by Marcus Abernathy
Aside from the obvious effects it can have for your physical health, fitness can play other important roles in one’s recovery. A healthy body is your first line of defense, no doubt, but the process of getting there even has its benefits. First of all, working out is a great hobby. Elevating your heart rate and physically pushing yourself is a great way to reduce stress as well. And most importantly, I believe, there are positive effects on a cognitive-behavioral level.
One of the first things you are told to do in recovery is to find a hobby, something that you enjoy that can keep you somewhat busy. Many of us had lost the ability to enjoy the simple things in life, so the very act of identifying things that bring us joy is therapeutic. Physical activity – whether running, hiking, surfing, lifting weights – causes your body to produce the very same endorphins (the body’s natural pain-killer) that are produced from drug use. You’ve probably heard of the “runner’s high,” which is something that happens because of an endorphin rush to the brain after physical activity. So, if you are having trouble finding something that interests you, take up working out or running and see what happens.
One thing that will definitely happen is you will experience a decrease in anxiety. Our bodies are under a lot of stress in early recovery, and if we don’t have an outlet it can build up and boil over. A chemical called Cortisol that gets released into the blood stream when your brain senses a physical threat causes stress. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism, and the purpose of Cortisol is to give you “fight or flight” endurance to overcome or outrun the threat. If you do not find a way to “work out” the Cortisol that has built up, you will likely find yourself irritable and frustrated. Engaging in physical activity is the healthiest way to rid your body of built up levels of Cortisol.
But other than these physical benefits, there are important cognitive-behavioral benefits you can experience from engaging in a regular physical routine. From setting and reaching goals, to building confidence, and building healthy habits. “Working out was the shortest tangible process of goal completion where I could succeed on a daily basis early in my recovery,” says Justin Hewitt, COO of Transcend Sober Living. Most of our problems have longer-term solutions in early recovery, and it is important to immediately begin to gain confidence in yourself, especially when it comes to healthy habit building. The process of repeatedly setting and reaching goals will become familiar, and thus less threatening. For me, personally, it was important that I didn’t see myself as a failure anymore. I had a problem of not finishing things that I would start, and regularly working out – especially when I didn’t want to – showed me that I was able to commit to something good for myself. It turns out I’m not constitutionally incapable of following through, and soon I gained the confidence to enroll in school again and ultimately gain full time employment. I began eating better because my body craved healthy foods, and I am – as a result – more involved in my own recovery because my health depends on it.
For me, working out at the gym is the main piece. But, physical activity in general is what I’m really talking about. Running, hiking, kayaking or surfing, yoga or Tai Chi…anything that elevates your heart rate and allows you to push yourself will work. The point is this: finding an active hobby early in recovery is key to a successful recovery. Remember, recovery is about balancing body, mind and spirit. It’s like a three-legged stool; if you take one leg away, it will crash into the ground.
Marcus Abernathy is a recovering drug addict pursuing a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, specializing in Addictive Behaviors.