5 Ways Fitness Helps in Recovering From Addiction

Updated: May 21, 2018



On June 30, 2000, Louise Green a 29 years old and found herself mentally, physically, and spiritually bankrupt; devoid of all emotion, lost, and terrified of myself. She had stuffed every feeling she had down into the depths of her core while trying to look like she had it all together. Those around Louise knew that she didn’t, but she was in a state of denial until one day Louise hit ultimate rock bottom. That was almost 18 years ago and the last day Louise drank alcohol.

When Louise made the decision to get sober, she sought the help of a recovery program. It helped Louise to find a sober community of people who were living the life she wanted. The program was a springboard that helped Louise launch a new life, but when she really think about the success of my long-term sobriety, Louise credits it to fitness. A year into Louise's sobriety, she started running. She found a positive, healthy community where she began to feel accepted and confident. With every run, Louise left behind pieces of shame and believed in herself just a little bit more. Louise had found a new high.

It started with 5K races, then 10K, then half-marathons, and then Louise eventually left her full-time career to become a personal trainer because she had become so captivated by this new way of living. After being lost for so many years, Louise felt like she had finally found herself.

Fitness became her life, and it helped bridge the gap from early recovery to long-term sobriety. Here’s how.

1. Fitness gave Louise a much-needed community of health-oriented people.

When Louise got sober, she didn’t have any friends who were healthy. Most of her friends were in the place she just left, and it was dangerous for her to be around them. Other than the new relationships she was building in recovery, Louise had no healthy friendships, and that was a really lonely and difficult place.

When Louise started running, she discovered a whole new community of people who were health-orientated. Finding this community solidified the types of friendships she wanted in her life, which left little room for turning back to old behaviors.

2. It helped Louise feel accomplished and begin to rebuild my self-esteem.

Louise rock bottom included rock bottom self-esteem. She had none. Zero. Zilch. Louise had to rebuild everything. Running really fast-tracked that process because with every run she was able to accomplish something challenging, and realizing what she could do made her feel better and better about herself. Louise started to build a new identity, no longer someone who was at rock bottom but someone who was rising up. Running allowed Louise to climb her way out of unsound, early recovery and onto more stable ground, with confidence.

3. Fitness also let Louise form a new identity and discover a sense of purpose.

As Louise floundered through early sobriety, she also struggled to find a new identity and purpose. Being a part of a running community allowed her to fill that gap by identifying myself as a runner with goals and purpose. Before, in her drinking days, she really didn’t have any direction—so this was new and exciting. Louise started to take on an identity of someone who had ambition, which was all new to Louise. Running gave her something constructive to focus on.

4. It gave Louise a healthy outlet to cope with new challenges and difficult emotions.

For a very long time, Louise had been coping with the challenges of life in a very unhealthy way. Running and going to the gym gave Louise a tool that would help her cope with hardships. In exercise, Louise found a new strategy for dealing with stress, anxiety, and anger—and for once it was productive and satisfying on many levels.

5. And it taught Louise how to be accountable for my actions.

Through her drinking, Louise had become quite unreliable. She basically lived life on her terms and when she was hungover or “not into it” Louise would cancel on friends or appointments.

As part of a community of runners (and especially when Louise started leading others in that community), she needed to be accountable and do what she said she would do. This new way of living required her to not only show up for others but to learn why she needed to also show up for herself. Bailing on herself all the time weakened her confidence and trust in herself, but Louise's new community encouraged her to show up and rise to each occasion. And her new responsibilities showed Louise exactly why and how to strive for accountability.

Louise experience was not unique—there’s a growing movement that champions the power of exercise for long-term recovery.

Eighteen years ago, Louise hadn’t heard of fitness being a tool to complement recovery, but today she is seeing it pop up on websites, in gyms, and at recovery centers. When people start the process of recovery, they’re often left dealing with the wreckage of their past, loss of friends and family, and the shame and societal stigma surrounding addiction. Fitness communities can be the places where people finally feel accepted, build confidence, and find hope.

One great example is the nonprofit organization The Phoenix, a sober active community that helps

individuals recover and take back their lives through fitness. Scott Strode founded The Phoenix after experiencing firsthand the positive impact physical activity can have on recovery. While recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, Strode found self-confidence and a new identity in sports. “Every time I stood on top of a mountain or crossed a finish line, I was a little more a climber, and a little less an addict,” he says. Since 2006, The Phoenix has served over 24,000 individuals. The program, open to anyone with at least 48 hours of sobriety, offers activities that include CrossFit, yoga, boxing, rock climbing, cycling, hiking, and more—at no cost.

Kimberly Ready is the administrative director at Oaks Recovery Center in Greenwood, South Carolina, where in conjunction with their recovery program they offer a “Recover Strong” initiative in partnership with CrossFit Greenwood. Three times a week, residents have the option to attend the local CrossFit gym for a workout. Ready has observed that the residents who participate in the “Recover Strong” program often show increased confidence, a sense of community, and many demonstrate long-term recovery while continuing with their athletic pursuits post-treatment. One former resident at Oaks Recovery Center and a participant of the CrossFit program tells me that it made a big impact on her recovery. “I was looking for something and I couldn’t quite figure it out, so I started the CrossFit program. It was very hard at first, but the more I continued doing it, the better I started to feel both physically and mentally. On March 2, I celebrated two years clean and sober,” she says.

While endorphins alone are hardly enough to keep someone clean and sober for the long-term, fitness, and the community it provides, are proving to change the lives of many people struggling with addiction. It changed mine. Just know that you don’t have to go at this alone—there are people waiting to extend a hand at a meeting or in a gym where you can sweat, and thrive, together.

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