Exercise and Recovery
The evidence is in.
Regular exercise can help people in recovery. Studies show that an exercise routine can help people in recovery from alcohol and substance use disorders, combat depression, relieve anxiety, decreases cravings, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Regular exercise also offers people in recovery new alternatives to old habits, decreases cravings, and helps them find new pathways to pleasure without drinking or using drugs.
Although it’s been widely known for decades that regular exercise has positive psychological and emotional benefits, the recovery community has been relatively slow to get on board. However, that is rapidly changing. A quick search of recovery-themed websites yields dozens of articles advocating exercise as a valuable tool in the recovery toolbox. Exercise is gaining momentum and recognition as a top line behavior by many 12-Step recovery programs.
There’s a problem here, though. Most of the articles you find are written by people who were regular exercisers before they entered recovery, and most of the anecdotes you’ll hear are told by people who already knew how to make working out a regular part of their lives.
So, the question we’ll answer is this one: if you’ve never been much for exercising or working out, if you weren’t a high-school football player or cross country runner, if you never got into hiking or mountain biking in college, how do you start?
Getting Started: Implementing an Exercise Routine During Recovery
We scoured the internet for tips on starting an exercise routine that can help people who are total beginners. By total beginners, we mean people who never have, never wanted to, don’t really know how to start an exercise routine.
Here’s the best of what we found:
- Start small: The biggest mistake people make is biting off more than they can chew. Sure, going extreme right out of the gate works for some people, but in most cases, it just causes burnout. You DO NOT have to get up every morning at 5:30, run 5 miles and do 100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups. Do what works for you.
- K.I.S.S: Keep it Simple, Silly. Start with a 15 or 20 minute walk, three times a week. Do 50 jumping jacks in the morning. If you’re so inclined, go for a 10-minute jog around the block. Go for an easy bike ride. The idea is to get your blood flowing, and see how you feel.
- Recruit Friends: Find a friend, maybe even someone from your recovery group, and get them on board. Instead of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee after meetings, go for walks. Instead of meeting for lunch, meet for a jog or bike ride.
- Something old, something new: If you never have, then go to your local gym, just as a guest, and try a spinning class. Try an aerobics class. Or a yoga class. Try Tai chi. Why not? Keep searching until you find something you like. Or, go back to something from your early childhood: did you ever play soccer? Join a league. Did you ever take dance classes when you were a kid? Go try one again. You get the idea—even if you’re sedentary as an adult, you can probably remember something physical you had fun doing when we were younger. Go back and try that. Kickball, anyone?
- Be kind to yourself: Whatever you do, don’t let your new exercise routine be a source of stress. If you miss a planned walk, ride, or run, don’t sweat it, because it’s no big deal. Do only what serves you. If you start a routine and something comes up that disrupts it, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter how many workouts you miss, it just matters that you make the next one.
We want to reiterate that when you’re beginning an exercise routine, especially when you’re early in recovery, the most important thing to keep in mind is to find an activity you like. Be patient with yourself. Keep searching until you find something you enjoy, something you want to come back to, something that you look forward to, and above all, something that works for you, in your life, right now.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.