Fitness in Recovery / Rehabilitation Program
Fitness in Recovery: Benefits of Exercise in Promoting Sobriety Maintenance and Optimal Health
Physical exercise is unequivocally one of the most important components of charting one’s pathway to optimal health. And, as I will demonstrate, engaging in regular exercise also offers tremendous benefits in the realm of relapse prevention and long term sobriety maintenance. I encourage you to share this article with your clients, to motivate them to integrate the many benefits associated with exercise into their recovery programs.
The health enhancement benefits of regular vigorous exercise are legend, in terms of dramatically improving our cardiovascular endurance, allowing us to release accumulated stresses from our bodies, and promoting increased vitality and well-being. In fact, engaging in regular vigorous exercise represents one of the best forms of “health insurance” you can give yourself!
Equally important are the benefits associated with exercise in terms of promoting long term sobriety maintenance among clients in recovery, and safeguarding against relapse. In a classicCanadian study that focused on alcoholics completing residential treatment, David Sinyor and his associates found that a full 69 percent of subjects whose treatment program included a daily regimen of vigorous exercise remained clean and sober at three months following completion of treatment. By contrast, 62 percent of the subjects who completed treatment without the exercise component had relapsed to drinking by the end of the follow-up period.
Running, brisk walking and other forms of vigorous exercise help fill the void that occurs in early treatment when use of alcohol and drugs is discontinued, while at the same time contributing to marked improvements in self-esteem, vitality and alertness. These health conducive activities clearly meet the criteria of “positive addiction” set forth by the leading edge psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser. Significantly, vigorous exercise contributes to production of endorphins — chemical messengers that trigger the pleasure center of the brain, precipitating the so-called “runner’s high.”
For clients early in say a twelve step recovery rogram, regular exercise helps take the edge off stresses associated with early sobriety. For clients in later stages of recovery, exercise can play an important role in helping them embrace sobriety. Of course it is possible to develop a compulsive addiction to exercise.
Compulsive running is a classic example, in which the runner literally becomes addicted to the “runner’s high” and runs for hours every day, devoting most of his or her free time to achieving higher and higher mileage. Compulsive runners often experience severe discomfort or withdrawal if they miss out on their daily run; their all-consuming compulsion to exercise throws the rest of their lives out of balance.
Getting started and sticking with it
Most Americans, however, have the opposite problem, as witnessed by our nationwide epidemic of obesity and sedentary lifestyles. As in all areas of wellness and recovery, moderation and balance are of utmost importance. A commitment to exercise also can serve as an exciting way of celebrating the mind/body/spirit connection in total recovery. One example, is an alumni event organized by Residence XII, a women’s treatment center in Kirkland, Wash. This summer, as a celebration of their recovery, a group of eight alumni are planning to scale Mt. Rainier. This definitely gives a whole new meaning to the term “peak experience!”
There are many forms of exercise to choose from. Brisk walking is an ideal form of exercise for many people, as it is easy to engage in at virtually any time of day, does not strain the back or ankles, and promotes improved cardiovascular endurance when practiced on a regular basis. Advise your clients to get a good pair of walking or running shoes, and begin walking 10 to 15 minutes a day (or at whatever pace feels comfortable) — gradually building their walking sessions up to 30 to 45 minutes, 5 days a week. You should also advise your clients to add several minutes of stretching exercises to their daily routines (yoga is excellent), and ideally work some resistance training into their schedules at least twice a week. Clients over age 40, as well as anyone with a history of significant health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, should be sure to obtain appropriate medical clearance before embarking on any exercise routine.
Most importantly, advise your clients to choose a form of exercise they will enjoy (otherwise they won’t stick with it), and to give themselves a month or two to phase into a full-fledged exercise routine. Does all of this sound like a major commitment of time and energy? Perhaps — but remind your clients that they are investing in their health and well-being, as well as in their long term sobriety maintenance.
As a wellness professional, I am firmly convinced that most people can easily add years to their life expectancies — in some cases, even a decade or more — by adopting the basic exercise regimen I’m recommending here. As a parting thought — remind your clients that if they really care about themselves and their loved ones, then they owe it to themselves to roll up their sleeves and commit to a regular exercise program. This is by far one of the most powerful things they can do to strengthen their commitment to sobriety and experience the full joy of recovery. To your health!
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