First of all, let me say right off the bat here that I am not suggesting that physical exercise needs to be a part of everyone’s recovery.
It is a big part of my recovery and I will get to that story in a minute. But in a broader sense my journey through addiction recovery and the benefits that I get from daily exercise can actually teach us a thing or two about recovery principles in general. Specifically, we each have things that we need to learn and explore in order to get clean and sober, and exercise happened to be one of those things for me.
So this is not necessarily an imposition on everyone to get out there and exercise. It is not really that you have to exercise or you are certain to relapse, but rather the message is that you need to get out there and explore what really works for you in recovery. I did not discover the benefits of exercise until about my third or fourth year of sobriety.
So this is really about what worked for me, but it also contains some lessons and insights for other people, even if it turns out that exercise is really not “your thing” in recovery.
With that, let’s press on….
My story and my first few years of sobriety without exercise
When I first got clean and sober I had a very “vanilla approach” to recovery. I was living in long term rehab but everything was very traditional. They required me to attend AA meetings every day and they also required me to work the steps with a traditional AA sponsor. On top of those things I was also seeing a therapist for an hour each week as well as doing two group therapy sessions per week.
So while the intensity of this schedule was pretty high, it was not really anything radical or unique. All of those things are very traditional recovery tactics that you would expect to see. Counseling, therapy, AA meetings, treatment, and sponsorship. I was doing all of those things and I was committed to following through with it all and that is what allowed me to be successful in very early recovery. The sheer intensity and depth of my commitment was what made it all work. But up until this point all of the tactics that I used were very mainstream and very traditional.
Now at one point while I was living in long term treatment a therapist tried to get me to exercise on a regular basis. I resisted this a little but I also decided to give it a try.
Interestingly, it simply did not “take” for me. I gave it a few weeks of effort and then I eventually gave up on it. I tried doing some weight machines and I was also doing some jogging. But it never took off for me. It did not “click.” I did not really see the point of it and it was not doing anything to help me in my recovery.
This is an important point because I think a lot of people get stuck here. So just to be clear, I was at about one year sober (maybe less), I was living in long term treatment, and I:
1) Took a suggestion to start exercising.
2) Started a routine that involved both weight training and cardio workouts.
3) Stuck to it for several weeks.
4) Gave up.
It just never clicked for me at that time.
I was more interested in spiritual growth at the time. I was more interested in learning how to stay sober directly. Does that make sense? In other words, at the time, I believed that I needed to be building a spiritual connection and getting phone numbers from peers in recovery and interacting with my sponsor–all instead of doing exercise or eating healthier foods or doing the more holistic stuff.
In other words, the timing just wasn’t right. I wasn’t ready to start exercising at that point. I don’t know why. Maybe if I had understood the benefits of it better I would have persevered. But as it was, I simply gave up. The exercise wasn’t doing anything for me and so I moved on to other things.
Maybe a year or two later I was sort of drifting in my recovery–not really having any major problems but also somewhat restless. I was looking for a new growth experience I suppose. And so at that time my dad suggested that I start jogging with him.
So for whatever reason, at about my third year of sobriety or so, I decided to commit to daily jogging. I wanted to build up the distance to match my dad (six miles per day). So very slowly I started running with him and I started to increase my distance.
At first this was painful, just like exercise has always been for me. I honestly do not remember how long jogging felt like a chore to me.
I can remember sort of dreading the feeling of going for a jog. I can remember being a little bit afraid of the pain and misery of being on a long run.
But this did not last.
At some point, jogging became a joy. It became easy. It was fun. It was invigorating rather than depressing.
I am not sure how long I had to “tough it out” before I got to this point. I know it was a matter of months rather than a matter of weeks. I know that it takes time. I had to keep at it for a long time. And at some point I looked back and realized that it was so much easier for me now. I had somehow “made it.” When I wasn’t looking and paying close attention, I was suddenly transformed and I was in better shape.
So this is the hard part, and this is one of the lessons in recovery that doesn’t necessarily have to do with exercise.
