Exercise may not be your favorite thing to do, and it may even be pretty much the last thing you want to think about when you’re trying to maintain your sobriety. But the truth is that regular workouts — or any kind of physical activity — can be an integral part of your efforts to stay sober. Research even backs it up: Studies suggest that adding exercise to addiction treatment (which typically means counseling, self-help support groups and/or medication) can strengthen the effects of recovery. One study of patients being treated for substance abuse published in Mental Health and Physical Activity showed that exercise can lead to a sense of accomplishment; feeling stronger; improved health; and increased confidence in staying clean and sober.
Furthermore, exercise can give you a natural high to replace the artificial ones you’ve been chasing. When an addict is trying to recover, body and mind crave the endorphins that lead to the high he or she is used to. A vigorous sweat session can cause the release of those same endorphins, along with endocannabinoids; together, these biochemicals can produce a feeling of euphoria, making it easier for someone in recovery to cope with daily life. Although the high you feel is almost certain to be less intense than what you experienced with drugs or alcohol, exercise does provide a pleasurable release for many people.
In addition to the chemical changes happening in your brain when you exercise, working out can mitigate the negative effects of giving up your substance(s) or behavior(s), which include sleep troubles, anxiety and depression and weight gain. Simply by improving your overall health and well-being, regular exercise builds your body back up and gives you a healthy way to release difficult or pent-up emotions, including anger, sadness and frustration.
If you’ve never worked out before or haven’t exercised in a long time, consider starting small. Go for a walk every day and see how it feels. You may consider enlisting a workout buddy who can help you stay motivated. It’s also important to remember that you’re susceptible to “substitute addiction or addiction transfer,” which means replacing one addiction for another. Many have fallen into that trap with exercise, so if you find yourself obsessing over how many miles you ran or constantly tallying the sets and reps you did each week, it may be worth considering limiting your workout time and talking to someone about it. By being aware and proactive about substitute addiction you can use exercise to your advantage.
Here are a few more reasons why sticking to an exercise program can help while you’re in recovery:
Exercise fills up your time — in a good way. When you prioritize physical activity it necessarily eats up part of your schedule. Regular workouts are also specific times that force you to focus on what you’re doing, to live in the present, plus they make it easier to keep boredom, stressful thoughts and daydreams about using again at bay. Even if going to the gym or out for a run isn’t the most fun you’ve ever had, consider the post-workout benefits: increased energy, better mood, reduced stress, clearer thinking.
You’ll sleep more soundly. Addiction is known to disrupt many body processes, including circadian rhythms, making it difficult to fall (or stay) asleep without your drug of choice. As your body gradually returns to a healthier, balanced state, exercise also helps to restore a normal sleep cycle. And your body heals faster when you’re well-rested.
You’ll heal your body and mind. You probably already know that being physically active helps to stave off type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some kinds of cancer, as well as boost immunity. Even better for those in recovery, research shows that regular workouts increase the number of new nerve connections in the brain, which helps it heal from the effects of substance use.
Working out offers an outlet for anger. It’s common for recovering addicts to have trouble dealing with rage and feeling frustrated; because of your addiction, you may not have learned to express these emotions in a healthy way. Going for a run, lifting weights or even hitting a punching bag can help you manage anger and frustration without relapsing.
Being active makes it easier to de-stress and weather a crisis. There will be times when you feel overwhelmed and as if you can’t cope. Exercise can become your go-to tool to reduce stress, regain composure and do something proactive for your recovery, all at the same time. Similarly, when you experience a crisis, whether major or minor, it’s helpful to have a workout regimen to rely on to get you through the rough period.
Exercise builds self-confidence. Like anything new you learn, the more you do it, the better you get. If you’ve never felt like much of an athlete, start where many people do — with a simple walking program of 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Gradually increase your walks to 45 minutes or an hour, or move up from walking twice a week to daily. As you add more time and/or intensity to your regimen, you’ll see the physical and mental health benefits that come with it and you’ll start to feel stronger and more competent in other areas of your life, including your ability to meet the challenges you’ll face in recovery.