I have never considered myself an athletic person. My severe myopia and asthma made gym class the worst part of school. When I finally started working out regularly in high school, it was because of poor body image and my nascent eating disorder. For many years, exercise was a punishment, though I told myself and others that I “just loved being fit.”
Eventually and miraculously, however, exercise became a tool for recovery and a gift to myself. A few years ago, I was running full-speed across a basketball court with my child and, as we collapsed giggling onto the floor, I whispered, “Thank you, body.” Exercise in moderation, along with lots of therapy, has helped my body heal from years of anorexia and bulimia.
Working out can be a powerful addition to any formal or self-directed recovery program. The physiological and psychological benefits are numerous and available to anyone, often for free or damn near free.
How Exercise Helps Recovery Physically
Animal studies have shown that regular exercise during dependency development and withdrawal may help mitigate withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse. Rats that were allowed to swim forty-five minutes a day showed less severe morphine dependence and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Rats with access to an exercise wheel responded less to renewed offers of cocaine after a withdrawal period. Small studies in humans have shown similar protective effects of exercise.
Addictive substances can cause a flood of dopamine. In response, the brain produces less of its own dopamine, leading to the harsh symptoms of withdrawal when the drug is removed. Exercise-released dopamine can help alleviate those symptoms.
Exercise causes the brain to release endorphins and catecholamines, both neurotransmitters that affect mood. Endorphins in particular act on the same opioid receptors as heroin or cocaine, reducing pain and increasing the sensation of pleasure. The so-called “runner’s high” is thought to come from a rush of endorphins released during exercise, though clinical evidence for this phenomenon is mixed. Catecholamines include the neurotransmitter dopamine, which functions in the brain’s reward center. Addictive substances can cause a flood of dopamine. In response, the brain produces less of its own dopamine, leading to the harsh symptoms of withdrawal when the drug is removed. Exercise-released dopamine can help alleviate those symptoms.
In addition to causing neurochemical changes, exercise can physically alter the brain. Physical activity causes the brain to form new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, a structure in the brain associated with learning. If we understand addiction as a pattern of learned behaviors reinforced by neurochemistry — when I use, I feel better, so I’ll use more — improving our ability to learn new patterns may help disrupt the cycle.
How Exercise Helps Recovery Psychologically
The mind and body are so closely connected in the development of addiction that it makes sense to treat them together when pursuing recovery. Exercise can be a great way to improve your mental and emotional health as well as your physical well-being.
Working out can be a good distraction from cravings, and a positive way to fill the time that was previously spent using or get out of places and situations that are associated with using or other destructive behaviors. Working out at the same time every day can help create much-needed structure and routine.
Exercise groups (socially distanced, of course!) can provide essential social support and counter addiction’s commands to hide and isolate. Working toward a common goal with other people, whether that’s training to run a marathon or showing up to walk every day, is a powerful motivator and self-esteem boost.
Exercise groups (socially distanced, of course!) can provide essential social support and counter addiction’s commands to hide and isolate.
You can join any fitness group you want, but there are some geared specifically toward supporting recovery. The Phoenix is a nonprofit group that provides group fitness classes online and in-person for individuals in recovery. The only “cost” of these classes is 48 hours of sobriety. Groups like the Boston Bulldogs Running Club provides a supportive community for anyone in the area impacted by addiction, including those in recovery, friends and family, and clinical professionals. Recovery centers have also incorporated fitness training into their treatment plans.
The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is acknowledging the “powerlessness of addiction,” but exercise can help you regain power over your life. Working out has been shown to improve your sense of efficacy, which is the ability to produce a desired result. Strength training in particular can give you a sense of mastery as you gradually gain strength. Even feeling just a bit more control over this one area of your life can reduce the urge to use.
What HIIT Taught Me About Recovery
One type of workout I found particularly helpful during recovery was high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. My favorite workout channel is Fitness Blender because the trainers are supportive and challenging. They also do a really good job of emphasizing gaining strength instead of losing weight or calories, which I think is helpful for anyone, not just those recovering from eating disorders or body dysmorphia.
I was doing one of their workouts during my most recent round of recovery, and the instructor called out, “Remember, you can do anything for twenty seconds!” They were talking about star jumps or burpees or some other slightly ridiculous exercise, but the idea of getting through just the next twenty seconds really hit home. My eating disorder had lied to me for years, saying that I couldn’t tolerate discomfort, that I had to restrict and purge right now to feel better. And if I couldn’t string together a “permanent” recovery, what was the point of trying at all?
The simple reminder to just stick to it for the next twenty seconds was life-changing. If I can do an uncomfortable thing or twenty seconds, that means I can do that uncomfortable thing again tomorrow.
The simple reminder to just stick to it for the next twenty seconds was life-changing. If I can do an uncomfortable thing, whether that’s pistol squats or eating a “forbidden” food, for twenty seconds, that means I can do that uncomfortable thing again tomorrow. Or even in an hour. Twenty seconds becomes thirty seconds, thirty seconds becomes a minute, a minute becomes an hour, hours become days, months, years.
Now, I’m not saying recovery is just about toughing it out or “choosing” to be sober. I wouldn’t have made it through recovery without lots of therapy and support from loved ones. But exercising my physical muscles and mental muscles definitely gave me the stamina I needed to stay in recovery long-term.