Many refer to one’s addiction as a tornado, leaving a path of destruction for miles, as far as the eyes can see. Broken relationships need mending, the financials certainly need a facelift, and we basically need to be taught to ‘walk’ all over again. We go to an inpatient addiction treatment and/or a community support group of our choice, and we begin the long process of healing. We learn to cope without our so-called “Drug of Choice”. For the first year or so, we still feel as if something is missing, like the fog still hasn’t lifted. It takes time for our brain to return to normal functioning capacity, but there is certainly something that may be able to help speed up that process…Exercise.
In my opinion, one thing that I think is commonly ignored early in recovery is the importance of exercise. For a long while, we wreaked havoc on our body, mind, and soul. Destroying our body by flooding it with foreign substances, corrupting our mind’s natural circuitry, and emptying our soul like a carton of spoiled milk. Exercise has the benefits to help mend these mental and physical deficits caused by drug and alcohol use.
A Positive, Natural Effect on your Brain
The pleasure centers of the brain are one of the areas hit hardest by our drug/alcohol addiction. Long-term substance use creates an imbalance in those areas of the brain, leaving us unable to feel the joys of everyday life. The, so-called, endorphin pool runs dry. Well, the good news is, exercise releases those endorphins (the pleasure chemical) naturally. Steadfast physical activity during the early stages of recovery, along with maintained abstinence of course, will help you reestablish natural levels of endorphins into your body. Your ability to enjoy a sunrise, laugh with friends, feel the joy of great tasting food, and so much more will slowly begin to return. Your body begins to learn to naturally regulate it’s own chemical reactions again, without the help of “you know what.”
Let it out: Stress Reduction
I think to say early recovery can be a stressful time, would not only be an obvious statement, but it would an understatement. Our safety blanket is gone and we have no choice but to face life’s stressors head on. Exercise is a great way to release the stress of a tough day. Exercise can help physically and emotionally recalibrate our bodies. Exercise, whether it is a vigorous weightlifting regiment, yoga or a brisk walk outside, gives our bodies the opportunity to let out frustrations and tensions in a healthier way. Unlike our prior drug/alcohol use, exercise doesn’t just sweep our tensions under a rug, it actually releases it and resets our body to take on the next stressor life will throw at us.
I remember hearing exercise being referred to as “Meditation in Motion”. Now, a list of the benefits of performing daily meditation is for a totally different article, but it’s effects on stress-relief are astounding. While we exercise, we normally clear our minds to focus on nothing other than what we are doing in the moment. Whether its counting out each repetition or focusing on our breathing, our mind clears and the mental chatter stops. This ‘break’ for the brain is not only relaxing, but it can be necessary early in recovery.
*A Brief Tale of Caution
I had a friend many years ago who was going through his first time of treatment and his first introduction to the rooms of a 12-step fellowship. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call my friend “Bruce Wayne”. Bruce gratefully soaked everything he learned from treatment and the rooms in. The problem was, while in treatment, Bruce remembered how much he loved exercise and conceived the notion that it was the true cure to his addiction woes. He left treatment and decided he found the perfect “higher power”, the gym. It became a new obsession, an addiction. He worked out incessantly, pushing his body to its brink on a daily basis. On days he couldn’t make it to the gym, all he could think about was the sound of metal weights clanking together. If he missed a day at the gym, he could swear he saw more fat on himself than the day before and would go to the gym twice that day. He spent hundreds of dollars on supplements and food to increase his daily gains. Just like it had with his drug addiction, everything fell second to the gym. Eventually, Bruce relapsed back on his drug of choice after injuring himself in the very place he was so in love with. Bruce didn’t find the “cure” for his addiction, he found a replacement. Exercise is a tool to supplement your drug addiction therapy and the benefits are, no doubt, endless. But like everything else in early recovery, we must strive for balance. Moderation is key. Design a regimen that will keep you going to the gym but isn’t over doing it. Be honest with those around you if you begin to feel as if you are obsessing. The point of exercise isn’t to give you something to do instead of use drugs, the true point of doing it is to make you feel good, to make you feel alive again, and to bring you back to your true self!