Nearly every healthcare organization lists the positive benefits associated with getting regular exercise. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Heart Association (AHA) report that the benefits of exercise include better overall health, increased cardiovascular fitness, reduced risk of illness or disease, increased mental capacity, and increased coping abilities. In addition, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that engaging in regular exercise can be beneficial for individuals in recovery from substance use disorders.
The therapeutic benefits of exercise extend beyond just simple physical benefits and include a number of mental health benefits as well. Regular exercise is associated with a reduced risk to develop a number of physical issues, such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc.; however, getting people in the United States to engage in regular exercise is often still a chore.
Exercise for Individuals in Recovery
NIDA, ASAM, WHO, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) report that the benefits of exercise for individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder or other form of addictive behavior include:
- Increased coping skills: Related to its stress-relieving benefits, regular exercise increases one’s ability to cope with adversity, perceived stress, and other forms of hardship, including potential trauma. The enhanced coping abilities and stress-relieving benefits of exercise are well documented.
- Positive self-esteem: Many people in the early stages of recovery are dealing with a decreased sense of self-worth due to recognizing their issues with their substance use/abuse. Numerous research studies have demonstrated that individuals who engage in programs of regular exercise have more positive feelings about themselves.
- Decreased cravings: Cravings to engage in one’s prior addictive behavior represent an important focus of all interventions for individuals with addictive behaviors. Cravings can be triggered by numerous factors, including stress, boredom, reminders of past use, mood states, etc. Research has consistently found that individuals who engage in a program of regular exercise in recovery report fewer cravings and a greater ability to deal with cravings when they do occur.
- Increases in cognition and increased discipline: Individuals in recovery often struggle with issues with attention, problem-solving, judgment, and being able to adhere to many of the strict regulations they wish to impose upon themselves during their recovery. Regular exercise has been associated with increases in cognitive abilities and with the ability to follow through on commitments.
- Reduction in the effects of drugs and alcohol: Empirical research using both animal models and observational studies of humans indicates that the effects of many drugs of abuse are attenuated by engaging in regular exercise. For many individuals, exercise replaces the niche that using drugs or alcohol once filled for them.
- Increased healing: Research indicates that one of the benefits of regular exercise is an increased ability of the body to repair itself. This includes the association between regular exercise and better quality sleep. Much of the physical healing process occurs during sleep cycles, and the ability to learn new material is also associated with quality of sleep. Exercise enhances a person’s ability to recover mentally and physically.
It should also be noted that:
- Exercise has a beneficial effect for both genders, at any age, over all levels of education and social economic status, and across all ethnic groups.
- Even an individual who has not exercised for many years can reap the benefits of a regular program of exercise.
- The particular type of exercise is not as important as maintaining a consistent exercise regime. One does not need to exercise like professional athlete to reap the benefits of an exercise program.
- Implementing a regular exercise program early in recovery is associated with more consistent benefits because individuals who make exercise part of their recovery tend to engage with their program more consistently and for longer periods of time.
It is important to approach exercise in a safe and healthy manner. Any person who has not exercised on a regular basis and is interested in beginning an exercise program should first consult with a physician.
The Best Exercise
In the same way that there is no one approach to treatment that is appropriate for everyone in recovery, there is no single form or program of exercise that is best for everyone. There are numerous alternative approaches to exercising that can fit numerous needs and schedules.
According to AHA and WHO, there are various important components to an exercise program, such as:
- Engaging in the program on a consistent and regular basis: Consistency in exercising is far more important than the particular type of exercise program one engages in.
- Actually enjoying the particular exercise program: Enjoying and looking forward to exercise results in an individual being more likely to exercise on a consistent basis.
- Not engaging in a program of exercise that is inappropriate for the person or can increase the chance of injury: While any form of exercise can induce benefits, some individuals may not be appropriate for specific types of exercise. For instance, an individual who has arthritis in their knees would most likely not benefit from a long-distance running program.
- Not falling for the mistaken notion that consistent exercise is trading one addiction for another: Maintaining a regular program of exercise is not the same thing as a compulsive behavior that occurs in some people who use exercise to deal with dysfunctional notions of body shape resulting in significant stress and functional impairment. The vast majority of people in recovery who implement exercise programs do not become “addicted to exercise.” If an individual is concerned that this may happen, they can simply institute checks and balances with their therapist, a sponsor in recovery, family members, etc., to help them recognize any warning signs that may indicate they are becoming compulsive in their approach to exercise.
