By Jody Trager, PhD, Program Director at Promises Malibu Vista I’m lucky to live on…
Hit the Road Jack (and Jill): The Case for Exercise in Recovery
If you’re feeling stagnated and weighted down by all the things you have to do now that you’re in recovery, there’s something very practical and easy that you can do to help get yourself in a better frame of mind: exercise.
What? Stifle the cries of indignation and objection. This isn’t a recommendation to try out for a marathon – unless that’s somewhere on your list of goals down the line. No, what we’re advocating is simply that you get up off the couch, climb out of the chair you’ve been perched on for hours on end and just get moving.
Movement is a benefit in more ways than just getting you to physically remove yourself from a stationary position. It gets your blood pumping in your heart, delivers oxygen to your brain and all your vital organs. Getting out and doing some form of exercise also makes you feel good.
Here are some other pluses in the case for exercise in recovery, some of which you may never have thought of before.
- If thin is a goal, exercise could jumpstart that program. Who said that you have to be rail-thin, anyway? But if your goal is to shed a few pounds, even a dozen or so over a well-monitored period of time, physical exercise is right there at the top of the list of things that should be on your daily agenda. It doesn’t have to be a five-mile run to qualify as exercise, nor do you have to flail away at weight-lifting that’s clearly over your head (pun intended) at the start. Just get out and start doing something physical. It helps if you make it a fun activity, one that you do with friends -whether or not they’re also trying to lose weight.
- Exercising is a great way to meet new people. Being in recovery and going to 12-step meetings, having work sessions with your counselor and doing the many other items involved in the hard work of recovery can become a little draining. Frankly, when you see the same group of people day in and day out, week in and week out, it can also get a little boring. One way to jazz up your social life and lift your spirits in the process is to begin an exercise regimen or program that allows you to come into contact with other health-minded people. Striking up a conversation with someone else who’s lacing up hiking shoes prior to a trek on a wilderness trail might lead to an enduring relationship, even a friendship. At the gym, go out of your way to say something friendly to someone else you meet. Just be sure that they appear to welcome your conversation. Some people who are into exercising get pretty grumpy if their routine is interrupted, so pick your time to chat.
- Getting outdoors broadens your horizons. While you can certainly exercise at home by yourself, or go to the gym or enroll in a yoga class in a mall, one of the best ways to exercise is to go outdoors. Being in the fresh air literally opens your eyes to new horizons, broadening them, as it were. For one thing, you’re not confined to a space inside four walls. For another, you have limitless possibilities for where you take your exercise. Switch it up. Make it fun. Do a city walk when you’re shopping, parking at the farthest (but make sure it’s a safe and well-lit place) end of the mall and power-walk to all the shops you’re inclined to visit. Hopefully, your mall is in an indoor-outdoor location, so you can maximize your time in the fresh air. Other times, hike or meander on a nature trail, go to an eco-preserve, photograph wildflowers or go bird watching – anywhere you’ll be moving along in the out of doors. The extra benefit you’ll be realizing when you exercise in some fashion outside is that things start to look a little different. Your problems in recovery won’t seem so monumental. There’s a matter of perspective that comes into play, and it’s a very refreshing feeling to have some of the weight you’re carrying on your shoulders lifted – even if it’s temporarily – by changing your everyday environment.
- Food tastes better after you exercise. For many in recovery, especially early recovery, although it’s by far not limited to newcomers to sobriety, food has lost its sensory appeal. This may be due to any number of factors, not the least of which is the fact that your body is slowly healing, getting back to a state of balance. It takes time to overcome chronic addiction, even with the most determined approach. Time just has to pass and while it does, it’s important to maintain healthy eating habits. But when food doesn’t taste as good as you remember, or you’ve lost your appetite, or you find that you’re just eating because you have to, exercise is a good way to pique those taste buds back into action. After you’ve worked up an appetite, so to speak, you’ll be better able to appreciate and savor your meals once again. Think about what you’re going to eat while you’re exercising. Make it a kind of a reward, something that you really look forward to. This is a simple pleasure and it’s just another of the many benefits of exercise in recovery.
- When your mind is clear, solutions manifest. When you’re swamped with deadlines and trying to find extra hours in the day to devote to all the things you need to do – both for your recovery as well as for work, school and family – clearing your mind and allowing for a blank slate seems almost impossible. After all, your thoughts are constantly churning, calculating what you have to do and how and when and most of all, can you get it all done in a single day? Exercising helps you sweep away those pesky thoughts, those ceaseless and aggravating reminders that you’re not getting enough done to suit you. Focus on your exercise. Count your breaths or your steps or repetitions. Visualize your way up the trail or around the lakeside path. Allow your mind to be swept clean of extraneous demands. What you will find that happens is that, once you’ve allowed room inside your head, simple and elegant solutions may manifest in the now-open space. Creativity happens like this, also, and is often referred to as daydreaming. You could also call it freedom, since freeing yourself of pressing burdens allows you to see things that you’d otherwise be blocking yourself off from.
