How Exercise can be a Game Changer in Sobriety

How Exercise can be a Game Changer in Sobriety

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My opinion and my experience that backs this up (at least for me) is that physical exercise can be a huge game changer in recovery.

It is a really tough sell though. I know this, because it was a tough sell when it came to my own journey….people tried to get me to exercise back when I was first starting out in recovery, and I did not really want to do it. I said things to them like “How will this help me to stay sober directly?” So I almost missed out on this critical life strategy for health and wellness.

My personal story and how I almost missed out on this key strategy for recovery

My therapist at rehab encouraged me to work out at one point. He was trying to convince me that if I got into great shape that it would make me feel a whole lot better on a day to day basis. I didn’t really believe him at the time but I was willing to give it a shot.

Now here is the important thing–I actually failed at that time. That’s right, I exercised for a while and then I gave up. It just wasn’t happening for me. I wanted results and I wasn’t getting them. It wasn’t getting any easier for me. It was hard work with very little to no reward. What was the point of it? So I gave up and moved on.

And you have to realize that at the time, I was going to AA meetings every day and they were giving me a different message. In AA they were basically telling me that I had to have a spiritual experience, I had to find my higher power, I had to connect with others in recovery. And so I was led to believe that physical exercise may be a nice side effort in my sobriety journey, but it would never be the main event, it would never be critically important, it was just a little side gig to explore.

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That turned out to be wrong, because eventually when I finally “got it” I realized that physical fitness was a huge part of my success in recovery. It was very important to how I stayed sober, yet no one could have ever convinced me of that in the past. I had to discover it for myself.

Most things that you try out in life work well on a 30 day trial basis. So if you want to form a new habit, do something every single day for the next 30 days straight. Then you can decide if you like it or not. And if you do like it, then you can continue on with your new habit because after doing it continuously for 30 days the habit should be well established.

I want to point out that this is probably not the case when it comes to physical exercise and fitness. Why not? Because, quite honestly, it might hurt for longer than 30 days. It might be a longer period in order to break yourself into it.

Let me explain further. When I first started getting into shape, my father encouraged me to jog with him. I was jogging every day and I started out only going 3 miles at a time. We slowly built up to jogging every single day and jogging 6 miles at a time. This process took a long time to unfold and it was agony. To me, it felt like it never got any easier. Maybe I am just a whiner and maybe I am just a big baby, but it was really hard and getting into great shape took a long time! And it was not comfortable. Which is to say that it hurt. It took lots of energy and it was uncomfortable and it was hard work. To sustain that for several months at a time is not an easy commitment.

Therefore I believe that the decision to get into shape should be the same sort of serious level of surrender and commitment that you made to yourself when you got clean and sober. Otherwise it is likely that you will just give up before the miracle happens.

And what is the miracle? The miracle is this: That I can walk out of the door right now, lace up my shoes, and I can just start running like the wind if I want to. I can run across the country side, I can run through neighborhoods, I can just keep running with the wind in my face and quite honestly, it feels terrific. There is no pain, there is no discomfort, and my brain is not yelling at me the whole time trying to get me to stop running. Instead, exercise is a joy. It really feels good.

That probably sounds like I am exaggerating or bragging a bit. I’m not. This is honestly what it feels like once you finally get over that hump. Because in the beginning you won’t feel like that at all. It will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, and the whole time you are working out your brain will protest and try to get you to stop. And you simply have to persist and push through that tough time in order to get to the point where it becomes free and easy.

And obviously it is tough. It takes guts to get into shape. But I firmly believe that this should be part of everyone’s recovery journey. Not jogging necessarily, but vigorous exercise of some sort. Because it is all about your health and it just makes you feel so much better in so many ways.

Difficult to describe the full benefits unless you actually live the solution

It is very difficult to describe the full benefits of exercise to someone else and convince them of anything.

What I can tell you is that I was very skeptical at first and I did not believe that exercise would make much difference in my own recovery journey. Then later when I finally “got it” it proved to make a huge difference for me to the extent that I feel it is a total game changer.

When I finally got with the program and got whipped into shape, I was amazed at how much of a difference it made in my life. So many things changed for me on so many levels.

Let me try to describe some of it for you, though I do not expect it to convince you necessarily (because it never convinced me either!).

For starters, I felt better physically on a day to day basis after I was in shape. I actually combined the fitness with the idea that it would help me to put down cigarettes once and for all, and this turned out to be true. But the physical benefits that I got from getting into shape go far beyond quitting smoking. That was just a nice side benefit.

I had more energy throughout the day. I felt like this gave me more confidence when I was facing new tasks, like I could take on more things that I used to be able to take on. And it wasn’t that this changed my behavior necessarily, because I don’t think I took on more things at this point. But what it changed was my attitude. I was no longer afraid. I had no fear if someone said “oh, we need your help moving our stuff tomorrow.” That would not scare me in a physical sense like it might have in the past. I was no longer afraid of getting tired or worn out, of the physical challenge in things. I had no fear because I knew that I was in good shape and that I could tough it out and count on my body to do the work. So this gave me confidence.

Now if you had asked me in the past about this when I was not in shape, I would have scoffed at the idea. I would not have believed it at all. But having lived through it, having gotten into shape, and having felt this boost in my confidence, I can now tell you that it is a real thing and it made me feel a lot better about myself in a way that I never would have predicted.

