By: Jared Henry

Four years ago, I entered a rehabilitation center for the second time. When I think back on the time that my life was consumed by alcohol and drugs, there were a few common denominators that shaped how my time was spent. The first two were depression and anxiety. I used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate in an attempt to alleviate the physical symptoms that plagued my emotional well-being. The third was boredom; I filled my free time with drinking and using to escape any sense of restlessness I felt through prolonged bouts of inactivity. Many of those who struggle with substance use disorder will describe themselves as needing instant gratification, especially when it comes to alleviating symptoms of mental illness or boredom. When suffering from mental illness and/or experiencing long periods of inactivity, drugs and alcohol are often found to be the easiest way to escape the symptoms that coincide with their ailments, self-imposed or not. When I left my second treatment center, I was faced with the same dilemma I had encountered the first time – what do I do with my free time? The time that I had once occupied with drinking and using was now, once again, up to my own devices. What didn’t work the first time (returning back to my same lifestyle in a home that was unconducive to recovery), was definitely not going to work a second time. I had to make dramatic life-style changes in order to succeed in recovery. This time I began to focus on wellness, a balance of healthy habits in a conscious effort to create a positive change in my life. These habits included: maintaining an adequate sleep schedule, focusing on diet and nutrition, finding meaningful work that made me feel productive in society, and perhaps most importantly, physical activity. I say “most importantly” because of the scientifically proven, physical and psychological benefits that are gained through regular exercise. The idle time that was once occupied by self-medicating, now took the form of daily walks, bike rides, and swimming. Not only did I have something to do in my free time, I also felt healthier both mentally and physically.

As I mentioned earlier, wellness is a “conscious, deliberate process that requires a person to become aware of and make choices for a more satisfying lifestyle.” Physical activity is a crucial component in this process, as evidenced by its inclusion in the 8 Pillars of Wellness model. In relation to those in recovery, the benefits that regular exercise provide prove it to be one of the most effective ways in which to maintain prolonged, meaningful sobriety.

The Science of Exercise

The many benefits of exercise are well documented, through numerous journals and studies that come to the same conclusion: exercise is good for both body and mind. While physical activity has been shown to prevent cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, to help maintain healthy weight, amongst many other physical benefits, I’d like to highlight the psychological benefits gained through exercise. Regular exercise has been found to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety while boosting feelings of well-being. This includes alleviating stress. Studies have found that a high percentage of those suffering from substance use disorder also experience increased levels of stress. Stress has become an increasingly prevalent issue in society both in professional and personal settings. In fact, an astounding 60-80 percent of all visits to healthcare providers in the United States are related to stress, with most of those visits being linked to stress-induced cardiovascular and/or psychological diseases – including substance use disorder. When we consider how substance use has become so prevalent, it’s easy to see how effective it is in alleviating the symptoms of stress and other mental illnesses that are becoming increasingly commonplace in society as a whole. So how does exercise factor into this equation? For starters, physical activity allows the body to create natural endorphins that elevate mood and sense of well-being. You may have heard of the term “runner’s high” to describe the feeling one has after a long run. This is due to the increase of natural endorphins that are linked to the brain’s reward and pleasure center – the very same endorphins that are released when picking up a drink or drug. In relation to recovery, this is precisely why exercise is so important. The means of releasing endorphins must be replaced once in recovery and exercise provides that supplemental, natural high that we once received artificially through drugs and alcohol.

Exercise and Recovery

Now that we understand the chemical relation between regular exercise and the ways in which it helps to alleviate the symptoms that lead us to drink or use in the first place, it’s important to also look into why exercise is so crucial in recovery from another standpoint. Epidemiological studies (studies used to identify patterns of health and disease conditions) reveal that those in recovery who engage in regular exercise are less like to relapse. There are many theories as to why this is, but most researchers conclude this is due to a few basic mechanisms of action, as exercise:

  • Provides pleasurable states of being without the use of drugs and alcohol
  • Reduces negative mood
  • Increases self-efficacy
  • Provides a positive alternative to drinking
  • Improves coping responses to stress
  • Decreases urges to drink or use

Additionally, wellness in recovery involves actively pursuing positive lifestyle changes to develop fulfilling social and recreational activities that do not revolve around drinking or using. Exercise, being one of those activities, is especially effective because it is a free and easy way to occupy the unstructured time that was once spent using substances.

In my four years of recovery, I’ve had a lot of highs and lows. As I previously said there were a few common denominators that shaped how my time was spent while drinking and using, there are also commonalities in my behavior that I recognize when I’m having a tough time in recovery. One of those being the amount of time I dedicate to physical activity. I have noticed that when I am physically active, I have a much more positive sense of self-worth, I am more productive and engaged in my work, and I am noticeably happier in general. I believe that many people in recovery can relate to the idea that when we are actively pursuing a better life for ourselves, having those highs is crucial to sustaining recovery. In that sense, it is easy to see why exercise is so important in recovery. In the pursuit of wellness, I encourage those who may be struggling with feelings of low self-worth, stress, or anything that may be hindering a fulfilling life to put aside some time during your day and focus on a physical activity. Whether it be a run, bike ride or even a walk around the block, exercise is a proven way to boost your mental and physical health and why it is so important in sustained recovery.

Sources:
https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/health-wellness/wellness-strategies/stress-management
https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/pbhci-learning-community/06.29.16_Nutrition_and_Physical_Activity_EBPs.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3276339/