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If you’re leaving rehab or addiction treatment, you’ve likely learned that regular exercise improves your health which in turn boosts your ability to stay clean and sober. It’s so much true that regular exercise has a positive impact on recovery that most recovery programs incorporate gym, aerobics, hiking, or some other form of exercise into their regular program. Depending on the recovery program, that can range from yoga to recreational hiking to intensive therapeutical classes designed to help people get in touch with their body.
When you leave rehab, maintaining that habit of exercise and good nutrition can help you to avoid relapse. Reasons are complex, but mostly play into feeling good, having the physical and mental baseline to make good decisions, and improving your willpower and discipline.
Staying fit is about more than exercise. It’s also about eating well and ensuring your diet is meeting your nutritional needs. That’s important in recovery for two reasons. The first is that high sugar and high fat foods can actually trigger the same dopamine and serotonin responses that drugs and alcohol do – albeit at a lower level. That’s why you often see people leaving recovery and relying on sugary and caffeinated beverages. The caffeine and sugar replace the addiction rather than forcing the person to work through it.
The second is that nutritional deficiencies contribute to poor mental health and therefore to susceptibility to relapse. If you eat well, you’ll eventually be able to maintain good nutritional balance. Eating well normally means following the guidelines of something like Myplate.gov or eating about 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day. That doesn’t include anything extreme or any supplements. Just making sure you get a variety of fruit and vegetables, keeping your fat and sugar intake down, and keeping protein content up. That will eventually give you the baseline for good mental and physical health. However, in early recovery, that can take some time.
Exercise has been shown to improve your mood and your energy levels for as much as 2 hours after exercise. This means that a short 20-minute walk can boost your mood for as much as 2 hours after. That reduces your need to rely on substances for energy and feeling good. However, it only works if you don’t exhaust yourself to the point of feeling bad.
Why does moderate exercise improve your mood? The first is that it triggers the reward circuit, releasing small amounts of neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins into your brain. You exercised so you feel good. The second is that exercise improves blood circulation, improving the oxygenation of the blood stream especially in your limbs. This results in feeling more energetic and more capable. However, there is a cutoff point, and heavy exercise or exercise to the point of exhaustion will negate the effect. Therefore, if you’re exercising for mood, you’re better off with smaller and more frequent bouts of moderate exercise.
Regular exercise will improve your physical health. Over time, that will improve your mental health as well. Why? Regular exercise improves your sense of self, shows you that you can commit to something, and gives you a place to ground. In addition, mental health ties into physical health. Having a good routine and schedule will mean you’re more likely to be fatigued and able to sleep when you want to. Eating well and exercising usually results in more constant energy and better stamina, so you’re less likely to crash throughout the day. Muscle mass results in more regulated metabolism, so you burn through calories at an even rate – resulting in fewer crashes. And, good physical health means you’re better equipped to absorb and use nutrition. All that will contribute to your mental health over time, which means you’re less likely to feel bad and less likely to rely on drugs or alcohol to feel good.
Building a fitness schedule isn’t easy. In fact it takes a considerable amount of discipline to manage your food, to consistently work out, and to ensure you get enough sleep to be fit. That will all positively impact your discipline and your sense of self and achievement. In fact, improving your sense of discipline, or that you can achieve things you want even when you don’t want to do them is one of the largest benefits of exercise in addiction recovery. You get a relatively fast look into how putting in the work pays off and how you can reach your goals by sticking to them – and that will positively impact your attitude and your ability to do the same with your recovery. In each case, you’ll have to put in work for outcomes that won’t happen immediately. But, with physical goals, you’ll get shorter term rewards like having more stamina, getting leaner, having more muscle mass, or being able to go for bigger weights or harder obstacles – all of which can help with motivation.
Building good habits can help you to get through day-to-day life while avoiding feeling bad, avoiding crashing, and avoiding cravings. If your habits are to go to the gym after work, you’re going to have a much harder time stopping to drink instead. However, habits can also play into mental health by giving you a sense of stability and comfort. If you’re upset you can go work out, you don’t have to use. If you’re stressed during the day you know you’ll have time to go work out and feel better. And, if you’re feeling lost, you know that you have a routine of things that are good for you that you can stick to and continue to feel good. Life won’t always be that black and white but good habits will help you.
Eventually you don’t have to “stay fit” to stay in recovery. However, working towards physical health and regular exercise is extremely important for recovery. Being healthy means you’ll feel good or better and that means you’ll experience less physical and mental discomfort. Eventually, those things will help you to stay in recovery by improving your ability to cope with yourself and with the world around you.
Good luck with your recovery.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for alcohol or other substance abuse, contact us at Stairway Resource Center today. At Stairway Resource Center we provide a 60 to 90-day outpatient program that takes place in an engaging and supportive community setting. We offer dual diagnosis treatment and daily group and individual therapy for our clients, in addition to fun community-based events and activities.
SEO and Digital Marketing Expert
Jim Sugel is an SEO and Digital Marketing Expert in addition to having achieved the coveted Google Partner status for PPC expertise. Prior to focusing on Digital Marketing, Jim worked in Information Technology roles at a variety of national firms as a software engineer and consultant, resulting in many years of professional coding and consulting experience.
Jim holds a Bachelor of Science, cum laude in Computer Science and Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. After relocating to Southern California from his native Chicago, he became involved in the recovery industry here, discovering a natural niche in helping treatment centers with Digital Marketing and other technology projects. Jim is the Founder and CEO of Airtight Digital, a firm that specializes in digital marketing for the behavioral health industry.
His other interests include hiking, canyoneering, urban exploration, and screenwriting. Jim now lives in beautiful and sunny Orange County, California.