• John Roesch

Exercise in Recovery is More Important Than You Might Think

Working your body to strengthen your recovery

In the world of recovery, we spend a lot of time focusing on the spiritual condition, the tools of recovery, the importance of going to meetings, having a sponsor, having a home group, working the steps (if you’re in a 12-step program), asking for help, offering help, rehab, detox, abstinence, and a whole slew of other ways to treat your mental, emotional, and spiritual condition. Work on the above mentioned topics, and watch your sobriety improve, and your overall wellbeing increase.

But what about your physical condition? It’s no secret that exercise is good for you. On the cover of almost every magazine, on every TV show, tons of blog posts, YouTube videos, and every other form of media you can think of, exercise is promoted as a near cure-all for everything from obvious physical ailments like obesity and heart problems, to emotional ailments like depression and bipolar disorder. So why isn’t exercise talked about more in mainstream recovery circles?

Dopamine, serotonin, and your happiness

Technically, the only two things in the world that make you happy are dopamine and serotonin. That’s because these two naturally occurring chemicals in your brain are responsible for your pleasure centers. Depletion or under-production of dopamine and serotonin are responsible for mental disorders like bipolar disorder and depression, which is why prescription drugs that treat these disorders are called SSRI’s (aka selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). When your dopamine and serotonin receptors become damaged or aren’t functioning properly, your mood drops, and your body craves ways to increase production in order to make you feel good. Enter drugs and alcohol.

Drugs and alcohol artificially trigger dopamine and serotonin release, which make you feel good in the moment, but also cause post-high mood drops that result in depression and anxiety. This is why many addicts crave alcohol and drugs when they’re feeling low. Many people who suffer from co-occurring disorders like bipolar disorder and addiction often seek out substances as a way to self-medicate and artificially increase dopamine and serotonin production.

But there are lots of healthy, natural ways to increase dopamine and serotonin release. Eating healthy foods, listening to music, meditating, healthy sleep habits, and creativity are all natural, healthy ways to increase dopamine and serotonin production. But guess what else increases the production of dopamine and serotonin? Exercise. In fact, exercise is one of the best ways to stimulate your brain into producing these happiness-inducing chemicals.

Want to get happy? Go work out. Hard. Break a good sweat, start panting, push yourself. The after effects will make you feel good. You might be a little sore tomorrow, but your brain will thank you.

Achievement, accomplishment, and gains

There’s nothing to make you feel good like the feeling of achieving a new goal. Especially a challenging goal that you’ve been purposefully working towards. Want to bench press that extra 15 pounds? Keep working. Want to cut that mile run down from 6 minutes to 5-and-a-half? Keep running. Make those muscles stronger, increase blood flow and oxygenation, stimulate your body, and help it grow.

The sense of accomplishment you get from increasing your abilities and making your body stronger has a direct correlation to self-esteem and self-worth, and that’s what true recovery is all about. The overall goal of sobriety is to believe that our bodies, ourselves, and our lives are worth more than the pain and heartache of alcohol and drugs. When we increase our self-esteem, our sobriety improves. And when our sobriety improves, our chances of long-term success only grows stronger and stronger.

Healthy behaviors develop healthy patterns

There’s a tremendous value in sobriety to having a set daily routine. Wake up at the same time every day, make your bed, clean up your room, shower, groom, get ready for work, eat healthy meals at regular times, make time for positive hobbies that make you feel good, schedule room for downtime, go to bed at a reasonable hour, repeat. This repetition creates healthy habits, and healthy habits beget other healthy habits.

A healthy daily routine doesn’t have room for alcohol and drugs. Using alcohol and drugs throws off your schedule, and soon, all your new healthy habits have once again been replaced by seeking and using substances. If your daily routine has a gap in it, consider filling that gap with regular exercise. Make it part of your routine. Some people prefer to start their day with a vigorous workout, others prefer to make working out part of their evening, burning off excess energy before bed. While still others prefer to make a mild increase in activity and heart rate a part of their midday break for a lunchtime boost. Whatever time you choose to workout, stick with it for a few weeks and see if it works for you. Before you know it, you may have developed yet another healthy habit that will raise your recovery to new heights.

Practicing patience, self-discipline, and achieving long-term goals

As addicts in active addiction, we seek out instant gratification and fast results. With alcohol and drug use, we become used to feeling good right away once we get what we “need.” By becoming accustomed to instant gratification, the slow burn of recovery (or exercise) can become frustrating and often feel like a fruitless effort.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in recovery is simply giving up on your sobriety because it doesn’t feel like anything is changing fast enough. The phenomenon known as the “effits” (or f*ck its, if you will). This same phenomenon is common in exercise and wellness circles. You hit that treadmill every day for a month, eat healthy, do all the things the websites and your fit friends tell you to do, but then you step on that scale and you’ve only lost 5 pounds. This high-output, low return pattern is common in the beginning of a regular workout routine, but soon enough the gains (and weight loss) start coming faster and faster. It’s all about getting past that first hump of hard work with seemingly little return.

While sobriety and exercise often feel like they’re getting off to a slow start, if you buckle down, maintain your patience, and stick to the plan, the gains will happen, if only incrementally. But incremental successes add up, and eventually add up to substantial gains that make a huge difference in both your sobriety and your physical fitness regimen. By sticking to your plan and not giving up, you not only learn the importance of patience and self-discipline, but it gives you perspective on the idea of achieving long-term goals slowly, at a healthy pace, without losing patience.

It might take a while, but it’s worth the wait

While both exercise regimens and recovery programs might feel like they take a long time to show tangible results, they DO work. Sometimes we need to make small adjustments to our programs in order make them more effective, but giving up never solves anything. The most important thing is that you keep trying. Keep going to meetings, keep talking to others and sharing your feelings, and when it comes to exercise, keep sweating. The results WILL come. It’s worked for countless others before us, and it will work for you too. Just keep going. You won’t regret it.

-- John Roesch for Life Assurance Recovery, 2018

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