When I think back to getting sober more than six years ago, there are many reasons I know I was successful: I had a supportive family. I had the tools and resources to go to treatment. I had the necessary mindset. I knew I was better off without alcohol in my life.
But when it comes to maintaining my recovery for the past six years, there is another aspect that I know without a doubt has played an enormous role in keeping me sober: staying active and making exercise a priority.
It’s no secret that exercise is known to improve mood and increase certain brain chemicals. But for me personally, it’s been more than that. Being active has given me an outlet and something to work toward, and I know for many in recovery, it’s served that same purpose.
Here are a few of the main reasons that if you haven’t already, you should highly consider staying active after getting sober.
1. Exercise provides a perfect outlet, mentally and physically.
This is probably my number one reason for making working out such a priority in my life. Whenever I feel anxious, depressed, or wish I could drink, I turn to working out instead. It gives me something positive to direct any negative energy at. I can put everything into it without facing negative consequences. It’s not always the perfect cure, but more often than not, I come away from a workout feeling refreshed and in a better mental state. There is something about pushing your body and mind to its limits and coming out the other side better for it that keeps me coming back over and over, and I think that’s true of many people in recovery. It provides a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
2. Exercise literally boosts the levels of serotonin in your brain.
If you aren’t sure what that means, serotonin is a brain chemical that plays a role in mood regulation. Those who struggle with disorders like depression (as many people in recovery do) often have low levels of serotonin. This can play a role in turning to drinking as a coping mechanism. But through various studies over the years, it’s been proven that exercising can lead to an increase in serotonin levels in the brain. And the most important thing to remember is that it’s not necessary to engage in some crazy, intense workout to see these benefits. Something as simple as getting outside and walking can do the trick, especially on particularly tough days. The days that it feels hardest to be active are often the days you need it most, so be aware of your feelings and don't be above forcing yourself to move. You'll likely find you feel somewhat better afterwards.
3. Exercise helps you avoid isolation.
If you’re in recovery, you’ve likely heard how dangerous isolating yourself can be. Isolating can lead to negative emotions and even relapse in some cases. But when you have a consistent workout routine, chances are you’re often around other people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at the gym or when you’re out running — there’s something to be said for the energy and presence of other people. And while you don’t necessarily have to interact with others, establishing a consistent exercise routine does give you the chance to build connections and friendships with the people surrounding you — people who are likely on the same path to mental and physical wellness. Being connected with such people is a positive because it gives you a larger support network and more people to turn to should you find yourself in need of help and encouragement.
4. Exercise offers self-esteem boost.
I can’t speak for everyone, but when I first got sober, I needed something to give me purpose and make me feel good about the decisions I was making. The aftermath of my drinking had left me with a lot of shame and guilt to work through, as well as some body-image struggles. But I found that when I worked out consistently, I was able to view myself in a more positive light and overcome the shame and guilt about the previous decisions I had made. Knowing I was doing what I could in the present to better my life had a way of overshadowing the past decisions and mistakes I had made. I also started to notice changes in my physical appearance. I looked more like my pre-drinking, healthier self, and this has remained a constant motivator for me.
5. Exercise keeps you busy.
You’ve probably heard that it’s important to find hobbies and stay busy in recovery. This is because downtime can be risky and boredom can sometimes lead to relapse, especially in the early days. Early on, I found that working out was a perfect solution for avoiding that void in my life. And here’s the best part: no matter what type of exercise you choose to invest in — whether it’s biking, running, CrossFit, at-home programs, or something else entirely — it fills time in your life. And, if you get bored or restless with one type of program, you can always try other forms of exercise. There’s no rule that you have to pick and stick to one, which makes it easier to stay invested and interested. The important thing is that you’re moving and remaining active at some point each day.
When it comes down to it, everyone is different. One specific form of exercise or program may work great for one person, but do nothing for the next. For this reason, it’s important to try a variety of ways to stay active rather than giving up immediately if you don’t like something or don’t feel it benefited you. Much like recovery, it takes time to find what works the best for you individually and what will keep you on the right track. But once you find it, you’ll likely realize it’s a vital tool in your recovery.
Beth Leipholtz is the founder of Life to be Continued, a blog about the realities of getting sober young. She writes about her own experience falling into addiction and how she found her way back out. Beth also works as a graphic designer in Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @EL9292