Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Posted on December 26, 2012

You Don’t Have to Become a Fitness Fanatic to See the Benefits
~Green-In-MI, SMART Recovery Online Member

Exercise Benefits Recovery

SMARTies who participate in SMART Recovery Online (SROL) will sooner or later hear me sing the praises of exercise as an integral part of recovery. For me, exercise is a valuable Vitally Absorbing Creative Interest (VACI) as well as something that provides a host of side benefits. Exercise offers many benefits during the recovery process and I want to take a few minutes to talk about how it can be a part of your recovery.

It doesn’t have to be complicated: It’s important to recognize that working out can take many forms, from something as simple and low impact as a walk, to training for a marathon or taking up competitive power lifting. In this context low impact does not mean less effective. Extensive research shows that even walking for 30 minutes a day several days a week can reap benefits. Obviously if you want to meet specific goals like increased aerobic capacity or running a local 5K race you need to train appropriately, but throughout this blog post when I talk about working out or fitness I really mean getting out and moving – whatever you can do with your abilities and motivation.

Exercise can help provide structure to your days: This can take several forms including things like a set workout plan or signing up for classes like yoga or spinning at the local gym. I’ve found it very effective to have a set workout plan in place that encourages me to think “hey, I can’t drink tonight; I have to get up and run tomorrow morning”. Or if you’re not a morning person, “hey, I can’t drink tonight; I need to go to my yoga class”.

A commitment to a regular workout or other exercise regime also takes up time:
This is part of the thinking behind a VACI – what are you going to do with all this extra time that you used to spend thinking about, acquiring, using, and recovering from using your drug of choice? Many people in early addiction recovery find they suddenly have a lot of time on their hands and no idea what to do with it. Working out, in whatever form, can fill some of this time. Even one aerobics class per week plus a couple of workouts on your own can take up several hours including time to get ready to work out and get cleaned up after. For more ideas of how to incorporate exercise into your life, SROL members have compiled a list of possible activities for people to consider.

Exercise adds another item to the Cost Benefit Analysis:
The Cost Benefit Analysis tool is used to weigh the short and long term effects of an addictive behavior. In the short term, it’s easy to think of exercise as a benefit of not using because of the other benefits I’m talking about in this post. You’re not using and instead you’re working out and getting healthy. The flip side of the coin is that using will likely prevent you from working out. This can also be effective in the longer term if you set fitness based goals like a backpacking trip several months away. A cost of using is putting that backpacking trip at risk.

Exercise can provide a general positive feeling: If you’re anything like I was, you’ve been doing very bad things to your body so it may be a while before you start to enjoy working out. It’s going to take time to heal your body and shift your mental frame of reference. When I started running I did not enjoy it in the slightest, but now I can think of no better way to start the day than getting out for an hour long run. How long will this take? Like a lot of recovery issues (like frequency or intensity of urges) it will depend on the individual. In the meantime, try and pick exercises you are likely to enjoy from the start, like walking the dog or hiking. As your body recovers and you gain fitness you’ll find a lot of doors open up to you, broadening the types of activities you can enjoy.

Exercise will help heal your body and your brain: Research clearly shows that exercise helps your body, whether you’re in recovery or not. Improved long term fitness helps with cardio-vascular health and diabetes, lowers the risk of some types of cancers, stimulates the immune system, and can even help alleviate depression symptoms. Further research shows that exercise can increase the amount of new nerve connections in the brain, which will help your brain heal from the harm your drug of choice has been causing. As the body and mind continue to return to a more normal state many people in recovery find exercise also helps restore a normal sleep schedule.

I hear many, many people bemoan the idea that they’re too out of shape, they lack the time, or they have some physical limitation like an old injury that keeps them from exercising. I truly believe that there is something everyone can do. You just need to figure out what you can do and get started. And yes, getting started can be a difficult step.

The bottom line is that exercise can be a valuable part of the recovery process for a number of reasons, and you don’t have to become a fitness fanatic to see the benefits. Just take those first steps and get out there and move.

About the author: Green-In-MI is a Boston Marathon qualifier and finisher as well as an Ironman finisher. He has also raced numerous other marathons, half marathons, and other triathlons. Fitness is his VACI and has been an integral part of his progress towards a healthy lifestyle that includes abstinence from alcohol. His current goals are shaving two hours off his Ironman finishing time and running a sub-3 hr marathon.

4 thoughts on “Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

  1. Reid K Hester, Ph.D.

    The body of research on exercise and health and wellness is large and ever growing. Becoming more active is one of the single most helpful things a person can do to counteract the effects of aging. And heavy drinking and drug use acts has the effect of premature aging. The bottom line is, if you want to feel younger and feel better emotionally, get moving and keep moving.

  2. You As A Machine

    Thinking of our health as a hobby is a great idea; that’s what I do – I continue to study, explore and experiment. The possibilities are endless, which is great to keep one focused and busy.
    I’ve got some simple steps on my website for those who need more of a gentle approach to starting back to a regular wellness routine or for those beginning for the first time.

  3. Pingback: Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery | SMART Recovery® | My Blog

  4. Pam Peeke, MD

    You’re spot-on in citing the body-brain connection of exercise in addiction recovery. As I discuss in my most recent book, THE HUNGER FIX, without increasing serotonin and dopamine transmitters in the brain, which have often been ravaged by the addictive action of junk food, people have little hope of removing weight and sustaining the loss with any kind of serenity. Aerobic exercise increases serotonin, which may be lacking in the addict’s brain. Serotonin is the antibody of stress, which is a clinically proven cause of both weight gain and overeating. The exerciser then has three benefits in attacking weight loss, through exercise, stress-reduction and an enhanced sense of well-being and calm.

    And in case your readers think this an onerous task, moving 6,000 or more steps a day—no matter how—adds up to a healthier life for midlife women. That level of physical activity decreases the risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a diabetes precursor and a risk for cardiovascular disease), showed a study published online this month in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society.

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