Stop the Booze, Start to Move: Why Is Rigorous Exercise Important to Your Recovery?



The past few months I’ve learned a lot about addiction, treatment, and recovery. It’s not because I’m an addict myself or that anyone I know (that I’m aware of) is either. I’m a marketing assistant for Sanford House, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. It’s my job to research and learn about different social network platforms and all things relating to addiction and recovery. I help create content that is entertaining, engaging and informational for people who are affected by the disease. Some of the most recent research I’ve done, is on why rigorous exercise is important for someone’s recovery. It’s pretty well known that regular exercise is good for everyone’s health in general. But for people in addiction treatment and recovery, it can have incredible benefits and make a big impact on their recovery journey.


Exercising can help build community.  Working out with others can help keep you accountable.  Sometimes it can be hard to find the motivation within yourself to keep going.  By committing yourself to working out with a friend, you have someone that is going to make sure you show up and follow through with your work out.  A partner will also help keep you on schedule, giving you a routine.  Working out with another person can be great motivation to not only stay on track with your goals, but to challenge yourself, and to try exercises or routines you normally wouldn’t.  In addition, being around others that might be faster or stronger than you can be inspiration to work hard and improve.



Humans are social beings.  For the most part, we enjoy being around others.  However, addicts tend to isolate themselves.  Exercising with others is one way to fight off the old ways of isolation.  Working out with someone involves face-to-face interaction and can create a distinctive bond between people. By joining new classes and trying fresh things, you can start to create a new social group.  You’ll have the opportunity to make new friends. The physical challenge of exercise is a unique way to connect and bring people together.  New friends can help encourage you to come back, which continues to reinforce your routine and healthy, recovery lifestyle. Sanford House wellness coach, Kathy Morrow says, “When it comes to exercise, you will never feel worse afterwards. And most of the time you feel much better! It’s worth taking a chance!”



The author with wellness coach Kathy Morrow practicing what they preach…

New Use of Free Time:

People in recovery often find that they have a lot of free time they’re not sure how to fill. Their time used to be spent thinking about, acquiring, and using substances.  Working out and exercising can take up a lot of extra time that would be spent in boredom or with stressful thoughts about using.  Regular physical activity occupies your schedule, in a positive way.  Not only does the actual work out take time, but the time spent getting ready, commuting, showering and cleaning up afterward takes time too.


Focus on the activity:

Workouts can also be used as a distraction or practice in focus.  A workout is time that is specifically scheduled. During your workout you have to focus on what you’re doing and concentrate on the present moment.  You’re thinking about your body movements and not the other things happening in your life.  A regular workout routine puts order and structure into your life.  This can build discipline, which can be incorporated into other parts of your life, making you less likely to relapse.


Sleep more soundly:

Anyone who has experienced active addiction knows that sleep is compromised. Not getting enough sleep can make someone more susceptible to stress, depression, and anxiety.  Your body heals faster when you’re well rested. Exercising helps your body return to a healthy and balanced state. This makes your sleep schedule more natural and it restores it to a normal cycle.  Regular exercise a few hours before sleep can not only make it easier to fall asleep, it also improves the quality of your sleep.



Look and feel better:

Substance use disorders can lead to many physical and physiological changes. There can be shifts in blood pressure, heart rhythm, and weight; drastic decrease in muscle tone; lung, liver, or kidney damage; hair loss; bone damage; and changes in skin, nails, and teeth.  However, exercise can begin to reverse some of these negative impacts on one’s health.  Exercise can decrease blood pressure and increase smooth muscle.  If someone is overweight, exercise will help get rid of unnecessary pounds that may have been gained during active addiction.  If underweight, it can help bring back muscle tone and a regular appetite.  In addition, exercise reduces stress and pumps endorphins through your body, putting you in a better mood and clearing your head.  With regular exercise you’ll not only start to look healthier and better, you’ll start to feel that way too.


Heal Your Body and Mind:

Substance use can change how your brain’s rewards patterns work. The addict begins to believe the substance of choice is the only or “best” reward. Exercise increases the brains plasticity, or ability to change.This makes it easier for a person to quit old habits and develop new ones. Regular workouts increase the amount of new nerve connections in the brain.  These help heal the brain from the effects of substance use.


Outlet for Anger:

In general, tension builds in our bodies during everyday interactions and activities.  This tension can come from a lot of different things – from bad posture to an unpleasant conversation with a co-worker.  In addition, it’s not uncommon for those new to recovery to have trouble with rage and frustration.  During their addiction they may not have learned how to express these emotions in a healthy way.  Exercising and moving your body eases tension and lets you get rid of negative emotions that you might have been keeping in.  Focused exercise uses and manages physical and emotional energy that might have otherwise manifested in an unhealthy way.



Helps Dispel Depression:

Regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression.  Exercise stimulates the growth of neurons in certain brain regions that depression can damage.  Exercise also releases feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters, endorphins) that may ease depression and reduces immune system chemicals than can make depression worse. Sometimes the hardest task is getting up and getting out of the house. As previously stated, a workout buddy can help maintain a regular schedule. Routine and accountability improves mood.


De-stress and Weather a Crisis:

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, exercise can be a go-to tool.  Working out can help reduce stress, regain composure, and allow you to do something proactive for your recovery all at the same time.  Similarly, if you’re experiencing a crisis, regular exercise can be something you rely on to help you get through the crisis period with a clear and calm mind. If you are exercising with friends, their support is key. Kathy Morrow says, “It has been amazing to see the sense of community developing when the Sanford House group is walking or going to the health club. When one person is down, the others pick them up and offer support and encouragement.”


