Fitness in Recovery

When discussing the multitude of therapeutic practices available to people in early recovery, physical fitness is not always at the top of the list. Newer programs and facilities have begun to incorporate some sort of physical training or group fitness classes into their daily schedules. But as with so many other things, the scientific research into the effectiveness of such programs lags behind their implementation. When we apply what we already know about the positive impact of fitness on the brain and body to those suffering from addiction, and combine that practice with other trusted modes of therapy, the net results are extraordinarily beneficial.

Fitness itself has several components, each of which must be present in some form for every person. It is also important to keep in mind that each person, in pursuit of fitness, may have a different idea of what their fitness looks like. No matter the end goal, the use of exercise — not just as a coping mechanism, but as a therapeutic tool in all stages of recovery — has promising implications for those who adhere to the rigors of training in recovery. The definitions utilized in this article are pulled from Fit: An Unconventional Guide to Using Conventional Methods for Creating Fitness for the Real World by Lon Kilgore, Justin Hartman and Justin Lascek.

The first and perhaps most pertinent component of fitness is strength, which is defined as the ability to generate muscular force1. Though many take it for granted, the strength to get out of bed or go up and down a staircase is a trait that may be greatly reduced or even lost completely in the depths of addiction. The way strength is built most effectively is with the use of compound, multi-joint exercises such as the dead lift, the squat, the press and the pull-up. These exercises and variations thereof are responsible for improving muscle tone2, enhancing balance and coordination and increasing bone density3, and mitigating the effects of type-II diabetes4, among many other healthful boons.

By cultivating strength, a person can recapture lost independence and magnify their confidence in themselves many times over. There are few more encouraging signs of health than being able to do a pull-up or pick up a loaded barbell that weighs more than you do. Again, strength may not look the same for every person, but every recovering person should have or strive to attain a measure of strength that will aid in their overall health. The second and perhaps most well-documented component of fitness in regards to recovering alcoholics is endurance. Endurance is defined as the ability to sustain work over time as it pertains to recreation or occupation1. The stereotype in contemporary culture synonymizes running with endurance, but there are many ways to increase endurance that for those who cannot (or prefer not to) run. Spinning bikes or classes, rowers (called ergometers in many gyms), elliptical machines, recumbent bikes or even simply walking outside are all useful ways a person can enhance their aerobic health, as well as build on a healthful hobby in recovery. One of the most significant studies into fitness and recovery is discussed in a 1982 study5. This study notes a strong correlation between an aerobic fitness regimen and continued sobriety: of the subjects in the study who participated in vigorous aerobic activity regularly, 69 percent were still sober 90 days after leaving treatment. Of those subjects who did not participate in the aerobic exercise, 61 percent had relapsed in the 90 days following treatment5. Though no treatment center or halfway house will ever “guarantee” sobriety, the correlation that is postulated by this study seems strong enough to suggest a real increase in the ability to stay sober if exercise is included in an individual program of recovery.

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