It Works if You Work Out

By Christopher Dale 05/11/14

My workplace, AA meetings and the gym had served as refuge during those tenuous first few months when any recovering alcoholic is most vulnerable to relapse.


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Somewhere between "I don't know" and "There are too many reasons to list" is the answer to why physical fitness has played such a crucial role in my sobriety.

At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is a topic that I sometimes touch upon during speaking commitments. However, because AA meetings are comprised of the same people who populate society as a whole, many are overweight, out of shape or otherwise physically limited.

Therefore, in the rooms of AA, I try to keep the physical aspect of my sobriety rather terse, simply stating that I would have about as much chance staying sober without regular exercise as I would without regular AA meetings, or without guidance from my sponsor, the literature, and the twelve steps of recovery.

That forum, of course, is right here - and it speaks to a greater truth: each member of AA ascribes to a slightly unique recipe of recovery, one that is perfectly valid, healthy, and inspiring so long as the main ingredient is the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

So make no mistake: Alcoholics Anonymous is, by far, the single most effective program for recovery from alcoholism in recorded history. Everything else is supplementary. But how supplementary? How close a second place does physical fitness rank in my sobriety and, in tandem, to my spiritual progress?

Following is my attempt to explore a few factors and, by doing so, begin to discover an overarching truth about physical fitness and its role in my sobriety.

1. A Safe Place, a Healthy Routine

In early sobriety, the most daunting challenge I faced was one of logistics: I needed to figure out how to kill 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Simply put, you can't drink if you're doing something else.

Now, weekends were virtually assured sobriety; a savvy wife and, if necessary, a loaded gun and a straightjacket saw to that.

That left the work week, and my ability to accrue days, weeks, and months of consecutive sobriety can be explained in two words: healthy routine. Fourteen hours of my day, every day, were comprised of work, AA meetings and the gym.

The result was a strictly disciplined, self-enforced and altogether Spartan lifestyle fueled by a careful, deliberate intensity - a single-minded resolve possessed by those of us fortunate enough to have received the life-altering gift of utter desperation.

Feelings were not an option at this earliest stage of sobriety, because those feelings - raw shame, cutting embarrassment, deep self-loathing - would have felt their way to a liquor store. But somewhere between six and nine months, I allowed myself some initial reflection. The first thing I realized was this: my obsession to drink had lifted.

The routine had worked. My workplace, AA meetings and the gym had served as refuge during those tenuous first few months when any recovering alcoholic is most vulnerable to relapse. Each was a haven that allowed me not only to keep the plug in the jug, but to lay a foundation of self-esteem that showed me - through actual PROOF - that I could stay sober for a significant length of time.

2. Sound Science

Many recovering alcoholics have other illnesses that, like the disease of alcoholism, must be treated. Part of my recovery is treatment for depression, in the form of daily medication and biweekly sessions with a psychiatrist. The other part is a vigorous daily exercise regimen which, as studies have shown, can play an even greater role in fighting depression over the long term.

The effectiveness of regular exercise in combating depression is well known. A simple Google search yields hundreds of credible sources on the subject; the top result cites the renowned Mayo Clinic of Rochester, Minnesota. I would be remiss to call any personal list of reasons comprehensive without including what is common knowledge in the greater mental health community.

3. Step Three

The Third Step of Alcoholics Anonymous reads as follows:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

My biggest issue here? I would be lying to myself if I claimed much (if any) understanding of God.

I can tell you what I don't think God is: I don't think God is sitting on a cloud, white-bearded and donning a toga and sandals. I don't think He (She? It?) intervenes in our daily lives; in fact, I find it arrogant that others, both in and out of the rooms of AA, think God somehow favors them over others who, seemingly, weren't worthy of a saving grace.

Baseball analogy: When Mariano Rivera thanks God in a post-game interview after a save, I would think foolish anyone who thinks God really had something to do with it - unless, of course, God is a 93-mile-per-hour cut fastball on the inside corner.

Here is something else that God is not: God is not non-existent. A human being claiming to know, for certain, exactly what God is sounds like a fool; a human being claiming to know, for certain, that God does not exist sounds like a raving lunatic. Atheism is as arrogant as zealotry, if not more so.

What I'm left with, then, is a God of my misunderstanding. The closest I can fathom is a Great Spirit of Nature, whose serenity and wisdom are there for those who seek it.

What I can claim to know are God's two greatest gifts: our minds and our bodies. And I believe that we remain worthy of these gifts only when we properly maintain both.

Step three asks that I turn my life over to the care of God. My life consists of my mind and my body. Alcoholics Anonymous takes care of the former, cardio and resistance training the latter.

“So what’s your goal?"

I hear this question quite often, usually from people who couldn’t help but notice that I’ve lost almost 40 pounds in my nearly two years of sobriety.

My answer, which often evokes mild disappointment in those looking for a hard number, is one word: “Progress.”

Much like spiritual growth through Alcoholics Anonymous, physical fitness is simultaneously a journey and destination, a life-affirming activity that can be improved upon but never perfected. Whether I’m doing step work at an AA meeting or step aerobics at a gym, I attempt to honor a deity that I may never understand but no longer undervalue.

In doing so I run toward progress, rather than merely away from a drink.

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues.  He is the founder and sole contributor to, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.