- Work away stress and tension. Exercise, particularly vigorous physical exercise, is an excellent way to work away accumulated stress and tension. And everyone has more than their share of these negative drains on their energy. It’s hard to remain in a state of stress or to allow tension to continue to build when you’re concentrated on doing the first set of 10 repetitions in a set, or climbing the steps of temple ruins in Chichen Itza or Coba in the jungles of Mexico. Working the sails of a sailboat on an inland lake or in the Gulf of Mexico, or along the Pacific or Eastern seaboards demands your attention. It also requires that you exert a certain amount of physical exercise, coordinated with knowledge of what you’re doing. There’s no time to give in to worry or to gnash over unfinished business. You’re helping to ease away the tension and stress in a totally healthy and rewarding activity. This is an added benefit of engaging in exercise in recovery.
- You’ll be amazed at what you can do. While you should never embark on an exercise program or regimen without first getting a clean bill of health and an okay from your doctor and you’ll want to start of slow to begin with, another benefit of getting involved with exercise in recovery is that you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Sure, you’ll be starting from page one, likely as not, since few in recovery are practiced in regular exercise – or have the inclination to do so. But it won’t take all that long before you find yourself with more energy than you had before. It will be easier to breathe and you’ll be less winded in the course of completing your routine or walking the neighborhood. Build up your stamina along with your enthusiasm. Each day, you’ll be a little bit stronger – and not just in the physical sense. When you are working at regaining balance in mind, body and spirit, your entire life seems to fall more in line. Problems aren’t so all-encompassing. Things that bothered you a few days or weeks ago may seem less threatening or impossible. Little successes along the way add to your increased level of self-confidence and self-esteem. And exercise plays a crucial role in this process.
- There’s no such thing as being too old to exercise. Maybe you think that you’re too far on in years to benefit from starting any kind of exercise regimen. You might even argue that you have stiff joints, arthritic knees, poor coordination, are overweight, too tired, bad eyesight, or just don’t have it in you. Nonsense. If you get your doctor’s blessing, there’s always something you can do. There are exercise bands of varying colors, corresponding to tension levels from super easy to difficult, that anyone can use. For anyone who’s ever had physical therapy for an injury, exercise bands are a familiar piece of equipment. The point is that mild physical exercise is better than no exercise. It gets your body moving and you benefit both physically and mentally when you are active rather than stationary. Granted, you may not climb Mt. Everest or compete in a triathlon when you’re in your 80s and beyond, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t keep your bones active in some form of exercise.
- Exercise gets you out of the house, and away from isolation. Aside from the benefits of being with others when you exercise, generally speaking, you’ll be getting out of the house and taking active steps (another pun intended) to remove yourself from isolation. It’s all too common for newcomers to sobriety to want to hide away in their homes, afraid to come into contact with others, fearful that they will make the wrong decisions and aren’t yet ready to communicate properly. Exercise is the great equalizer. You don’t have to say much to get benefit from it. If you feel that you’re shy and still vulnerable, you can be in a gym where others are exercising and keep to yourself. You’re still out and among people who are engaged in physical exercise. You’re getting a sense of community, even if you’re not yet ready to dive in and strike up a conversation. You’re also working on getting your body moving again, on doing something positive for yourself. You are taking action that will benefit your recovery.
- There’s always something to look forward to. Having an established exercise plan or routine or regimen or a weekly outing to meet with friends and hike or swim or ski carries with it another intrinsic benefit. There’s always something that you have to look forward to. You don’t need to wonder how to do it. You already know. You’ve figured out the where and when and how and with whom. All you need to do is show up and be ready to go. Even on days when you’ve had a setback or experienced some disappointment, may be feeling a little blue or whatever, getting back into your groove with exercise can help lift you out of the doldrums, give you a new perspective, renew your motivation and spark your enthusiasm anew.
What’s Stopping You?
If the foregoing has struck some sort of chord, maybe it’s time to dust off your gym shoes, or cross-trainers, or running shoes or hiking boots. Drag out your exercise garb from the closet or the bottom drawer in your credenza. Call up your friends and get started on limbering up your muscles.
In other words, the time is now to do something that is incredibly simple, practical and easy. It won’t cost much of anything except your time – and it will be time well spent no matter how short or long a period you’ve got to partake in it.
Do yourself a favor, Jack and Jill. There’s never been a better case for exercise in recovery. The question is: What’s stopping you? Cast aside all your objections and give exercise a good, long try. You’ll be glad you did – and your recovery will be the stronger for it as well.