How Exercise and Self-Care Help You Stay Sober

By The Fix staff 09/30/19

Taking care of your body can help you keep cravings under control.

man and woman smiling and jogging
© Andor Bujdoso |

It’s no secret that regular exercise does the body good. Moving around can help you maintain a healthy weight, improve cardiovascular health and build muscle. But if you’re in recovery, hitting the gym is about much more than just maintaining a rocking body. In fact, exercise is an important part of living a healthy life after treatment.

Exercise has important benefits for mental health, and can be a crucial tool for maintaining longterm sobriety. Whether you are on a medication-assisted treatment program, in SMART recovery or working the 12-steps, exercise (and other self care) can be integrated into your recovery program to help you heal. 

“Many patients with various substance use disorders have found that exercise helps to distract them from cravings,” Dr. Claire Twark wrote for Harvard Health blog. “Workouts add structure to the day. They help with forming positive social connections, and help treat depression and anxiety in combination with other therapies.”

Whether you are new to recovery or have been sober for years, integrating exercise into your routine can have great benefits for your physical and mental health. Here’s what you should know about exercise as a tool for recovery, and how you can get started today.

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Most of us work out for the mental health benefits. However, exercise is great not only for the body, but for the mind as well. 

“Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function,” the authors of one scientific review wrote. 

There are many reasons this is true. Exercise increases the blood flow to your brain. This affects your pituitary gland and helps to regulate your response to stress. Since stress is a major risk factor for relapse, this can help keep you sober.

In addition, when you exercise, your body releases endorphins including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals, the same ones that are released when you use substances, are the cause of the so-called “runner’s high.” Getting an endorphin flood through exercise is a much healthier way to tap into the brain’s pleasure systems. 

Social Benefits of Exercise

Exercise isn’t just about benefitting your body and brain. It also has social benefits that you probably haven’t thought about much before. Consider this: most exercise takes place outside the home, so you’re either going to a gym or fitness club, or getting outside into nature (which has its own host of health benefits). Just getting into public and engaging in these spaces can help you get out of your own head. 

Of course, group and club sports have the additional benefit of connecting you more closely to your community. Many fitness clubs across the country focus on serving people who are in recovery. These places recognize that bonding over fitness is a great way to build a supportive recovery community that is centered on healthy habits. Joining a recreational team, a boxing gym or a recovery-focused cross-fit organization can help you connect with other people who are living a sober life in recovery. 

It’s OK to Start Small

Starting a fitness routine can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Jumping into a routine that you find overwhelming is setting yourself up for failure. Because of this, it’s important to remember that you can get the benefits of exercise from even low-key, easy-to-maintain routines. There are a lot of benefits to starting small.

Consider this: one study found that people with mental illness benefitted from 30 minutes of moderate exercise three days a week. Even better, the benefits were the same even when the 30 minutes of exercise was broken up over the course of the day. For example, going for a ten minute walk before and after work and on your lunch break can benefit your mental health, without taking much extra time from your day.

Connect With an Exercise You Love

Today, there are a million ways to exercise. You can keep it simple, by going for a walk around your neighborhood or office. If you prefer a more intense exercise regiment you can access training and teams in everything from weight lifting to roller derby. If you prefer solitude and quiet, swimming laps might be more your style. 

Any type of exercise can deliver mental health benefits and help fortify your recovery. The most important thing is to choose a type of exercise that you enjoy. This will make it easier to exercise consistently, which is the most important factor for people trying to reap mental health benefits from exercise. 

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