Exercise and Recovery: What Did You Do as a Kid?
The evidence is in: regular exercise helps recovery. Studies show that an exercise routine can help people in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction combat depression, relieve anxiety and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Regular exercise also offers the recovering addict healthy alternatives to self-destructive habits, decreases the urge to return to addictive behaviors and gives people in recovery a pathway to pleasure without drinking or doing drugs.
Although it’s been widely known for decades that regular exercise has positive psychological and emotional benefits, the recovery community has been relatively slow to get on board. However, that is rapidly changing. A quick search of addiction and recovery themed websites yields dozens of articles advocating exercise as a valuable tool in recovery, and exercise is gaining momentum and recognition as a top line behavior by many 12-step programs.
There’s a problem here, though. Most of the articles you’ll find are written by people who were regular exercisers before they entered recovery, and most of the anecdotes you’ll hear are told by people who already knew how to make working out a regular part of their lives. So, the question I’d like to offer some answers to is this one: if you’ve never been much for exercising or working out, if you weren’t a high school football player or cross country runner, if you never got into hiking or mountain biking in college, how do you start?
Implementing an Exercise Routine During Recovery
I’m one of the people I was talking about in the last paragraph. I’m a recovering addict, but I’ve always had exercise in my life. In my early days, I was a competitive soccer player, distance runner and swimmer. In my late teens I took to hiking and rock-climbing, and in my early 20s I became a yoga teacher and personal trainer and was active for years as an assistant teacher in a martial arts school. I’ve worked with beginners for over 20 years, and the following advice is based on personal experience. I’ve seen scores of people come and go; I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. When people who don’t have much history with exercise or working out ask me how to get started, here’s what I say, based on what I’ve learned over the years:
- Start small: The biggest mistake people make is biting off more than they can chew. Sure, the boot camp approach that has become popular lately works for some people, but in most, it just causes burnout. You DO NOT have to get up every morning at 5:30, run five miles and do 100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups. Do what works for you.
- K.I.S.S: Keep it Simple, Stupid. Start with a 15- or 20-minute walk, three times a week. Do 50 jumping jacks in the morning. If you’re so inclined, go for a 10-minute jog around the block. Go for an easy bike ride. The idea is to get your blood flowing, and see how you feel.
- Recruit friends: Find a friend, maybe even someone from your recovery group, and get him or her on board. Instead of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee after meetings, go for walks. Instead of meeting for lunch, meet for a jog or bike ride.
- Try something new, try something old: If you have never been to your local gym, go, just as a guest, and try a spinning class. Try an aerobics class. Try a yoga class. Try Tai chi. Why not? Keep searching until you find something you like. Or, go back to something from your childhood: did you ever play soccer? Join a league. Did you ever take dance classes when you were a kid? Go try one again. You get the idea—even if we’re sedentary as adults, most of us can remember something physical we had fun doing when we were young. Go back; try that. Kickball, anyone?
- Be kind to yourself: Whatever you do, don’t let your new exercise routine be a source of stress. If you miss a planned walk, ride or run, don’t sweat it—it’s no big deal. Do only what serves you. If you start a routine and something comes up that disrupts it, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter how many workouts you miss. It just matters that you make the next one.
In closing, I want to reiterate that when you’re beginning an exercise routine, especially when you’re early in recovery, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you find an activity you like to do. Be patient with yourself. Keep searching until you find something you enjoy, something you want to come back to, something that you look forward to, and above all, something that works for you, in your life, right now.
By Angus Whyte