Exercise: Making Amends to Your Body

By Amy Dresner 02/13/19

In a world where nothing is in my control and living with a head that constantly tells me I’m not doing enough, exercising every day makes me feel like I’ve checked a box.

Torso and arm of woman lifting weights, exercising in recovery, making amends to her body
You want me to pump out 10 more diamond push-ups? Just mention my ex and I tap into a whole new level of strength and power. Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Last year, my mom fell and broke her hip. During the surgery, she had a mild heart attack and a pulmonary embolism. Since that fall, she’s become wheelchair bound and has started showing the signs of early dementia. She’s now in assisted living, being bathed by caretakers. On the other hand, my father has a girlfriend, writes screenplays, teaches kids to read, swims, and delivers food to the elderly (even though he is the elderly). My parents are the same age: 81. 

What could cause such a difference in their physical states?

Exercise. My dad always exercised while mom was very sedentary. 

The Dreaded E-Word

I know, the dreaded “E” word. I take after my mom in this area: I’ve never been an athlete, I pretended I was sick for most high school P.E. classes, and I’m extraordinarily uncoordinated. I hate group classes and I loathe tight name-brand exercise gear. Gyms scare the shit out of me and I have no idea what I’m doing.

But two years after my break up, I was still considerably underweight and what little muscle I’d had was long gone. I could pass in clothes as modelesque but naked I could have been a dummy for an osteology class. (“And here, students, you can see the sternum and entire rib cage….”) I was eating, but stress (about work, life, my mom) kept me from putting on any real weight.

And then boom. Out of the blue, I’m contacted by Doug Bopst to ask if I’d like to be interviewed for his new book, The Heart of Recovery, coming out March 12th. Sure, I lied. What does Doug happen to do? He’s a fucking trainer! Doug kicked opioids and lost 50 pounds in jail through—you know it—exercise.

“When we stop using drugs, we have to replace them with healthy coping mechanisms,” Doug says. “Fitness is a great tool and should be a staple in everyone’s recovery.”

He took pity on me and started training me via Skype (he’s in Maryland and I’m in LA). He also sent me a list of foods I should eat. Sometimes deliveries randomly showed up at my door. Over the next year my living room became littered with resistance bands, a stability ball, dumbbells, a yoga mat. I was living in a mini 24-Hour Fitness but with a cat.

At the beginning, I complained. A lot. He ignored me. I constantly wanted to skip days (and we were only training three times a week) because I was “tired” or “depressed.” 

“I train machines, not wussies,” he’d say, knowing it would motivate me.

“Fuck you!” I’d text back. “See you at 5!”

A Stronger Body...and Mind

It’s almost a year later and now I insist we train everyday. There are exercises I could barely do that I bust out so easily now I have to check that I’m doing them right. I can carry a 24-pack of water, a 12-pack of yerba mate and two bags of groceries by myself in one trip from the car. It feels good to be stronger. And yes, I’ve gained some weight. In a world where nothing is in my control and living with a head that constantly tells me I’m not doing enough, working out every day makes me feel like I’ve checked a box. I’m making progress, I’ve done something.

Addicted to drugs for 20 years, my body was a vessel to get high and something I abused. Nothing more than that. Sure, vanity (and uppers) kept me slim but I could give a shit about health. Now at 49 years old with six years clean, gravity is taking its toll, and friends and family are falling ill. Staying healthy and mobile has, for the first time, become a real priority.

I wanted to know what my buddy, best-selling Kindle Singles author and long-distance runner Mishka Shubaly, had to say about exercise. Like Doug, Mishka credits exercise as his main tool in getting sober.

"The mental benefits of exercise are scientifically proven and well-documented... and I'll leave it to a medical doctor or scientist to quote statistics,” he said. “What I appreciate about exercise is this: exercise is hard. When you exercise, you get the persistent feeling that you are fighting back—fighting back against your alcoholism, your addiction, your depression, your anxiety, your obesity, your anorexia, your sloth, your abuser(s), your poverty, your unemployment, your shithead boss, your shadow self, everything and anything that you feel is holding you back, holding you down. That shift in perspective—from fleeing to fighting back—man, that is incredibly powerful, that turns your entire world around." 

Couldn’t agree more. You want me to pump out 10 more diamond push-ups? Just mention my ex and I tap into a whole new level of strength and power.

And Doug and I have fun. We laugh as I lose my balance and literally fall off screen. He has to mute me if he’s in public during our training sessions since I swear so much. (Hey it hurts!!)

Also, I needed to be accountable to somebody. I needed somebody to hold my hand and help me get well and fit. And as an addict/alcoholic, self-discipline is not my forte. Now the results motivate me. I can see the physical changes: a rounder booty, some definition in my arms. And of course, I get a brief reprieve from my frequent unwanted visitor, depression. 

Mood Follows Action

Don’t get me wrong, I have no plans to do an Ironman triathlon. But as a sedentary writer, moving every day feels like a necessary part of my recovery.

“One of the first things my first sponsor told me was ‘mood follows action.’ This quote has been a game changer for me, applicable not just in sobriety, but in life,“ ultra-endurance athlete, best-selling author and podcast host Rich Roll told me. “I use it daily with respect to fitness, which has transformed my life wholesale. When we come into the rooms we are broken. Our self-esteem is shattered, our sense of what is possible decimated. Much like the steps, with fitness you see results when you put in the work.”

“But the trick for me — an alcoholic through and through — is to remember that it isn’t a replacement for the steps,” Roll adds. “Fitness isn’t my higher power. But it is an incredibly powerful and essential ingredient in my sober equation.”

If you’re still not convinced that exercise is for you, here’s some science to back it up and push you to dust off those running shoes.

Post-doctoral Fellow at the Center for Neural Science at NYU and neuroscientist, dancer, and science writer Julia Basso reports in a research paper that “We show that the three most consistent cognitive/behavioral effects of a single bout of exercise in humans are improved executive functions, enhanced mood states, and decreased stress levels.”

Cool. So we all know that exercise can de-stress you and get all those endorphins going but which cognitive functions are we talking about? Well, according to Basso, “….Executive functions including attention, working memory, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, decision making, and inhibitory control receive the most benefit from acute exercise.” 

In closing, I’ll leave you with words from my two masters. Doug says, “If Amy Dresner can get into a workout regime, anyone can. Her transformation this last year has been life-changing, not only for her, but for me, too. Watching people in recovery see the power of fitness is something I live for.”

And Rich says, “If it was up to me, I’d add daily physical movement as the 13th step.”

Has exercise played a role in your recovery? Share your story in the comments.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, Addiction.com and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.