There are things that you want to accomplish in recovery that require discipline. That require hard work. That don’t reward you right away.
Part of your job is to figure out how to motivate yourself to do those things. I had to do that when it came to jogging. I had to find a way to fight through the discomfort and keep doing it consistently until it became easy.
If you are a smoker and you try to quit smoking cigarettes, is it really any different than this? Of course the details are a bit different, but some of the mental stuff is very similar. You have to convince yourself to tough it out. You have to persevere. This goes for jogging and it also goes for quitting cigarettes. And it goes for a lot of other things too. If you can find a way to draw on that inner strength then you can do some amazing things in your life.
For me, exercise was something that forced me to learn how to tap into that inner strength. It forced me to learn what discipline really was. Because I honestly hated exercise and I especially hated to run. My whole life I hated to run. And yet for some reason I forced myself to do it, to conquer this particular challenge.
How daily exercise transformed my recovery
There are several different ways that this exercise in my life has had a positive impact on my recovery:
1) Discipline. Learning to become a jogger taught me discipline. I later realized that I could use this strength to accomplish things unrelated to exercise. This gave me power. I was able to do more in my life because of my experience with jogging.
2) Health. OK so obviously if you start exercising every day eventually you become healthier for it. We all realize that I assume. But it was more than that, because it really made me start to prioritize my health. For example, because I was running every day, I felt better about myself. I felt more confident. And so I wanted to take better care of myself. It boosted my self esteem and therefore I started to make other positive changes. Another example: I slept better after becoming a runner, and this in turn made me value a good night’s sleep even more. So it is not just “better health” because you are exercising. Instead, it made me think differently about my health and the connections between different things (sleep, nutrition, exercise, disease, etc.).
3) Energy. People who are dedicated runners will tell you that they have more energy when they are in good shape. This is impossible to appreciate unless you are in shape yourself right along with them. If you are out of shape you will just politely nod your head and say “yes, that must be nice to have more energy, I suppose….” But when you are in shape and you exercise every day you really do feel better and you notice a huge difference.
4) Emotional balance. This, again, has to be experienced to be appreciated. If you are experiencing any kind of stress or emotional upheaval in your life then this would benefit greatly from exercise. It is like a meditation. Exercise is basically meditation. When you are exercising you are completely present in what you are doing. Your mind is getting much of the same benefits as someone who is meditating on a cliff somewhere and seated in the lotus position. It is the same thing. Or rather, I have experimented quite a bit with traditional seated meditation and I have also done different forms of exercise, and I know that for me the physical exercise carries with it the same emotional and mental benefits as the seated meditation. In fact, the physical exercise is better for me because it also allows me to expel some of the negative energy in the form of physical strain. When I jog I run six miles on fairly steep hills. This is not a trivial workout. When you get done with it–especially if I am pushing myself for speed–your body and your mind and your entire being knows that you have just had a very intense workout. The rest of the volume on your life gets turned way down in comparison. Imagine running six miles on steep hills as fast as you possible can run. When you get done you are huffing and puffing and your body feels like it has been pushed to the limit. This is the point of deafening silence where you realize most of your issues and problems in life are truly small and insignificant. An intense workout turns down the volume on everything else.
These are really just the tip of the iceberg and reading about these benefits of exercise do not do it justice.
As I said, people tried to convince me of the importance of exercise when I was very early in recovery and I did not believe them. I even dabbled in the idea and did several workouts over the period of several weeks and I still was not convinced.
In order for me to “see the light” I had to commit to it for the long haul. I am guessing three to six months was the turning point, I cannot be sure of exactly when it happened. Certainly if you work out every single day for six months straight and you are really pushing yourself to get intense with it then you should see some amazing results. I realize that this is not a trivial price to pay as most of us are not highly motivated to push ourselves that hard.
The benefits are amazing though if you can make the commitment to yourself.
The benefits and full impact of daily exercise is very hard to convey to others
It is very difficult to convince others of the positive impact that exercise has on your recovery.
No one could convince me of it either.
At one point in my recovery journey I had already been exercising for many years. Things were going well. I had no major problems at the time.
