If you are still using or drinking, the chances of you being excited by exercise may be pretty slim. One of the unfortunate consequences of abusing substances, is the increasing lack of desire to partake in physical activity, but I bet you still remember the time when you had some kind of hobby that you felt great about.
If you are already sober, you may have a feeling already about why I am writing this blog. Or maybe you have been doing a lot of the “mental” work and lacking some energy and motivation in your recovery.
This is my story about how exercise saves me every day.
What it used to be like
I was always an active child, and at 12 I was scouted and on my way to play professionally in my chosen sport. It was hard for my family to support this as we just didn’t have the financial means needed to cart a child all over the country every weekend, and buy the best equipment expected. I was forced to be removed from the squad and so began a life long resentment about who I “should” have been.
It’s an unnecessary resentment really, because if I wanted to play the ‘sliding doors’ game, I can be honest enough to say that when alcohol became the most important part of my life a couple of years later, I would most likely have destroyed that dream all by myself.
For the next 20 years of drinking, I remained active. It was part of my disguise to operate as a woman in control of her life- part of my “high-functioning” alcoholism- a term I have grown to argue with since I became sober. The reality was quite painful. Forcing myself to the gym after work during the long-awaited part of the day where the hangover had finally subsided, and I was still pretending to myself I would take a night off later. It was very common for me to run on the treadmill with the two voices in my head arguing about why I really had to take a break and a million well-thought out points about why it didn’t have to be tonight.
I worked out hard. A punishment really to compliment a long-standing eating disorder, the hatred I had of the other person, and the misguided belief that this is how I was somehow bringing balance to the otherwise destruction of my body.
But, the workouts were shortened as the other voice in the head won out and I headed to the bottle shop for just “one more time”.
I always had the intention to get healthier. I spent a lot of time researching how to improve my body with nutrition and exercise, but alcohol always had other ideas. I remember once, signing up for a 7am Saturday morning yoga class every week for two years, and not making it once. I would eat the healthiest salad for dinner, then wash it down with a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.
I knew there was an answer somewhere for me in removing drinking completely. I was never in denial that I needed to stop. I just couldn’t. I once gave up alcohol for a few months to train for a marathon. On request, I was greeted at the finishing line with a bottle of wine. I still remember now the look of shock from the other athletes as they guzzled down hydration drinks. But, I just laughed it off, after all, I had read somewhere that in France, they actually gave you red wine at the water stops. Maybe I should move to France.
Alcohol simply made it impossible to be the person I wanted to be and eventually I started to give up even trying.
When I eventually found myself in rehab, they “forced” us to exercise every day. Whilst most of the clients grumbled and hid outside the gym, or lay in sivasana for the entire yoga session, it became my favourite part of the day. I craved it and could not get enough. As I started to come back to life, the feelings I got from working out only exasperated my desire to live again and to be a better person.
It became my new obsession. I’ve seen it happen too many others, and often the term “gym junkie” is used negatively as people warn about replacing one addiction with another. As long as it is not negatively impacting my life in anyway, I could not disagree more. If I have addictive tendencies, I can’t think of a better way than to invest them in something good.
In the early days I also found it a great distraction. On leaving rehab, I needed to stay with family for a few months while I got my feet back on the ground. During that time, I hit the gym twice a day. It was on the treadmill that I realised my thinking about drinking had been removed and replaced with much more positive, purposeful thoughts. For the first time in a really long time, I was excited about my future and ready to dive into life head first.
It was a self-affirming joy to see my bloated face and body being replaced by a more healthy and athletic body in the mirror.
Why does it feel good?
Don’t just take my word for it, there’s scientific physical and psychological reasons why exercise works so well for people in recovery.
When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins. Endorphins reduce feelings of pain, and trigger positive feelings similar to morphine. It’s why we end workouts with a “high” feeling. You can see why this helps addicts who have chased the change of feeling state and a degree of high for years.
Research has shown exercise to boost positivity and self-esteem in the mind and decrease levels of depression, stress and anxiety. It is also beneficial in inducing better quality sleep.
There are many other proven health benefits linked to exercise…
· Strengthens your heart and cardiovascular system
· Reduces blood pressure
· Increases energy levels
· Strengthens and builds bones, while helping to reduce body fat
Keeping exercise at the core of my recovery
Recovery is such a personal journey, and it takes some time to work out what is the right balance and use of all the tools you have available. I am very much at the beginning of this path and still navigating the recovery world and what is available to me.
At the moment, I do know, that whilst for some, hitting a morning meeting is what they need to set them up for the day, I need to be in the ocean for a surf when the sun comes up. It becomes more evident to me when for any reason I need to take a day off and I notice that I am out of balance. Covid was tough for me when the beaches and gyms closed. I quickly noticed the strain on my body and mind.
One of my biggest mindset changes in recovery has been to recognise that I don’t know as much as I think I do, and there is a World out there of experts to tap into and learn from. I have become much more open to asking and listening to advice in all areas of my life. Where exercise is concerned, I have invested in this area and seen astounding results- which I never would have achieved on my own. It’s a good lesson to learn. I've invested in a surf coach, boxing trainer, yoga teacher and personal trainer, and not only do I enjoy learning and improving, but it's great for my self-esteem to make the decision to invest time and finances in me. I feel worth it. I did not feel worth anything when I drank.
Where do you even begin?
My yoga teacher has a saying which I love - "You can only start from where you are at." It's so simple, yet effective for someone like me who often wants to bypass the work and get to the results. If you want to start running- don't sign up for a marathon! Just make a commitment to get off the coach every evening and go for a walk. Let a 10 minute walk, turn into a 20 minute jog and before you know it you'll be running a few miles around the block.
Consistency and enjoyment are key.
Find something you enjoy. It just will not work long term for you if you are forcing yourself on bike rides if you just really don't enjoy it. There's a lot out there to try and something will fill your heart with joy- dancing, boxing, yoga, weights, ice-skating, skateboarding... keep trying and enjoy the experience of something new.
Form habits around your new hobby. Prepare your running gear before you go to bed and make it the first thing you do in the morning before you check your phone. Or book into regular classes so you have something to commit to.
However, you decide to make it work for you, enjoy the journey, and maybe one day I'll meet you in the ocean.