5 Ways Being Physically Active Can Help Your Recovery

By Beth Leipholtz 06/15/17

There are many emotions involved in getting sober, and drinking to cope with those emotions is no longer an option.

upclose shot of running shoes, water bottle
Exercise can be one of the strongest tools available in the battle for recovery, offering both physical and mental benefits.

For as long as I can remember, I have been an athlete. My physical health has always been important to me and I’ve tried to make it a focus. Well, for most of my life at least. The exception is over the course of the two years when I was drinking heavily.

During this time, my free time was dedicated to partying and drinking rather than focusing on my health. As time went on, this lifestyle began to take a toll on my body. When the time finally came that I got sober, I was left looking at a reflection in the mirror that looked nothing like the person I remembered from before alcohol came into my life. I looked empty, hollow, out of shape. I looked sad and confused. I looked lost.

Then, once I was in recovery, I found that I had all this free time to dedicate to my health. In the four years since getting sober, I’ve bounced back and forth between working out intensely and not working out at all. In the past six months though, I have finally found a rhythm again. I’ve been able to lose 30 pounds, gain muscle, and push my body in ways I didn’t think I could. And while this feels great physically, it’s also been amazing mentally. Being in a good place with physical health has a way of reflecting in recovery. Here’s why:

1. It is fulfilling. For those in recovery, it is often a struggle to find something rewarding that can fill the hole left by giving up drugs and alcohol. Walking away from an addiction means freeing up a lot of time in your life, and for many this can be one of the most difficult parts of early sobriety. By introducing some sort of physical activity into your life, you are replacing an unhealthy habit with a healthy one. Though getting out and moving your body may not come naturally in early sobriety, more often than not you’ll be glad you did it. It feels good to fill time with an activity that benefits you physically and mentally rather than one that is harmful.

2. It boosts your serotonin levels. Many people who struggle with addiction also struggle with depression. For them, using drugs or alcohol may have been a coping mechanism. In sobriety it can be difficult to figure out how to confront depression when you can’t use a substance to self-medicate. Though working out is not a cure for depression, it has been shown to increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that is responsible for regulating mood, among other things. If the level is too low, the result can be depression. So, when the amount of serotonin is increased, mood will also be elevated. If you are having a difficult day and feeling depressed, try going for a simple walk or a run and pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Chances are you’ll feel at least a little more centered and hopeful.

3. It is often a great outlet. It’s no secret that sobriety isn’t easy. There are many emotions involved in getting sober, and drinking to cope with those emotions is no longer an option. Instead, you have to find a new outlet, a healthy one. For some this may be listening to music, or writing, or reading. The list goes on. But exercise can also be great because it allows you to push your body to its limits and take out your frustration or confusion in a healthy manner that benefits you. There is something so refreshing about being able to walk into the gym after a difficult day and just focus on moving your body and overcoming your mental barriers. It often puts the rest of your life in perspective.

4. It can help you gain back your confidence. When you get sober, there can be a lot of shame and guilt present in your life. You may also feel down on yourself if you’ve let yourself go physically while in active addiction. I know these were both the case for me. And while getting sober can do wonders for your confidence on its own, adding physical activity to your daily routine brings that to a whole other level. There is so much satisfaction and reward in seeing your body change in a positive way because of the work you’ve put in. Channeling your energy into something positive and seeing changes as a result increases confidence in yourself and your abilities, in terms of physical activity and in recovery.

5. It opens the doors to create connections. In recovery, especially early recovery, it’s not unusual to feel lonely. Often when you make a big lifestyle change, such as sobriety, the people you spend your time with shifts. This may mean that you are left with fewer people in your life because you no longer hang out with the people you did when you drank. It’s not always easy to meet new people and connect right away, but joining a workout program gives you common ground immediately. There is something about going through a difficult workout with a group of people that bonds you to one another right away. Even if your lives are different outside the gym, being physically active together gives you the foundation on which to build a solid relationship.

There are many programs out there that can help increase your physical activity, and just like in recovery, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. You can try different activities -- whether it be Beach Body, yoga classes, CrossFit, a gym membership, water aerobics -- and see what works best for you. What works for you may not work for someone else, and that is OK. What matters is that you are discovering the physical and mental benefits that are possible as a result of taking the time to move your body each day.

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.