Builds Self-Confidence:

The more you exercise the better you perform.  By gradually adding more time and intensity to your workout routine, you’ll start to see physical and mental health benefits. Feeling stronger and more competent can flow into other areas of your life, helping you to overcome challenges in recovery. With regular exercise comes the possibility to lose weight or fill out, get clearer skin, and stronger nails and hair.  You’ll start to actually look healthier, which can make you feel better. Even if your body doesn’t change, being able to achieve fitness goals and improvements, like running faster or longer or lifting more, can improve your self-esteem and body image. Kathy Morrow says, “Recently, we were rock climbing and one of the residents kept trying to get to the top. That perseverance can translate to success in recovery. When you learn to JUST KEEP PUSHING…”


Alters Brain Chemistry:

The use of drugs and alcohol causes an imbalance in a person’s ability to feel pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction.  Dedicated physical activity in treatment and recovery helps reintroduce natural levels of endorphins.  This not only helps your recovery, but re-teaches your body that it is capable of regulating your own brain chemistry and mood in healthy, natural ways.  By having access to another source of pleasurable feelings, the choice to exercise instead of using drugs becomes easier.


Meditation in Motion:

Concentration on our physical self can lead to the same psychological and emotional benefits that are achieved through meditation.  Focusing on the movement of your body while exercising allows you to temporarily forget what is going on in your life elsewhere and shed daily tensions.  It’s not uncommon to leave a workout with a clear mind and a more optimistic feeling. This can make recovery more manageable. The calmness and clarity one feels after working out and focusing on a single task, can remain while moving on to other parts of the day.



Improves Outlook and Optimism:

Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly report increased feelings of self-confidence and optimism and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.  The body regulates itself during exercise which leads to a more balanced and healthy mind.  An improvement in outlook is also due to feelings of accomplishment, pride, and self-worth as you see your body transform and your goals reached.  Reaching goals makes you feel more proficient and solid, reinforcing the overall goal of continued sobriety.


Sense of Accomplishment and Success:

When you finish a workout, you get the immediate reward and satisfaction of knowing you have accomplished something.  When you continue to exercise and set goals and reach them, you feel a continued sense of success. New options for rewards are an alternative to using drugs.  Exercise also frequently leads to improved self-esteem, including a boost in body image from getting in shape.  Kathy Morrow says, “Working out is an individual thing. We need to accept where we are in our journey and go from there. Little steps are good steps. Just like the recovery journey.”


Biology of Exercise:

There are a lot of reasons why exercise is good for your brain.  Exercise increases blood flow. An increase in blood flow improves your brain’s health and delivers vital oxygen and glucose that nourish it, while also carrying away waste products.  Exercise also releases neurotrophic factors like BDNF that stimulate the growth of new neurons.

According to studies, physical activity is also associated with improved white matter integrity. White matter carries nerve signals between the gray matter in one brain region to another region. The more streamlined and compact the white matter in your brain, the faster and more efficiently your brain functions. Research has found that exercising improves the microstructures and integrity of white matter in the brain. So by exercising your body, you’re creating more efficient communication between the regions of your brain.

Also, the brain is a neuroplastic muscle, meaning it can be re-wired and changed through activities and experiences like exercise. New thoughts and skills create new neural pathways. Repetition and practice strengthen these pathways, leading to less use (hence weakening) of old pathways, and ultimately forming new habits.  Learning new skills, like exercise, is what engages the brain’s plasticity and keeps it in good shape.




You Want to be in the Best Condition to Perform:

During an exercise program, a common difficulty is plateauing or staying in your comfort zone. This can demotivate. But, by staying with your routine and setting new goals, you can continue to build strength that allows you to perform other activities.  When you have more physical strength and self-confidence, you’ll stay even more committed to keep working out so you can be better. The passion to perform is a detriment to negative behavior or relapse. In other words, if you know you have to get up and function in tiptop form, you are more inclined to make healthy choices.


Challenging Yourself:

As you challenge yourself and achieve new goals, you may start to notice that throughout the rest of your day you feel more energetic and have a lighter mood.  This makes daily tasks a bit easier and can make you feel more powerful and in control.  By pushing yourself to do what you actually can do instead of what you just think you can do, you become stronger and build endurance.  Also by challenging yourself, you can start to set new and bigger goals with more confidence.  You can reach an unfamiliar effort level, and see that you’re able to achieve more than you thought possible.   With new levels of physical strength, endurance and confidence, you can start to look for new activities and exercises that you haven’t tried.  With a proven track record, you’ll be more excited and willing to try instead of dreading it.


I always knew exercise was good for you. I just never realized how good it is for you and why. Working out and getting your body moving not only makes you look and feel better, it actually helps improve your brain’s functions and reverses a lot of the negative fallout from addiction. And exercise is fun! You’ll strengthen relationships and build new bonds, while challenging yourself and feeling accomplished, when you make rigorous exercise a priority in your recovery and overall lifestyle.








woman with german shepherd

Claire O’Brien is a marketing assistant for Sanford House. Originally from Higgins Lake, Michigan, she moved to Grand Rapids for school. She recently graduated from Aquinas College where she majored in Communication and Community Leadership and minored in Writing and Irish Studies. When she’s not helping to manage social media and take photos for Sanford House, she enjoys writing, knitting, playing with her dog Maia, and having dinner with her family.