5 Ways Consistent Exercise Benefits Recovery
I often walk out of the gym feeling like I have much more of a handle on the difficult parts of life, even if I don’t necessarily know what my next step will be.
By BETH LEIPHOLTZ
For as long as I can remember, exercise has been a vital part of my life. I grew up playing sports and was taught the importance of caring for my body. My mom is a personal trainer and has always made sure I pay attention to my health and take the time to treat my body the right way.
But when I started drinking, I began letting the importance of fitness slip away. Given the choice between drinking or working out, I always chose drinking. I played a sport in college, which I figured was enough — but it wasn’t.
As time passed, drinking began to wear on my body. I gained weight and became incredibly bloated. My skin always had a yellow tint to it, and I began to notice constant bruising and lasting injuries. I wasn’t happy with the way my body felt or looked, yet it didn’t matter enough for me to stop drinking.
When I did get sober six years ago, I noticed immediate changes in my appearance. I attribute this not only to stopping the intake of alcohol but also to turning to exercise to cope and manage stress.
For the first three years of recovery, I bounced around gyms and fitness classes. These helped, but it wasn’t until discovering CrossFit that I really realized the impact of exercise on my recovery. Since then, I’ve come to realize that exercise has played a vital role in my ability to stay sober. Here are just a few reasons why.
1 WORKING OUT IS A GREAT OUTLET FOR NEGATIVE EMOTIONS.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that when I drank, it was often because I was upset or frustrated or just plain sad. When I stopped drinking, I suddenly didn’t have that outlet anymore and needed to find another one.
This is where working out came into play. There is something about pushing your body to its limits and giving something your all that is therapeutic when facing difficult or frustrating times. Although a solid workout may not necessarily solve a problem, it has a way of making such problems feel more manageable and smaller in the grand scheme of things. I often walk out of the gym feeling like I have much more of a handle on the difficult parts of life, even if I don’t necessarily know what my next step will be.
2 SEROTONIN LEVELS IN THE BRAIN INCREASE WITH EXERCISE.
Serotonin is a brain chemical that is responsible for mood regulation, and working out has been shown to boost it. Serotonin plays a role in mental health in various ways. People who struggle with depression likely have lower levels of serotonin, and often depression can go together with substance use disorder or can even lead someone to relapse.
Yes, serotonin levels can be increased via medication, but working out has also been proven to provide that supplemental boost for people. This is something I experience often, especially when having a rough day. Even if it’s the last thing I feel like doing, I force myself to go to the gym on the especially hard days. I know that I will leave feeling more energetic and hopeful than I did before working out.
3 IT ALLOWS YOU TO CONNECT WITH PEERS.
Connection is one of the most important aspects of recovery. Without connection, people are more likely to isolate themselves, which can lead to returning to old behaviors. By finding something you’re passionate about — such as working out — you are more likely to connect with people with similar interests and life experiences.
I’ve found that, in CrossFit specifically, there are many people who are living life in recovery. There is something about the intensity of CrossFit that draws people in, especially those with what is often referred to as an addictive personality. By channeling that into something healthy, you are more likely to cross paths with people who view life the same way as you and can help keep you on the straight and narrow.
4 WORKING OUT ALWAYS GIVES YOU SOMETHING TO WORK TOWARD.
One of my absolute favorite things about physical activity, and CrossFit specifically, is that you can never be done learning or improving. There is always something new to focus on or a skill to improve upon. It gives you the chance to decide what it is you want to accomplish and then make a plan to do so.
I enjoy this because it means I always have something with which to fill the quiet moments of my life. Boredom was always dangerous for me back when I was drinking, and I think even today it would be difficult to fill that time without knowing what I am passionate about.
5 IT INCREASES SELF-ESTEEM AND SELF-WORTH.
While drinking, my self-image was probably at the lowest it had ever been. I didn’t like who I was turning into, nor did I feel good about my physical appearance. I missed the confidence I used to have — but instead of working to get it back, I just drank to forget it.
Now in recovery, I like the person I am once again. It took some time for that confidence to return, but once I started exercising regularly, it really helped boost the way I viewed myself. I suddenly began to see myself as strong and capable of changing what I wasn’t happy with. I saw results from putting in hard work, and there isn’t anything that is quite as rewarding as knowing you worked hard to make something happen.
Like with anything in life, the way physical activity impacts recovery can vary from person to person. What works well for one person may not necessarily have the same effect for someone else. What’s important is taking the time to discover what it is that helps you personally and then making the commitment to stick to it, especially when times get difficult.
Beth Leipholtz is a Minnesotan girl, navigating sobriety in her early 20s. She writes often and about an array of topics on her website, lifetobecontinued.com. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict with a degree in communication and is currently working as a full-time reporter while doing freelance design and writing on the side.