Fitness for Recovery & Mental Health

When it comes to the mental and emotional benefits of exercising, my brain immediately recalls the classic Legally Blonde quote from Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods:

“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” 

All joking aside, it’s well documented that the benefits of working out extend far beyond the physical, positively impacting mental and emotional health for a variety of reasons. One of them as Woods explained, is the release of certain neurochemicals like endorphins that can “bring about feelings of … general well-being … and are involved in natural reward circuits,” according to sport and exercise psychologist Dr. J. Kip Matthews.

These “bonus points” for exercising are certainly a welcome addition in the lives of many--especially in the many lives of people recovering from addiction, experiencing depression, or other mental health concerns. 

As someone who has a few years of sobriety, it’s definitely been interesting to see how my relationship with fitness has evolved over this time period as well as the way it has positively impacted my life in areas other than physical strength. 

I certainly don’t speak for everyone recovering from addiction who uses fitness as a positive tool, but here are some of the most noticeable ways that I’ve found working out in sobriety to be an asset in my recovery (aside from those lovely neurochemicals helping to heal my brain):

What does exercise do for people in recovery?

  1. finding fun in fitness recovery alcoholism mental health depressionFinding a new fun. When I was actively drinking and doing drugs, nothing else in my life compared to the excitement I felt connected to those activities. Hobbies like creative writing and reading fell by the wayside, as they seemed dull in comparison to the synthetic release I felt under the influence. In sobriety, I’ve been able to rediscover and reframe true enjoyment and fun, and working out is something that gives me those things. While drinking and getting high was the same repetitive cycle, fitness gives me variety -- which is the spice of life, you know! I can do pilates, I can do yoga, I can lift, I can run, I can dance, and I can do it all sober.
  2. fitness routine consistency for recovery from addiction mental health and building communityConsistency: I’ve always struggled with discipline and consistency, both in and outside the gym. In sobriety, I’ve learned how having a routine brings a nice rhythm and balance to my life that helps me from feeling too overwhelmed by trying to wing it and pick from a laundry list of things what I should do. While my entire life is not penciled on a calendar, having a set pattern of activities helped me get out of my head while dealing with cravings and adjusting to my body, mind, and emotions starting to recalibrate. Now, getting up at 6 a.m. to workout before I go to work makes me feel incredibly accomplished and proud, it’s something I look forward to, and I can come home and relax after work instead of trying to squeeze in a workout. Building healthy habits is key in recovery as a positive substitute to old behaviors.
  3. fitness for recovery from addiction mental health and building communityCommunity: I know a lot of women in recovery who do yoga or who are yoga teachers -- one of them even teaches a free “Yoga in Recovery” class on Sundays downtown. It’s nice being able to connect with others through fitness -- even those who aren’t recovering from addiction. For example, I like taking outdoor fitness classes in the summer and just feeding off the positive, collective energy. I’ve struggled with depression and have a tendency to isolate, something that was exacerbated while I was drinking, so getting out there and having fun doing healthy activities with other people is a great reminder that I’m not alone.
  4. finding balance in fitness recovery depression mental illness Growth: Even before I started drinking, I think I was wired for wanting instant gratification, which the booze and drugs only intensified. And a fitness journey is much like a recovery journey in that you don’t see results all at once; they emerge over time and with continuous hard work and effort. I love being able to do more reps or run faster than I could last week, just like I love getting to keep learning and building my bright and beautiful sober life.


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