By Sean Egen Exercise can play a key role in the recovery process and in treating mental illness, so DO sweat it, and consider incorporating exercise into your journey. It’s tough to convince someone who may not even feel like getting out of bed that putting the body through its paces could actually make them feel better. It’s simply not intuitive that vigorous activity can actually improve health, mood and chances of a successful recovery. But more and more research shows that exercise has powerful benefits, which is why it is playing a significant role in many recovery programs as well as in treating mental illnesses like depression.
Physical Benefits of Exercise
Anyone who’s ever worked out on a regular basis understands how exercise contributes to wellness on a purely physical level. It helps lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels, strengthen the heart and other muscles, improve lung function and keep off excess pounds. These physical benefits apply to almost everyone, whether they’re battling addiction or mental illness, or everything is going swimmingly in their life. But did you know that exercise is especially critical for those who suffer from mental illness? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, individuals living with mental illness frequently have higher risks of developing medical illnesses such as heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. And it works the other way, too – individuals who suffer from medical illnesses have an increased risk of developing mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, as well as a higher likelihood of becoming abusers of alcohol and other drugs.
A Brain Boost
Yes, being more physically fit is a reward in and of itself, but just as drugs and alcohol provide a payoff to an addict, so too can exercise. When you exercise, the body releases endorphins, which act as analgesics and reduce pain perception, not too dissimilar from the effects of morphine. Long-distance runners and other endurance athletes refer to this euphoric feeling as the “runner’s high.” According to Exercise and Depression, an article published by Harvard Medical School on Harvard Health Publications, these exercise-released endorphins serve to improve natural immunity. There’s also a theory that exercise stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which helps improve an exerciser’s mood. In addition, exercise appears to boost brain chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin – the same chemicals triggered by many of the drugs commonly abused. A study published in 2011 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports measured the serotonin levels in the bloodstreams of two groups: one group did aerobic exercise, the other did only stretching. Blood was drawn from participants in the two groups before and after the stretching or aerobic exercise took place. The study found that “the exercise group showed a larger percentage decrease in serotonin than the stretching-control group. This reduction in blood serotonin after exercise is similar to the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.”
Research suggests that aerobic exercise may even help reduce cravings for certain drugs. A study published on plosone.org, titled Aerobic Exercise Training Reduces Cannabis Craving and Use in Non-Treatment Seeking Cannabis-Dependent Adults, observed a dramatic drop in marijuana cravings by heavy marijuana users after running on a treadmill for 30 minutes 10 separate times over a two-week period. Another study conducted on lab rats, published in 2010 in Biological Psychiatry, found that wheel-running tended to reduce cocaine-seeking behavior.
Psychological Benefits of Exercise
Along with physiological benefits, exercise can help calm the mind and build self-confidence. Just the fact that the substance abuser is dealing with anxiety or depression or taking charge of their recovery by doing something positive rather than destructive means they are coping in a healthier manner, which is something to legitimately feel good about. And feeling good about oneself helps to build confidence. Taking a mind-clearing run or bike ride or swim is also a much healthier alternative than dwelling on one’s problems, or focusing on the seemingly monumental journey on the road to recovery. Exercise serves as a legitimate distraction from negative thoughts, which can feed anxiety or depression or sabotage recovery. Regular exercise is also a great way to build and maintain friendships and increase social interaction. Having a running or biking buddy not only makes exercise more fun and increases the likelihood of sticking with a regimen, it gives the exerciser someone to talk to and share feelings with on a regular basis. Even when exercising alone, a friendly wave or smile exchanged with a fellow runner can help boost one’s spirits. And the act of going to the gym can foster a sense of community. Many friendships have been forged at gyms, where you’re likely see the same people on a regular basis and get to know them.
Before diving into an exercise program, it’s important to first discuss it with your physician to formulate a plan of action that won’t jeopardize your health. Easing into a program not only reduces risks to your health and makes it more likely that you’ll stick with it – it helps prevent nagging or serious injuries. Anyone who’s pushed it too hard and too fast knows how quickly an injury can sideline you and render you even more inactive than you were before incorporating exercise into your life. Exercising doesn’t need to be a separate aspect of your daily life, either. It can be incorporated into day-to-day activities by doing things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away from building entrances or even walking or riding a bike to the store instead of driving. These activities may not pack the punch of a vigorous hour-long run on a treadmill, but they add up and provide many of the same benefits.
One of the biggest reasons people give up on exercise is because they become bored with it or lose motivation. So it’s important to find ways to keep it fresh and, more important, fun (at least moderately), or you’re just not going to stick with it. One of the best ways to keep it fresh is to vary your activity so you’re not doing the same thing over and over. Instead of running every time you work out, take a swim or ride a bike or lift weights. It’s also, as previously mentioned, more fun to exercise with another person, so try to find an exercise buddy or do activities where you’re surrounded by other workout warriors. If you have an active dog, take it for a run or walk it more frequently.
Word of Warning
If you have an addictive personality, which you do if you are on the road to recovery, it’s possible to become obsessed with – or even addicted to – exercise. The point is not to merely trade one addiction for another. The point is to incorporate healthy behavior into your life that can help with your recovery or help manage illness. So keep things in perspective; don’t let exercise become the whole focus of your life. Rather, use it to help craft a life that’s healthier, more positive and more productive.