sort of natural “chemical replacement strategy” going for you, and helping to make your body feel good in the absence of drugs.
Getting into a healthy routine can help to fill the void in early recovery
Early recovery is tough, because all of your old routines and your old lifestyle is shattered. Your old habits and hangouts are seriously disrupted. Many people go to 12 step meetings simply because they do not know what else to do with themselves. Whether they used to hang out at the local bar, or used drugs in isolation at home, they are seriously displaced and disrupted in early recovery now that those old routines are gone.
So part of our recovery effort is creating new habits, new behaviors, and new routines. Exercise can be a healthy part of this new routine, and I believe it is one that people seriously underestimate. Most forms of exercise are somewhat social (the gym) or at least they get you out of the house (walking, jogging, swimming, biking, etc.). So there are positive benefits to the idea of regular exercise that go beyond just the endorphin rush, the new routine can push you to be more active, more social, more engaging with others.
Having any routine can be helpful in early recovery. Being idle and having too much free time can be a huge danger all by itself when you are vulnerable to relapse. At least with regular exercise you have a massive daily distraction, one that usually lasts for about an hour and the feel-good effects from which can stretch for the rest of the day. With daily exercise, you fall into a healthy routine where you are simple telling yourself: “Get up and do this every day, without fail.” You learn to “just do it” and the steady habit becomes a powerful routine, one that enhances your overall health and helps to distract you from your drug of choice at the same time.
Recovery is nothing if not positive changes. That is all the journey really is. You replace old behaviors (using drugs or alcohol) with new ones. Regular exercise is one of those potential new behaviors. Sure, you could ignore it, but that is like leaving behind an essential tool from your toolbox–one that is easy to access and is normally available to anyone and everyone.
If you form a new habit with regular exercise, you acquire one more powerful tool to help prevent relapse. There is very little cost in establishing an exercise routine while having tons of benefit. It is almost nothing but upside and positive gain.
You have to do something in early recovery, and regular exercise is one such thing.
Regular exercise will build discipline, which can be used in other areas of your life
Here is a hidden benefit of regular exercise that may not become apparent for years, until you can look back and see how your life has evolved over time. If you get into the habit of doing regular, vigorous exercise, it will change your life.
Now what does that mean, “it will change your life?” The answer can be difficult to put into words, so most people who exercise regularly never really try to describe it.
The reason that exercise will be so life-changing for you is because it will teach you discipline.
When you get into good shape and become more fit and healthy, you will realize that you are more powerful than you once believed. Not powerful because you are in shape, but powerful because you chose to get into shape, and then you did it.
Getting into shape is tough. It is not easy to do, period. People who go through the challenging process of getting into good shape fully know this and fully realize it. They know full well what it took in order to make it through dozens of difficult workouts, when it felt like it would never get any easier. They know what it felt like to have to push themselves to go work out, even when they felt lazy and did not want to do it. They know that they had to keep doing this, over and over again, before it would ever get any easier. And they persisted with it, and they finally got to a point where they were in better shape, and exercise became joyful to them, a gift, it was no longer difficult, it was suddenly easy and light and natural and their body just felt good all the time when they work out.
The person who has gone through this process and come out the other end being in good shape and loving exercise (even though they may have hated it when they first started) has learned something important. They have learned much more than “how to get into shape.” What they have really learned is “how to do anything.” Because they will realize that getting into shape was on par with other challenging goals such as quitting smoking, losing weight, earning a degree, and so on.
The person who has gone through this challenging process and become fit has really learned discipline, and they will feel powerful because now they realize and know that they can apply this discipline to anything that they want. They know that if they want to go get a college degree, or if they want to lose 20 pounds, they can do those things–they can meet those challenges. And, they know full well how much work it will be, how challenging it will be, and they are not intimidated by the size of the challenge. They know it is hard work because they went through all of the hard work of getting into shape themselves.
