How does moving your body relate to successful recovery? Let me count the ways. First, you notice I’m not using the “E” word: exercise. In non-athletic minds, the mere mention of that word tends to conjure images of tortured high school days trying to run a mile without speed-dialing 911. Instead, I prefer to say how important it is to simply move your body and to stay as active as possible. That means, in essence, you need to make a daily commitment to assume the vertical as much as you can to optimize your recovery.
The great majority of you are working through often serious mood and mental issues associated with your addiction. Scientists have now proven that by doing something as simple as walking, you can significantly decrease depression and anxiety. Endorphins and serotonin are powerful mood modulators that help you calm down, feel less anxiety and think more clearly. The brain’s reward center secretes waves of dopamine to enhance the pleasure and joy associated with your activity. Find what you love to do through trial and error. It could be simply walking the dog in the park every day. Or, it could be a Zumba class or hanging from the rafters on TRX equipment at your Cross Fit gym. Put out the effort to find what works for you. Recovery-focused exercise involves repetitive, aerobic movement to increase serotonin, which has a strong calming effect. Walking, elliptical training, swimming, light hiking and cycling increase serotonin production in the brain. Most studies have found walking is best at re-growing the hippocampus, the brain center involved in memory and learning, as well as repairing the brain’s CEO, the frontal cortex.
Here’s a warning: Moderate activity, not the Olympics, is the goal. As little as a five-minute walk around the block or 30 jumping jacks have been shown to reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. In fact, you want to avoid any extreme exercise program in early recovery because it increases appetite as well as depleting choline, an essential nutrient that affects memory, energy levels and muscle function. Don’t go hog wild; just walk your dog…even if you don’t have one.
By becoming more physically active, it’s entirely possible that, working with your addiction specialist, you can reduce if not eliminate some or all of your mood medications. That’s what I mean by “medicating with movement.”
Sleep takes a major hit during active addiction and becoming more physically active can be immensely helpful in regulating sleep. As you ease into recovery, your mind and body are adapting and adjusting to withdrawal and perhaps new medications to support recovery. Sleep deprivation from all of these transitions leaves you experiencing the trifecta of no energy, a chaotic appetite for junk food and a rotten mood overall. Physical activity to the rescue! If you get up and do a little rockin’ and rollin’ throughout the day, you’ll bump up your energy, be more mindful of every mouthful and elevate your attitude. Finally, a consequence of not getting enough (that’s code for seven to eight hours per night) of high-quality sleep is to depress your immune system, which has already been throttled by addiction. So, get active and get your Zzzzs to support a successful recovery.
Finally, physical movement is integral to managing weight during the transition from addiction to recovery. Cravings for a substance of abuse are often transferred to junk food, especially the sugary/fatty/salty food combinations. Physical activity alters the reward circuits in the brain so well that it can replace some of the dependence on unhealthy addictions. Lab rats that exercised for six weeks reduced their sensitivity to cocaine. They were allowed as much as they wanted but they opted for less of it at longer frequencies. Repeated physical activity helps to rebuild the damaged reward system on cellular, neurochemical and habitual levels. It is also believed to be self-reinforcing, leading addicts to need less of their substance to get the same high. Getting active also decreases cravings as well as the obsessive focus on the addictive substance, compulsiveness and emotional swings.
So I’m whipping out my prescription pad and writing everyone an Rx to gradually get active as you progress through recovery. Divide it up. A five-minute walk here, a light hike for 20 minutes there, climbing the stairs throughout the day, hopping on the elliptical or stationary bike for 15 minutes — all qualify as great ways to get moving. So does the yoga, Pilates or a tai chi class. Mix ’em up and stay consistent. From this moment on, moving your marvelous body becomes an essential element in your recovery journey.