Then I got a running injury and I could not run for a while.
This was a problem!
And I am glad that it happened because it taught me a great deal. It taught me the value of the exercise, which is something that I had slowly started to take for granted.
And it made me realize that I depended on exercise to some degree as an outlet and as a tool for my recovery. It was driving me crazy not to be able to exercise!
And so I had to get real with myself about that. I had to slow down and learn how to process my emotions to a greater degree. Because suddenly I could not use the daily exercise to process those emotions instead.
Again, this is difficult to convince other people of–that your emotions can be easier to manage and deal with if you are in the habit of daily exercise. It is the sort of thing that you have to experience for yourself in order to see the true benefit of it.
When I was injured and I could not exercise it made me realize how much harder my recovery is when I am not exercising on a regular basis.
How daily exercise can help make your recovery stronger through increased discipline
There are many muscles to be built up in your recovery. Very few of them are actually physical.
Exercise is many things, but one of them is simply a tool to help you learn discipline.
If you can run a marathon then you can do a whole lot of other things which also require a high degree of dedication and discipline.
That’s all a marathon really is–you make a commitment to go out there and run one mile. Then two miles. Then three miles.
You get the idea here…..
It is about the commitment. Maybe your next training run is 4 miles long and you say “wow, that is just too tough, I don’t think I can do it.”
And so it comes down to your commitment to yourself. Either you made the commitment or you did not. And so you push yourself to get out there and go the distance, or you give up on the idea and move on with your life.
Now understand that this is not really about running a marathon or even about exercise in general.
It is about making positive changes.
Change is hard in recovery because it usually requires persistence.
Many people change and then quickly change back. They don’t follow through. This is very common in recovery. It is also common in exercise, new year’s resolutions, and so on.
The key is all about the follow through.
Do you know when I realized that I could successfully train for a marathon?
When I finally quit smoking cigarettes. It was so hard and so difficult and required such a massive commitment that I knew I could extend this discipline to other things.
This is me after quitting smoking: “Really, only 26 miles? I can do that, no problem. Where is the training schedule?”
Because honestly, quitting cigarettes was so incredibly difficult for me that after I finally succeeded at it I felt like I could do anything.
And this is how you should approach your challenges in recovery.
Build on your success!
So maybe you quit drinking and using drugs. That is huge. Don’t ever belittle that accomplishment.
But now, build on it. What is next? What is the next big thing you can accomplish it?
Use your previous success to help motivate you. Build on that previous success. If you quit drinking then surely you can quit smoking too. Or you can start exercising every day. Or you can go finish up that degree. Or whatever it might be that is out there to challenge you.
This is what I mean when I say that “exercise gives you discipline and that in turn gives you strength.” You are building on your success.
If you start working out three times a week, then get that schedule and push yourself really hard and hit your goal. And then celebrate that as a victory. And then build on it. You accomplished something huge, you are making huge progress, now how can you build on that? What is your next challenge? This is how your recovery should unfold.
Sure there might be some setbacks. Sure there might be some bad days in there. But you have to focus on the wins. You have to build on every little success that you achieve. And in doing so you can build up your recovery with bigger and better goals. So that some day you will look back and realize “wow, look at how far I have come.”
What I would recommend for most people in early recovery
You don’t necessarily have to exercise like I do. You don’t have to run a marathon. (Of course, check with your doctor before you begin any exercise program!).
But you need to do something.
You need to take care of yourself.
And in sobriety, you need to take better care of yourself. On a continuous basis. And that means making positive changes.
So, talk to people. You don’t have to listen to me necessarily. Go talk to others. Find people in long term sobriety (multiple years sober) and ask them how they take care of their bodies. Ask them what they do for exercise.
Some might do yoga. Or Tai Chi. Or walking. Or whatever.
Explore. Experiment. Find your outlet. Find a way to take good care of yourself.
And in doing so, hopefully you will find a way to build more discipline in the process. Because that will unlock an entire new world in your recovery.
What do you think, is exercise a key component of recovery for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!