This is the power of learning discipline, and exercise is a good vehicle for which to learn this lesson. Once you gain this discipline through exercise, you can then apply it to other things in your life, even if you do not do so consciously.
If you master one goal (like establishing a routine of vigorous exercise and maintaining it for years) then it is easier to master other goals of a similar caliber.
It is easy to exercise vigorously once. But to do it every day for five years straight is another challenge entirely. Commit to a long term goal with exercise, and it will seriously change your life for the better.
Most exercise is a powerful form of meditation
Meditation is part of the 12 step program, and people talk about it constantly as part of the spiritual aspect of most recovery programs. Of course, very few people who talk about meditation really get into it, really explore it for themselves, or really take advantage of meditation like they should be doing.
So how does this tie into exercise?
Because exercise is a form of mediation. In fact, many people who meditate argue that exercise is actually superior to plain old meditation.
When you work out, your brain sort of gets a little break. You are basically telling your mind: “OK, we are going to be exercising for the next 45 minutes, so I don’t have any processing tasks for you right now. Take a breather.”
This is especially true if you walk, jog, run, or bike on a regular basis. Same trail, same path, same routine. This is very powerful and helpful from a meditative standpoint. Your brain simply switches into this “zone” because it knows that you are going to be going through this 45 minute routine in which there are basically no distractions, no interruptions, nothing important to think about.
So of course your mind will wander, and that is normal. Perfectly fine. The same thing will happen to people who meditate on a regular basis. It is not so much about “clearing your mind” like everyone believes to be the point of meditation, but instead, it is more about the distraction-free time frame, the routine of daily meditation or exercise, and that time period where your brain knows there will be no demands on it. So yeah, your mind may wander when you exercise or meditate. No big deal. It is supposed to wander. You will still get massive benefit from this “zone time” regardless of what your mind is doing.
Maybe on some days you will be preoccupied and have a lot of mental processing to do, you may have a lot on your plate and a lot to think about. So exercise, and think about it. Let your brain do its thing. If you try to clear your mind entirely it will probably not listen, and that is fine. It has processing to do, so don’t fight it. Let your exercise be the time that you get some thinking done that day.
On other days, you may have nothing much going on mentally, and so you just zone out while you exercise. No distractions, no big thought processes. This is fine too, and is closer to what most people believe “real” meditation should be like. But either way, the daily routine of giving your mind that 45 minutes–in which it can do whatever it wants to do–is very beneficial. The important part is that your mind is very unlikely to be focused on drug or alcohol cravings while you work out. The other important part is that your mind gets this 45 minutes every single day, over and over again, to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Processing time. Alone time. Time to reflect on things, time to evaluate your life, etc.
Just do the exercise, get into the routine, and this meditative aspect will take care of itself. You do not have to consciously try to do any sort of meditation. Simply exercise every day, and you are already receiving this benefit.
Years later, your mind will thank you, and you will be able to look at your exercise objectively and see that it is, in fact, a little meditation session for your mind, a form of refuge from your daily life, and you will see that this has real value.
Nearly everyone pays lip service to exercise as a pillar of health, but very few do it
If you take a survey and ask a hundred people in recovery if exercise is helpful for recovering addicts, most of them will agree that it is beneficial. But the sad truth is that the vast majority of these people will not be in a routine of regular, vigorous exercise themselves.
Everyone knows that it is healthy, everyone agrees that it is a great idea, everyone can see that it would have tremendous value for the person in early recovery–sure. But how many people in early recovery actually buckle down and get into the habit of pushing themselves to do vigorous exercise on a daily basis?
So the challenge for you is if you want to be one of those who “talk the talk” when it comes to this, or if you actually want to take real action.
If you do it, I would urge you to commit to a very long time frame, such as a year or longer. This is because it can take several months before you are receiving ALL of the benefits of regular exercise. You get some of the benefits right away, but it does not get really good until you get into decent shape.
Regular exercise is a natural part of any holistic approach to recovery. Find out exactly how it is tied into the holistic recovery approach.