Now that I am in great shape I sleep better. Again, that is a difficult thing to try to convince someone of. “If you get into shape it will improve your sleep.” That is hard to imagine, or maybe it is just hard to get excited about it, I am not sure. But then once you do it and you get into shape you can look back at your life and realize that you now:

1) Fall asleep faster and more consistently.
2) Wake up less through the night.
3) Sleep more deeply and feel more rested.

And so on. All of those things improve because your body is now functioning at a higher capacity, and it needs the sleep in order to repair and rebuild itself from the exercise. So your sleep will change in certain ways that are difficult to appreciate until you have experienced them.

And this holistic theme continues into many other areas of your life. If you get into great shape and you continue to push yourself in your workouts it will probably (eventually) affect the way that you eat. It will become easier to choose healthy foods because your body needs them as fuel, and it will become easier to appreciate and enjoy those foods. So it all ties together, your fitness, your sleep, nutrition, and so on. And if you make the tough choices and you force yourself to get into good shape then you will eventually notice these other benefits trickling into your life.

Part of a greater web of goals that leads to greater health

Being healthy is a fundamental part of sobriety itself. In order to enjoy long term sobriety you have to, by default, be healthy. If you are unhealthy in a physical sense then this will severely limit your ability to enjoy long term sobriety. I have had peers in recovery with me who passed away because they were unhealthy physically, though their spiritual program was strong and I did not see them relapsing or anything. They just weren’t healthy enough in a physical sense and it cost them their life. Sobriety isn’t much use if you happen to be dead…

Therefore, sobriety is part of a greater web of goals that leads to improved health and a life well lived. In that same way, physical fitness is part of this same web of goals that leads to greater health and longer life.

If you look at the overall web of goals then you will start to see how being in shape can affect other areas of your life. Or rather, how it can enhance them.

I was shocked to find out that being in shape could have such a large impact on my emotional stability in recovery.

I am not even sure exactly how this works. But ultimately I do not have to care why it works, I just have to know that it works, and to follow through with it so that I can be stronger in my sobriety.

What I am referring to is the fact that when I am in great shape and I go through intense workouts from day to day it allows me to have much more emotional stability. Without the intense physical exertion I am much more vulnerable to being thrown off of my square emotionally.

I once went through a very tough emotional roller coaster and it just so happened that most of my support system at the time was out of town. My peers and friends that I normally relied on for support where temporarily gone, yet I was going through something that was very tough for me emotionally. When I looked at the situation objectively I realized that this was the sort of situation in which people could very easily justify a relapse. In other words, some people who were facing my situation would just say “screw it” and go get drunk. They would call it quits and throw in the towel and self medicate.

I did not want to do that at the time and I was a bit scared. I also felt like I wasn’t even thinking that clearly because I was already so upset emotionally.

So what did I do? I started exercising. And because I did not know what to do, I pushed myself harder than I had ever pushed before in my life. In other words, instead of being emotionally upset, I was going to work myself out physically to the point where it became a non-issue. I wanted to push my body hard enough that any emotional problems became like a distant background noise, like a pesky mosquito buzzing around my head, but essentially no big deal at all.

And it worked. I made it through that situation without relapse, and I feel like the intense exercise definitely helped me to achieve that outcome.

And I think this story helps to illustrate the power of a vigorous workout. Please note, you can’t just go to the gym and lightly lift a few weights (that don’t really challenge you) and then walk a half of a mile at a very casual pace and expect to get amazing results. I am talking instead about vigorous workouts. I am talking about pushing yourself really hard, to the point where you are dripping with sweat and you are exhausted from exertion. (by the way, everyone should check with their doctor before starting any sort of exercise program).

It does no good to do a light or easy workout in terms of the kinds of benefits I am talking about here. If you want to experience this sort of “magic” I am describing then you are going to have to whip yourself into shape and really push. It doesn’t have to be jogging or weight lifting or anything in particular. It could be yoga, swimming, martial arts, or even intense walking. But it has to be vigorous and you have to push yourself with it.

Healthy habits can be a powerful line of defense against relapse that many people underestimate

The fact is that recovery from addiction is all about change.

What you are doing is changing out unhealthy habits for healthy ones. Period.

Take an old behavior that is unhealthy and change it for something new that is much healthier. Do this over and over again and it will have the effect of building a new life in recovery. This is how you reinvent yourself, through the process of change. Positive change. Bad habits into good ones.

Physical exercise and getting into shape is one of these potential habit changes. Most of us were not into physical exercise during our addiction (though there are exceptions to this of course). So in recovery we want to take everything that was a bad habit and turn it into something positive. If you were out of shape in addiction then it is time to turn that around in recovery. There is absolutely no downside to this decision other than the fact that it is hard work. It takes effort and commitment and most people won’t want to do it. I get that, because that is exactly how I felt for the first few years of my recovery. Luckily I finally got into it and got into great shape and after feeling all of these benefits I have never looked back.

How you might get started with exercise in recovery (consult your doctor first!)

The standard disclaimer definitely applies here: Consult with a doctor before you start exercising.

But, go do it. Don’t make excuses as to why you can’t get into shape.

And you don’t have to run or jog or lift weights necessarily. You can start by simply walking. Then as you get into it more, you can increase your:

1) Distance – how far you walk.
2) Speed – how fast you walk.
3) Frequency – how often you walk.

If you are healthy and you are pushing yourself in some (or all) of these ways then you can definitely realize some amazing benefits from exercise. Nothing more is required, you don’t have to join a gym or go buy running shoes necessarily. Just walking can provide you with amazing benefits if you really get into it and learn how to push yourself.

What about you, have you experienced the amazing benefits of exercise in your recovery? Has it made a huge impact on you like it did for me? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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