Run, Paul, Run! The Role of Exercise in Recovery.

runner group - to stay sober

I never wanted to run.


My father ran for many decades. When I was a kid, he would come home, his face all sweaty, in defiance of his headband, and he would chase my brother and me trying to kiss and hug us while wiping his face on our t-shirts. We squealed in delight and yelled out in grossness. I could tell that running was something that he felt compelled to do. It was just what he did. And yet it never occurred to me ever to follow in those Adidas footsteps. I wanted to play hockey and basketball and maybe even get into a band and show the girls just how cool I was and get lots of dates (note: that never panned out). Running just didn’t fit into my schemes and plans for world domination—running was for squares, skinny people and dads in short shorts.


Years later, as I realized the only domination was my own alcoholism over me, my desire to do anything, physical or not, was laid to waste. I was too busy getting wasted. My body was unable to do anything more than just try to recover from the onslaught of booze I habitually poured into it. I turned into a slob. I ate poorly; I didn’t exercise; I didn’t care about anything at all, let alone my appearance and physique. I treated my body like a garbage dump –  like a disposal unit. I viewed myself as a lumpy vessel to carry my self-loathing and despair.


Fast forward two years into my recovery, and I felt great in many ways—I had a job, my family was back intact and I was feeling useful for once in my life. But I knew there was something missing. I couldn’t pin it, but I had the sense that I needed to do more. I was doing the things that were suggested by my spiritual mentors and sponsors. I was taking care of things at home and I was a solid employee. And yet, the universe seemed to be nagging at me about something.


One day I woke up and thought, “I will try running today.” That was it. There was no build up, no dancing around the notion, no quiet inquiries. It was a flash-of-light, type of deal. I was as surprised as anyone I talked to about it. My dad was very happy to hear that I was interested in running and gave me countless pieces of advice. I found a simple program geared to those who had never run and I started up. Just like that.


Soon enough I was hooked. I was looking forward to my runs. I was looking to challenge myself more and more. I pushed myself further and took joy in the cuts and scrapes and sore muscles that were my new war wounds. I felt my emotions even out when I ran. I felt lighter. I was even reaching out to runners in the same manner I reached out to others in recovery. I wanted to be a part of another community. I wanted to get better.


Mind Body Spirit Connection


What I didn’t realize was that I was tapping into the powerful mind-body-spirit connection. When I was active in my drinking, I was mentally disturbed, physically broken and spiritually bankrupt. A three-pronged problem, requiring a solution that could restore all parts of my shattered life. Working a program of recovery helped me change my perspectives and self-talk (mental); brought me to the Creator through service and prayer (spiritual); and allowed me to heal my body (physical). Part of the healing of the body included all aspects of self-care — keeping a clean appearance, eating better, making regular visits to the doctor and taking any preventive measures I could, to be healthier.


When I run, I am not only keeping my body more fit, I am also doing “reps” with my mental and spiritual muscles. I am able to clear my mind (most times), and often I find myself engaging in an unplanned “moving meditation”. I am focused on my breathing, focused on where my foot is planting itself at that moment, being aware of just being aware. This helps me declutter my thoughts, to shift mental debris. There are times where I feel a deep connection to the Earth and its children. This can certainly be brought on by the euphoria of endorphins, but there are times where I just know I am part of something bigger. All of these things create a greater sense of centerdness, of calm, of serenity. And that carries into the rest of my day.


It’s no accident that so many of the runners I know are addicts and/or alcoholics in recovery or who struggle with mental health issues like depression. In speaking to these people, I have found that they too find a release when they lace up and hit the pavement or track. They speak of finding that, “sacred space of being right with themselves and the world”, something that they sought in desperation with their drug of choice, or when caught in the grips of their warped mental states.


Not everyone runs, but many find their remedy — it may be yoga, pilates, hiking, swimming, biking or any other physical exercise. It may be the Zen-like moments in other activities like: knitting, art, adult colouring books, gardening or music. These may seem like innocuous pastimes on the surface, but they do involve the body moving, unlike binge watching Netflix, where the only movement is changing the volume or grabbing for the popcorn!


For years I was used to operating my mind, body and spirit as separate entities. I read to get book smart. I played hockey to sweat. I studied the Bible in school because we had to. The mind-body-spirit connection breaks down this compartmentalization and sees all of those individual cogs as something greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a holistic thing.  I didn’t realize just how intertwined they all were until I got into recovery and really paid attention to all the clues my body was giving me.


Recently, I had a bulged disc in my back. I had serious pain and was forced to take eight weeks off of work. I was unable to do very much, other than go to physiotherapy appointments, see my doctor and just rest. My inability to run started to affect my mental and spiritual health. I started to feel disconnected to people, to myself, to my Higher Power. I felt down. I felt depressed. All because I was physically incapacitated. This was a powerful example of the mind-body-spirit connection at play.


My advice to anyone who is new to recovery is to find something that speaks to you, physically. Whether it’s pick-up ball down the street, bowling, rock climbing or even a good walk daily, tap into the well of wellness. You will be surprised at how replenished you will feel. Recovery isn’t just about not drinking or drugging, it’s about finding balance in our lives. For this alcoholic, I love what getting out there and hitting the running trails does for me.

I always want to run now.



Running for sobriety


after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a student of the world; she also holds a BS in English from Northern Michigan University. She is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. Marilyn was instrumental in creating and maintaining the Sanford Behavioral Health brand and is notorious for her “red-pen approach” to editing. She is responsible for Sanford’s written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board, JACK Mental Health Advocacy.