- Maintaining balance with exercise: Remember that moderation is the key. Do not overdo it.
There are numerous options to choose from when considering the implementation of a regular exercise program into one’s recovery. It is impossible to list every specific type of exercise and the benefits of these forms of exercise. There are some general considerations that a person can take into account before choosing an exercise program.
According to the book The Encyclopedia of Exercise, Sport, and Health, some of these options include:
- Exercising at home versus in the gym: Individuals can implement their own personal program without joining a club or gym. However, some individuals who wish to engage in exercise programs that include the use of weight machines or a swimming pool may find that they need to enroll in a gym or club. The choice is strictly a personal one. While joining a gym does represent a commitment to wanting to exercise on a regular basis, many clubs and gyms have long lists of individuals who are members but rarely use the facility. There is no guarantee that joining a gym will result in a stronger commitment.
- Exercising alone versus in a group: Some people may find that exercising with one or more friends helps them to maintain consistency in their program, whereas others may prefer to exercise on their own. Again, this is a personal choice. However, implementing an exercise program that requires one to exercise with others may help the person to exercise on a more consistent basis as individuals can motivate one another.
- Using supervision or a personal trainer: Even professional athletes find that the use of a personal trainer can motivate them and keep them on the right track. However, the use of a personal trainer is neither necessary nor sufficient to reap the benefits of an exercise program. Obviously, personal trainers can be expensive, and the choice to use one will depend on one’s financial situation. However, having a personal trainer can significantly increase both the consistency and intensity of one’s exercise program. Some people may find that they need formal instruction in their choice of exercise (e.g., learning some skill such as cardio kickboxing, yoga, etc.) and the use of an instructor or personal trainer can fill this need nicely.
- Using a specific exercise program: There are numerous exercise programs available. Some of the options include:
- Anaerobic versus aerobic exercise: Anaerobic exercise is defined as a very high-intensity, short-duration exercise (less than two minutes), whereas aerobic exercise is defined as having less intensity and a longer duration. An overall exercise program should attempt to mix both of these approaches. A Cross Fit-style approach uses varied intensities and techniques (alternating weight training, calisthenics, stretching, etc.), whereas a niche-style approach attempts to vary the program within a specific type of exercise (e.g., biking, weightlifting running, etc.). The choice of the specific type of program depends on one’s goals and level of motivation.
- Team sports versus individual activities: In some cases, people may find that engaging in team sports fulfills their exercise requirements nicely. In other cases, individuals may find that engaging in individual sports or activities like running or biking is appropriate for them. People engaging in team sports will typically enjoy competition more than individuals who choose a sport that is more secluded.
- Organized disciplines versus general routines: Some people find that engaging in some form of organized activity or a practice that involves exercise, such as yoga or martial arts, is more suitable for them than a more individualized approach, such a walking or running program. Individuals can perform organized activities in formal groups at studios, clubs, or gyms, or they can simply engage in them on their own and learn through books, DVDs, online, or in other capacities. On the other hand, just engaging in very basic and general forms of exercise, such as walking, running, hiking, etc., are far less expensive and just as useful.
The specific type of exercise program one chooses is totally dependent on their goals, preferences, and how the particular activity enhances their life. Some individuals find that bowling or golfing is enjoyable and fulfills their needs, whereas others find that high-intensity weight training or long-distance running is appropriate for them. The important thing is that the individual engages in a program of exercise that is both healthy and safe for them and at the same time is something that they do consistently.
Often, people experiment with different exercise techniques and programs until they find the program that is suitable for them. Many alternate their exercise program depending on their desires or on the particular time of year. For instance, some individuals may find that biking suits their needs; however, in the winter, they may find that biking is not enjoyable. These people may alternate biking in the spring and summer with swimming or playing basketball in the fall and winter.
The important thing to remember is that there is no singular approach that is always best for everyone under all circumstances. The goal should be to consistently maintain physical activity and to enjoy the activity. When a person can consistently maintain their involvement in an exercise program and enjoy it, they are far more likely to experience the positive benefits of the program.