How to Make Exercise a Regular Part of Your Addiction Recovery
If you look at any quality addiction treatment program, you’ll notice several things many of them have in common and one of those things is exercise. It’s becoming much more common for regular exercise to be an integral part of addiction treatment. Experts also frequently recommend that your post-treatment recovery plan includes regular exercise.
However, this can be challenging for many people, especially those who are busy or don’t really think of themselves as athletic. The following is a look at why exercise is one of the most important lifestyle changes for recovery and how to more easily make exercise part of your daily life.
Why Exercise Is Important
First, if you want to motivate yourself to exercise more, it helps to understand why you’re doing it. Otherwise, it just feels like a chore. There is now quite a bit of research supporting the role of exercise in recovery, both in terms of physical and mental health.
Heavy substance use is hard on your body. Its exact effects depend largely on which substances you use the most, but overall, you may suffer from malnutrition, increased cardiovascular risks, and more frequent illnesses due to poor immune function. If you want to recover your health as quickly as possible, it’s important to eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise.
Exercise--especially aerobic exercise like walking, running, swimming, and biking--improves your cardiovascular health pretty quickly. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risk of type two diabetes, as well as reducing your risk of infections and cancer. Exercise may not totally offset the physical damage of substance use, but it gets you going in the right direction.
Perhaps more importantly, exercise boosts your mental health. It improves your mood by increasing levels of endorphins, serotonin, and BDNF, a neurotransmitter that grows neurons. It also causes structural changes that help you react better to stress. It’s thought to be this change, along with improved sleep, that is most responsible, for the health benefits of exercise.
The improvements in mood reduce your risk of depression and anxiety symptoms, which in turn reduces your risk of relapse. Given that most people with substance use disorders also have co-occurring mental health issues, it’s hard to overstate this particular benefit of exercise for anyone trying to stay sober.
How to Build an Exercise Habit
It’s one thing to know that exercise is good for you and it’s another thing entirely to actually do it. The following are some tips for going from “not an exercise person” to someone who exercises daily without really thinking about it.
Find Something You Like
First, find something you actually enjoy. According to research, the best exercise for mental health is a moderate-intensity aerobic exercise that lasts for at least 20 minutes, at least three times a week. However, that doesn’t matter at all if you aren’t willing to do it. It’s crucial not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You will get some benefit from staying active, even if it’s not the scientifically validated “best” exercise. Walking is great. So are gardening, boxing, yoga, dancing, and fencing.
There are two divergent strategies that work pretty well: Either pick something you don’t mind doing and can just participate in mechanically or perhaps even socially, like walking; or pick something that really fires your interest and is complex enough to keep you engaged, like high-skilled sports or martial arts.
Pick a Regular Time
The next thing is to pick a regular time and stick to it. Instead of picking a regular clock time, though, attach your exercise to an activity you already do every day or almost every day. So, for example, you get out of bed every day--ideally--so you can connect your exercise habit to that. The goal is to have one daily activity lead directly into the next so that you don’t have to exert any willpower to do it. Be patient though, it will probably take a month or two for the new behavior to become automatic.
One of the most common mistakes people make when they decide to start exercising is that they go hard right away like they’re in a training montage. You actually want to do the opposite. You want to start out easy so you don’t resist building the habit. In the beginning, building a habit is the most important thing. At first, you may just want to put on your exercise clothes and leave it at that.
Or you may walk for five minutes. You want to have the feeling that exercise is just something you have to cross off your list, not something you have to brace yourself for and grind your way through. You can build the intensity later.
When the habit is pretty well established, then you can begin to increase the volume or intensity. You may start to do this automatically just out of boredom. Five minutes may feel too easy so you start walking for 10 minutes. Building gradually accomplishes two things: You are less likely to get exhausted and burned out and quit after a few weeks or a month, the way 90 percent of people give up on new year’s resolutions.
Second, it keeps you from getting injured, which interrupts both your fitness progress and your habit formation. Also, being injured is painful. There’s no rush and, over the course of months and years, consistency beats intensity every time.
Finally, set up some kind of reward for doing your exercise, even if it's just patting yourself on the back. This is especially important to remember on bad days. So, for example, you intended to run a mile but you felt terrible and ended up walking most of it. That’s fine. We all have bad days. The important thing is to congratulate yourself for showing up and doing the work rather than chastising yourself for not doing it as well as you would have liked.
It may also help to schedule some rewarding activities after your exercise. For example, you might tell yourself, “Ok, after I exercise, I can have dinner, or watch TV, or go hang out with my friends.” This gives you something to look forward to and immediately associates something positive with exercise.
At The Foundry, we know that lifestyle changes like social support, a healthy diet, and regular exercise are the foundation of a long recovery and a healthy life. That’s why these are incorporated into our holistic treatment plan along with meditation, yoga, and outdoor activities. To learn more about our approach to addiction treatment, call us at (844) 955-1066.