Exercising and movement are universally prescribed for recovering addicts, and with good reason — they offer healing powers, not just for the body but the mind as well through the release of endorphins and other beneficial hormones.
That said, moderation is key, even when it comes to a good thing like physical activity.
“We see it a lot in our patients here, they come in and they’re pretty deteriorated — an obvious neglect of self,” says David Kulsrud, Wellness Supervisor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. “As part of our wellness groups in treatment, we talk about establishing a healthy exercise habit in recovery. But our approach isn’t to encourage them to go find a fitness trainer as soon as they leave our care, but to simply incorporate movement and exercise.”
When paired with the traditional “sit-down” therapies — talking one-on-one with a professional or with other patients in a group setting — exercise can go a long way in alleviating co-existing psychological issues like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, faulty coping mechanisms and just pure stress, Kulsrud points out.
The key, then, is a daily commitment to doing something active, without it becoming yet another overwhelming item on the after-rehab checklist of a recovering addict, a to-do pile that includes finding an AA meeting and sponsorship, scheduling psychotherapy and family counseling, and the day-to-day challenges of life like paying the bills and bringing in income.
In other words, you don’t want to set major exercise goals right out of the gate — starting a full-fledged weight-training routine or taking aim at your first marathon are not ideal, and could even lead to quick burnout.
“What we know from research is that over 60 percent of people that embark on a fitness training regimen drop out after six months to a year because it's not enjoyable to them,” Kulsrud says. “That's why in our program we really focus on what's enjoyable for them. It can be hiking, biking, doesn't have to be ‘going to the gym’ or getting a trainer.”
In other words, find an activity that allows you to move in ways that bring you enjoyment, allows your body to heal, and also helps relieve some stress. Opportunities to connect with others through a class or group or even a fitness buddy are a nice bonus.
Which activities to pick depends on your personal history and background. “For instance, some of our patients were involved in some level of sports in the past, while others have never really taken care of their body physically,” Kulsrud says. “Also, 25 to 30 percent of our patients struggle with chronic pain. Some of them are in significant withdrawal, so that does create some limitations. So we guide our patients to pay attention to past injuries and experiences, and then consider their goals going forward: What’s the most important target? Do they simply want to feel better? Do they want to lose some weight or manage stress? That will lead them to their ideal exercise options.”
If someone does want to hire a trainer for the motivation and expert guidance one can provide, Kulsrud suggests seeking someone credentialed in personal training with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) or another organization. The trainer should be familiar with 12-step recovery recommend a program that’s not overly intense right out of the chute. “Let them know you’re looking for more of the healthy benefits of exercise rather than trying to increase your arm size or decrease your waist size. It’s not about aesthetics at that moment, it’s about improving health and energy and mobility.”
Even with those important caveats, the options are nearly limitless, of course, ranging from walking to swimming to tai chi to a low-intensity yoga class like restorative, Kundalini, Integrative Yoga Therapy, or Viniyoga. Anything that gets you off your couch for at least 30 minutes of moving and elevating your heart rate is a positive addition to your recovery. In the first month or two, just breaking inertia is a huge step, and if done daily, the habit will soon ingrain itself into your schedule.
Over time, you’ll want to step up your activity levels — even if it’s as simple as taking the stairs rather than the elevator whenever you can, walking at least a mile (if not more) each morning, and committing to doing something exercise-related daily. But give yourself the time first just to be active, without setting too high a bar for your results.
“There are three basic ways people can change their brain chemistry and release the neurotransmitters that elevate mood,” Kulsrud says. “One is exercise. Another is some form of relaxation, meditation or mindfulness. And the third one is just enjoyment, activity, laughter, that kind of thing. Wellness not just exclusively exercise, it's a variety of things.”